By Tim Lambert
In 1666 London was devastated by a terrible fire. The Great Fire of London destroyed a great deal of property but fortunately only a small number of people were killed. In the 17th century fire was a constant danger in towns when many houses were made of wood and streets were narrow. Fire spread rapidly. There were actually several terrible fires in London during the Middle Ages but they have been forgotten while we remember the one of 1666. At that time tools to fight fire were primitive. There were leather buckets, axes and hooks to pull down burning thatched roofs. There were also simple hand pumps at that time. In the 17th century water was pumped by watermills on the Thames along pipes under London. However that year there was a drought and the water level was low. Furthermore shortly after the fire began the waterworks that pumped water caught fire!
In 1666 came the Great Fire of London. It began on 2 September in a baker’s house belonging to Thomas Farynor. It probably began because Farynor had not properly extinguished his ovens after a days baking. The wind fanned the ashes and a fire began. At first it did not cause undue alarm. The Lord Mayor of London Thomas Bludworth was awoken and he was not alarmed. But the wind caused the flames to spread rapidly. People formed chains with leather buckets and worked hand operated pumps all to no avail. The mayor was advised to use gunpowder to create fire breaks but he was reluctant, fearing the owners of destroyed buildings would sue for compensation. The fire continued to spread until the king took charge. He ordered sailors to make firebreaks. At the same time the wind dropped.
Samuel Pepys wrote ‘Jane called us up about three in the morning to tell us a great fire they saw in the city. I thought it far enough off and so went to bed again and to sleep.’ Fortunately the fire did not reach his house. John Evelyn said ‘all the sky were of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven and the light seen about forty miles around for many nights. London was, but is not more’. Fortunately his words proved to be untrue.
When the Great Fire died down about 13,200 houses had been destroyed and 70-80,000 people had been made homeless. The king ordered the navy to make tents and canvas available from their stores to help the homeless who camped on open spaces around the city. Temporary markets were set up so the homeless could buy food. But the crowds of homeless soon dispersed. Most of the houses in London were still standing and many of the homeless found accommodation in them or in nearby villages. Others built wooden huts on the charred ruins. To prevent such a terrible fire happening again the king commanded that all new houses in London should be of stone and brick not wood. Citizens were responsible for rebuilding their own houses but a tax was charged on coal brought by ship into London to finance the rebuilding of churches and other public buildings. Work began on rebuilding St Paul’s in 1675 but it was not finished till 1711.
In 1677 a monument was built to the Great Fire of London. Christopher Wren designed it and it is 61.5 metres tall. Inside is a spiral staircase with 311 steps. Meanwhile, in 1676 another fire took place in Southwark, a suburb of London.