We Didn’t Start the Fire

All it takes is a small spark to start a great conflagration, and on September 2, 1666, a small spark from a bakery engulfed the city of London, nearly destroying it over the course of three chaotic days.

London in the 1660s was not exactly up to fire code: it was crowded, most of the buildings were made of wood, and streets were poorly planned and narrow. The city was also full of gunpowder left over from the Civil War. The areas inside the old Roman wall were the worst of all, and unsurprisingly, this is where the fire started, shortly after midnight in the bakery of Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane.

Neighbors tried to douse the fire in Farriner’s home and bakery, but they were unsuccessful, and an hour after it started local constables showed up and decided to destroy the adjoining houses in order to contain the blaze. The owners of those houses, unsurprisingly, objected, so a higher authority, the Lord Mayor, was called in. By the time he arrived, the houses were all ablaze anyway, and the flames were heading for the paper warehouses along the riverfront.

Actual firefighters, by this time, were urging the Lord Mayor to allow them to demolish buildings in the way. Mayor Moron refused and went home. By daybreak, the fire had spread, destroying around 300 houses and several churches. People were starting to panic, fleeing towards the river in the hope of escaping the fire. Samuel Pepys, after viewing the destruction, went to the king and told him houses had to be pulled down if the fire was going to be contained. King Charles ordered the Lord Mayor to start pulling the buildings down immediately, while the king’s brother, James, called up the Royal Life Guards to help fight the fire.

Unfortunately, a high wind kicked up, feeding the fire, and by mid-morning people gave up their attempts to fight the fire and just got the hell out of there. The masses of people fleeing made it nearly impossible for firefighters to get through. When confronted by Pepys, the mayor whined that he was pulling houses down as fast as he could, but the fire was too much for them. Then, he went home to bed. Again. King Charles floated down on the royal barge to survey the damage and, when he saw that buildings weren’t being torn down at all, he overrode the mayor and ordered the necessary demolitions. But by that time, the fire was already out of control.

By Monday, the fire was spreading north and west. It had been largely halted to the south by the river, but there was some concern it would cross to Southwark by burning over London Bridge. Fortunately, someone had thought to build in a firebreak on the bridge, so Southwark was spared. The north—the financial heart of the city—wasn’t so lucky. Houses of the wealthy bankers in Lombard Street began to burn Monday afternoon, as their proprietors raced to get their gold coins—the wealth of the whole nation—to safety before they melted. The Royal Exchange burned in the late afternoon.

As usual, people wasted no time pointing fingers. Even while the fire raged, they started to suspect this was no accident, and immediately foreigners came under suspicion, partly because the Second Anglo-Dutch War was being fought at the time. Rumors of imminent invasion spread, no doubt contributing to panic, and a wave of street violence broke out. Mobs looted and burned shops belonging to foreigners and, in some cases, assaulted the foreigners themselves. By Monday night, the Trained Bands and Coldstream Guards had abandoned firefighting duty in favor of arresting foreigners, Catholics, and anyone else who just looked fishy.

Things were starting to seriously break down. The Lord Mayor disappeared, leaving nobody in authority. Charles responded by putting his brother, James, in charge of firefighting, and James immediately set about establishing command posts around the perimeter of the fire and press-ganging anyone found in the streets into firefighting duty. Three courtiers with express permission to order demolitions as necessary were put in charge of each post, and James himself rode up and down the streets with his life guards, rescuing foreign citizens from attacks and attempting to keep order.

As Tuesday dawned, it was clear there would be no break. The flames jumped the Fleet, forcing James and the men at one of his command posts to flee. The fire overcame a firebreak to the north and started destroying the luxury shopping street of Cheapside, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, thought to be safe due to its thick stone walls, caught fire, the lead from its roof melting into rivers in the street. The flames started to move to the east, bearing down on the Tower of London, which had a large store of gunpowder in it. After requested help failed to arrive, the Tower garrison took matters into their own hands, blowing up houses around the Tower to create a firebreak. Fortunately, it worked.

The strong easterly wind that had been blowing since Monday finally died down Tuesday evening, allowing the firebreaks to actually do their work by the time Wednesday morning rolled around. Although there were smaller fires still burning, by that afternoon, the Great Fire was essentially over. Still, the mood of the many displaced people was so volatile, Charles worried he’d have a full-scale rebellion on his hands. He ordered markets be set up around the fire’s perimeter and had food brought into the city for people to buy. This return to semi-normalcy seems to have eased people’s paranoia somewhat.

Surprisingly, deaths from the fire were few—down in the single digits by most accounts, though many more may have died later in the refugee camps that sprang up in London’s parks. A total of 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, 44 company halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bridewell Palace and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and the three western city gates were all destroyed. The cost of the damage was estimated to be £100,000,000 in the currency of the time, which would be more than £1 billion in today’s money. Essentially all of London inside the old Roman walls was leveled to the ground, and 200,000 people were left homeless.

Still, the news wasn’t all bad. The destruction of the medieval City gave Charles a blank slate to work with, and plans for a grand new city started to pour in. Unfortunately, due to confusion as to land ownership and lack of money, most of these plans never came to fruition, but the city was rebuilt with improvements in hygiene and fire safety. Streets were built wider, no houses were permitted to obstruct access to the river, and buildings were all to be constructed of brick or stone, not wood. The loss of so many parish churches gave a previously little-known architect, Christopher Wren, a lot of work. He designed 50 new churches, as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral, which still stands to this day. Wren, along with Robert Hooke, also designed the Monument to the Great Fire of London, which was erected near Pudding Lane. Another, less famous monument in Smithfield marks the point where the fire stopped. Finally, the Great Fire is credited with killing off the Plague in England, which had seen a breakout as recently as 1665. After the fire, there were no more plague epidemics in London, leading some to speculate that the destruction of so many unsanitary houses in the poor quarters helped destroy the disease.

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