The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration (destructive fire endangering life) that swept through central London, from Sunday 2nd September to Wednesday 5th September 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II’s
Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims leaving no recognizable remains.
The Great Fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane, shortly after midnight on Sunday 2nd September, and spread rapidly west across the City of London. The use of the major fire fighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition, was critically delayed owing to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm which defeated such measures. The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumors arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall, while coordinated fire fighting efforts were simultaneously mobilizing. The battle to quench the fire is considered to have been won by two factors: the strong east winds died down, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks to halt further spread eastward.
The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming. Evacuation from London and resettlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Despite numerous radical proposals, London was reconstructed on essentially the same street plan used before the fire.
Today fire fighting methods are much more accessible to individuals (smoke / heat alarms, household fire extinguishers), as well as local fire services for the more serious incidents, and each of us can make sure that we do our best to prevent fires and to catch any ignitions early.
Have you checked your smoke / heat alarms are working recently?
Keep safe out there.