Human history has been shaped by great catastrophic events. In this series of articles, I will explore a wide range of catastrophes throughout our history, ranging from natural disasters to pandemics and global conflicts.
In September 1666, the Great Fire of London began its devastating rampage throughout the city. It is by all accounts the quintessential disaster story, and the plot of this tale wouldn’t seem out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster.
From the 2nd September through to the 5th, the fire decimated London, destroying more than 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches, the Royal Exchange and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The Great Fire is believed to have started at Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, located near London Bridge. Fires were commonplace in London during this period, and as such, the initial reaction to the blaze wasn’t out of the ordinary.
However, conditions in the weeks prior to the blaze meant that the city was a tinder box ready to erupt in flames. The Summer of 1666 is recorded as being very hot with little rainfall. The tightly woven patchwork of wooden houses and buildings in the city created the perfect conditions in which a fire could spread.
Within a short time of the initial blaze on Pudding Lane, the fire began to take hold. More than 300 houses collapsed in a torrent of flames, with a strong easterly wind spreading flames further from building to building; devastating all it encountered.
Contemporary accounts of the fire by Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn depict a desperate, apocalyptic scene in London. Pepys’ account of the three-day inferno are fascinating and highlight the ferocity and scale of the fire.
“By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge,” he noted. “So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one of the high places, and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the bridge.”
Efforts to tackle the fire failed as it burned out of control. Panic and hysteria quickly spread among the populace, with hundreds pouring out of the city or taking refuge aboard vessels on the River Thames.
Similarly, John Evelyn wrote:
“The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them.”
In his diary entry on 3rd September, Pepys also detailed the exodus from the city, describing crowded highways awash with beleaguered Londoners.
“About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Rider’s at Bednall-Greene,” he wrote.
“Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and, Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding, and getting of carts, at any rate, to fetch away things,” Pepys added.
Pepys, who served as a clerk of the Privy Seal, informed King Charles II of the fire rampaging through England’s capital city. Desperate to quell the spread of the fire, the king ordered that houses in the path of the fire be pulled down to create a fire break.
Efforts to tackle the inferno failed, however, and the fire continued to rage. By the end of 4th September, nearly half of the city was engulfed by the fire. Charles II is said to have personally assisted in the efforts, helping to deliver water to firefighters.
The Royal Exchange, Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral were all destroyed in the fire, with the latter disintegrating and causing a river of molten lead to pour down the street adjacent.
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By the 6th September, the fire had been extinguished; a scene of devastation lay before the people of London. Only one-fifth of the city is said to have been left standing, with the tower of London surviving the event.
More than 80,000 buildings were destroyed, including jails, markets and numerous public buildings. Property losses are estimated at around £10 million. Today, this equates to an unfathomable amount of money.
Hundreds of thousands were left homeless by the fire, yet surprisingly only six people are reported to have died. This extraordinarily low number of fatalities is debated, however. The fire is likely to have destroyed any remains and it has been suggested that many of the poor and middle-class inhabitants that died during the fire were never acknowledged.
Neil Hanson, author of The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666, suggests that “several hundred, and quite possibly several thousand” inhabitants died in the fire.
Hanson also notes that the fire wasn’t fed by wood, thatch or fabrics. Oil, pitch, coal, fats, alcohol and gunpowder stored int he riverside districted would also have fuelled the fire; burning all it encountered.
The iron chains and lock on the City gates melted, along with steel stored on the wharves. Given the temperatures needed to melt steel – between 1,250 and 1,480 °C – it is unlikely that flesh or bone survived.
The Great Fire devastated London, however, from the ashes of the fire arose a new city. Most of the city would need to be rebuilt, and Sir Christopher Wren embarked on an immense reconstruction project.
The rebuilding of London took more than thirty years and a monument to the fire was built on Pudding Lane, standing more than 200ft tall.