On Saturday the 1st September 1666 the City of London was a buzz of activity, with traders selling their goods in the marketplaces and shops around London, carriages pulling goods in and out of the city as well as providing transportation for the rich who were off to spend their money in the fashionable shops along Cheapside, and the poor begging on the streets hoping to make enough money for a hearty meal. The medieval cobbled streets of the city twisted around a variety of timber structures, many with additional jetties which protruded over the sides with thickly thatched roofs. Even the bridges across the Thames were covered with these wooden structures. Stone buildings were rare in the City as they were often too expensive to build so only the richest districts could afford the expense. Five days later London had become a burnt-out shell of a City, being nothing but ash and smouldering timbers.
The blaze began in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane at some point between 12 and 1 am on Sunday 2nd September. It isn’t known exactly how the fire started or who started it but there were many rumours spread around London at the time. The most popular theory was that it was a deliberate act by French or Dutch soldiers who wanted to put an end to the Second Angelo–Dutch war, or as revenge for the English attack on the Vlie estuary in which the Dutch village of West-Terschelling was set on fire. That particular fire was known as Holmes’ Bonfire and was named after Admiral Robert Holmes who orchestrated the attack.
A French watch maker named Robert Hubert falsely confessed to starting the blaze and was arrested. In his first statement he alleged that he started the fire in Westminster, but the flames never reached there. In a second statement he claimed that he had started the fire in Pudding Lane by throwing a grenade through a window, but this statement only came after it was revealed that the fire had started there. There were several misgivings about his fitness to plead, as he was crippled and likely had some sort of mental illness. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death and hanged a day later at Tyburn. It was later discovered that he wasn’t in London at the time of the fire, he had only arrived in England two days after the fire had started, meaning that it was impossible for him to have started it. He has been widely viewed as a political scapegoat, used only to try to calm down the enraged public who had already started to blame foreigners and refugees for the fire.
There had been a series of small fires in the City before the Great Fire, the last appearing in 1632, but they had been dealt with quickly through the use of fire hooks, used to drag down any nearby timber buildings. This created fire blocks which would prevent the fire from spreading as it had nothing to burn. The weather was a large driving force in making the fire so intense. For the last year London had experienced a major drought following two years of rainy summers, the timber buildings had dried out and were an immediate fire hazard. A strong east wind helped spread the fire quickly. There were large amounts of flammable items stored in warehouses across the City (which included gunpowder, tar, and oil) that increased the fire’s potency.
The ineffective and disorderly judgements from the Lord Mayor Thomas Bloodworth also greatly impacted the spread of the conflagration, as he greatly misjudged its magnitude as well as refused to follow the orders from King Charles to tear down several buildings and create fire blocks. He likely prevented the demolition of any nearby buildings out of fear from receiving complaints from the owners! His failure to take measures to prevent the spread of the fire caused it to greatly intensify into a fire storm, which had its own wind system, increasing the spread and heat of the fire. It got so hot in fact that the lead roof of St Paul’s melted and became a molten stream on the street below!
Much of what we know about the events for the Great Fire come from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn both of whom were present in London during the fire. The most in-depth description came from Pepys who famously mentioned how, in haste, he buried some of his expensive wine and cheese in his garden in the hope that if the fire spread to his house, he would be able to retrieve these expensive goods from the burnt remains. Luckily for Pepys the fire never reached his home in Seething lane.
Many believe that the Great Fire is the reason that the Great Plague vanished from London as the fire burnt the diseased rodents and contaminated buildings. However, the vast majority of the poor (who were the most likely to have or carry the disease) lived in the slums outside the City which were not damaged in the fire. Also, the number of plague victims had fallen substantially, to only a handful of cases in 1666 so in all likelihood the plague had died out on its own. However, it is possible that the fire helped prevent it from reappearing as the dirty, rotten, old and potentially contaminated timber buildings were destroyed and the majority of London was rebuilt using stone and brick.
On the order of King Charles, several radical new designs for the city were created. Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, John Evelyn and architect Valentine Knight all came up with designs, mostly in a baroque style, for the new city. These plans were scrapped after it proved to be too difficult to implement, due to some complexities in land ownership; so, the original design of the city was re-used but the majority of buildings were redesigned to be made of brick and stone instead of flammable timber. Included in this rebuild of the City was the new design for St Pauls and fifty additional churches all by Sir Christopher Wren.
A memorial to the fire (called The Monument) was constructed between 1671 to 1677. It was designed jointly by Sir Christopher Wren and philosopher Robert Hooke. The original plaque on the monument included an inscription which blamed the Pope and Catholics for the fire. This was removed following the Catholic Emancipation in 1830. Another monument known as the ‘Golden Boy of Pye Corner’ was erected in Smithfield which blamed the fire on the sin of Gluttony!
A contemporary image from one of our books featuring the scene of the Great Fire is currently on display on our ‘Treasures’ photowall which celebrates some of our iconic items including Shakespeare’s First Folio, The Nuremburg Chronicle and 18th Century Lottery Tickets!