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Early on September 2, 1666, a fire breaks out in the house of King Charles II’s baker on Pudding Lane near London Bridge.

Central London in 1666, with the burnt area shown in pink.

Central London in 1666, with the burnt area shown in pink.

It quickly spread to Thames Street where there were warehouses filled with combustibles and soon the fire was out of control.  When the Great Fire was finally brought under control on September 6, 1666, more than four-fifths of London was destroyed. The death toll was small at 16 people known.

The Great Fire of London was a disaster waiting to happen.

  • London’s houses were made mostly of oak timber. Some of the poorer houses had walls covered with tar, which kept out the rain but made the structures more vulnerable to fire.
  • Streets were narrow, houses were crowded together, and the firefighting methods of the day consisted of neighborhood bucket brigades armed with pails of water and primitive hand pumps. Citizens were instructed to check their homes for possible dangers, but there were many instances of carelessness.
Panorama of the City of London in 1616 by Claes Visscher. Note the tenement housing on London Bridge (far right), a notorious death-trap in case of fire, although much would be destroyed in an earlier fire in 1632.

Panorama of the City of London in 1616 by Claes Visscher. Note the tenement housing on London Bridge (far right), a notorious death-trap in case of fire, although much would be destroyed in an earlier fire in 1632.

On the previous evening, the king’s baker, failed to properly extinguish his oven. He went to bed, and sometime around midnight sparks from the smoldering embers ignited firewood lying beside the oven. With the house in flames, Faryner managed to escape with his family and a servant out an upstairs window, but a bakery assistant died in the flames and became the first victim.

Sparks from the bakery moved across the street and set fire to straw and fodder in the stables of the Star Inn.

Fire at the Inn, by Thomas Rowlandson

Fire at the Inn, by Thomas Rowlandson

Next the fire spread to Thames Street and engulfed warehouses filled with flammable materials such as tallow for candles, lamp oil, spirits, and coal. When the warehouses were in flames and exploded, the fire became an uncontrollable blaze. Bucket-bearing locals abandoned their futile efforts at firefighting and rushed home to evacuate their families and save their valuables.
Fire bucket, 1660s Found on an archaeological site in Pudding Lane. It is painted with the date 1660 or 1666 and was probably lost during the Great Fire.  © Museum of London

Fire bucket, 1660s Found on an archaeological site in Pudding Lane. It is painted with the date 1660 or 1666 and was probably lost during the Great Fire.
© Museum of London

As the fire grew, city authorities struggled to tear down buildings and create a firebreak, but the flames repeatedly overtook them before they could complete their work. People fled into the Thames River dragging their possessions, and the homeless took refuge in the hills on the outskirts of London. Light from the Great Fire could be seen 30 miles away.

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On September 5, the fire slackened, and on September 6 it was brought under control. That evening, flames again burst forth in the Temple (the legal district), but the explosion of buildings with gunpowder extinguished the flames.

The Great Fire of London engulfed

  • 13,000 houses,
  • nearly 90 churches,
  • and scores of public buildings.
  • The old St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed, as were many other historic landmarks.

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  • As estimated 100,000 people were left homeless.
  • Within days, King Charles II set about rebuilding his capital.
  • The great architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a new St. Paul’s Cathedral with dozens of smaller new churches ranged around it like satellites.
Sir Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren

St Paul's Cathedral was rebuilt after the Great fire of London in 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren. Wren presented several designs before the final one was agreed ... This plan received the Royal Warrant in May 1675, and is therefore known as the Warrant Design  ... Fortunately, it was allowed that Wren would have 'the liberty, in the prosecution of his work, to make some variations, rather ornamental than essential, as from time to time he should see proper' ... He certainly took advantage of this licence, and was liberal in calling ornamental what he considered essential. ... On 21 June 1675 the first stone was laid at the E end. There is no sign of any second thoughts thereafter ... Rather than build in stages (e.g. east to west, as was common), he laid foundations for every part as quickly as possible: another safeguard against parsimonious meddling or partial completion. ... The dome was finished in 1708 and the whole building declared complete by Parliament in 1711. The chief material was of course Portland stone ... Wren had been thirty-four at the time of the Fire; he was seventy-nine in 1711.

St Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt after the Great fire of London in 1666 by Sir Christopher Wren. Wren presented several designs before the final one was agreed … This plan received the Royal Warrant in May 1675, and is therefore known as the Warrant Design … Fortunately, it was allowed that Wren would have ‘the liberty, in the prosecution of his work, to make some variations, rather ornamental than essential, as from time to time he should see proper’ … He certainly took advantage of this licence, and was liberal in calling ornamental what he considered essential. … On 21 June 1675 the first stone was laid at the E end. There is no sign of any second thoughts thereafter … Rather than build in stages (e.g. east to west, as was common), he laid foundations for every part as quickly as possible: another safeguard against parsimonious meddling or partial completion. … The dome was finished in 1708 and the whole building declared complete by Parliament in 1711. The chief material was of course Portland stone … Wren had been thirty-four at the time of the Fire; he was seventy-nine in 1711.

  • To prevent future fires, most new houses were built of brick or stone and separated by thicker walls. Narrow alleyways were forbidden and streets were made wider. Permanent fire departments, however, did not become a fixture in London until well into the 18th century.
  • In the 1670s, a memorial column commemorating the Great Fire of London was erected near the source of the calamity. Known as the Memorial, it was probably designed by the architect Robert Hooke, though some sources credit Christopher Wren. The column stands 202 feet above the pavement and features sculpture and engravings that tell the story of the conflagration. Even though an official inquiry into the Great Fire concluded that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” caused it, an inscription on the Memorial (removed in 1830) blamed the disaster on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.”
The Monument to The Great Fire of London — by Sutton Nicholls, circa 1753.

The Monument to The Great Fire of London — by Sutton Nicholls, circa 1753.

In 1986, London’s bakers finally apologized to the lord mayor for setting fire to the city. Members of the Worshipful Company of Bakers gathered on Pudding Lane and unveiled a plaque acknowledging that one of their own, Thomas Farrinor, was guilty of causing the Great Fire of 1666.

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The Great Fire of London – Peter Ackroyd  {Snippet from Ackroyd’s ‘London’ comparing The Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of WW2 in 1940}

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Famous or infamous world fires:

Except for the Collapse of the World Trade Center and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire which are available throughout the internet, view photographs of the others at http://www.nbc.com/chicago-fire/photos/ten-famous-fires/11378/#item=252593.

  • The Hartford Circus, 1944: The big top caught fire, killing almost 200 people. Because it had been waterproofed with gasoline, the tent came down in under eight minutes.
  • Boston, 1872: While not the largest fire, Boston’s was the most expensive in U.S. history as it was focused downtown and in the financial districts.
  • Chicago, 1871: Few fires have been as famous as the one that left more than 17,000 structures burned and 90,000 people homeless.
  • San Francisco, 1906: The fire was caused by a massive earthquake; it burned 25,000 buildings over 490 city blocks and, along with the earthquake, left some 3,000 dead.
  • Wisconsin, 1871: This fire was responsible for more deaths than any other in U.S. history. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 2,500.
  • Texas City, 1947: The fire detonated 2,300 tons of fertilizer, resulting in the largest industrial explosion in U.S. history. It leveled over 1,000 buildings and left nearly 600 people dead.
  • Tokyo, Japan 1923: The city of Tokyo was leveled by a massive earthquake and the fire that followed. Some estimates place the death toll as high as 142,000.
  • Rome, 64 AD: The fire lasted over a week, destroying more than 70 percent of Rome. The culprit was believed to be Nero, who wanted a new palace at the city center.
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1917: The scene of the world’s largest man-made accidental explosion in history. A cargo ship loaded with ammunition collided with a freighter and caught fire.
  • The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911, was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the history of the city of New York and resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in U.S. history.
  • September 11, 2001, Collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City as a result of terrorists.  Although not all due to fire and includes all portions of the terrorist attack, the deaths were 2,996.
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