AboutBritain.com Logo

The Great Fire of London, 1666

The Great Fire, Seen From Tower Wharf
The Great Fire, Seen From Tower Wharf © Ben Sutherland

The most famous visionary of England, Mother Shipton predicted The City would be destroyed by fire. Many years after her words were spoken, London went up in flames. On an early Sunday morning in September 1666, the bakery in Pudding Lane, which was favored by the king, went up in flames.

The Monument details, London.
Sign on The Monument © Roland Turner

The Start

Monument to the Great Fire of London

The fire baked more than morning bread.

It spread across the cook shops of the area and proceeded to destroy a large portion of England's capital.

Fire fuel was plentiful as most of London's buildings were constructed of wood and plaster with straw covering the floors.

Most areas featured homes and shops, from opposite sides of the street, with roofs touching each other. Thus, the fire was able to jump what little space was between the buildings.

Raging for four full days the fire ate St Paul's Cathedral, devoured 13,000 houses, and left over 200,000 people without residences or businesses.

No Fire Brigade

There wasn't a centralized fire department for The City. Usually, the locals were responsible for creating water lines and carrying sticks to beat out any fires in their immediate area. To keep flames under control, axes, hooks, and ropes would often be used to pull down structures to make fire breaks. Due to a stiff east wind, this fire became too big, too fast, and more manpower and effort was needed.

Mass Exodus

The top of Monument - commemorating the Great Fire Of London

Leaving their lives behind except for what they could gather of their personal belongings, London citizens fled across The Thames. Boatmen were hard-pressed to keep up with the flow.

People who hurried on foot towards northern sections of London found that cart rental prices had been raised by 300 percent.

Once in safety, the refugees from the Great Fire of London could only watch as volunteers and troops, under the command of the Duke of York, attempted to control the conflagration.

The Lord Mayor had been advised earlier to pull down structures which were in the fire's path, fire-breaks being desperately needed. He declined to do so, as then The City would be responsible for all the rebuilding.

Fighting the Impossible

Battling the fierce wind, it was impossible to douse the flames. The situation called for drastic measures, and thus, finally, huge breaks were created. Under orders from Charles II, homes and businesses were blown apart to destroy fuel for the flames. This method of fire-fighting worked in saving the Tower of London. However, the fire just jumped those breaks made in the west.

Sign showing the site of St John Zachary
© Christian Lüts

Sparks continued to ignite warehouses full of coal, oil, tallow, and alcohol along The Thames. The intense heat made fighting these particular flames impossible as the fighters couldn't get close enough with buckets of water. Churches, inns, and homes were devoured in short order.

Fire Defeated

Finally on Wednesday morning, the wind disappeared. With sparks no longer dancing in the air the fire-fighters were able to make progress. It took an additional day and a half but by Thursday evening, September 6th, the Great Fire of London was finally defeated.

80 percent of The City was destroyed, from The Tower to Ludgate Hill, and just south of Smithfields. Citizens returned to financial ruin and homelessness. Thankfully, few people lost their lives. The first casualty? The maid who lived above the Pudding Lane bakery. She was unable to follow the baker's family through an upstairs window to safety.

Positive Outcome

The fire did bring some good to London, however. A great majority of the plague-carrying rats were destroyed so the illness left The City. With the damage so intense it was difficult to define property lines but that didn't stop the authorities, and Charles II, from planning a newer, more open city.

Ordinances to build only in stone or brick were passed, and wider streets would now be the norm.

Within a few years, fire insurance came into being. The first 'insurance company', The Phoenix Fire Office, was established in 1680. Others soon followed, all with private fire departments which were responsbile for fighting fires in their coverage area.

In many respects, the Great Fire of London, in 1666, created the London which you can visit today.

Article by "Tudor Rose"

Share this article

Copyright © 1999-2024 Excelsior Information Systems Ltd. All rights reserved.
About Us  Press Room  Terms of Use  Privacy  Link to Us  Index  Site Map  Contact Us

Made with Responsive Grid System by Graham Miller