Though it can hardly be considered as a blessing in disguise, as 70,000 of London’s 80,000 inhabitants had their homes destroyed, it came in 1666, at the end of the great plague and had the effect of cleansing the city of pestilence.
The fire began on 2nd September 1666 making this year the 350th anniversary of the conflagration. It started in Thomas Farriner’s bakers shop in Pudding Lane. It was just after midnight when the fire began, trapping the baker and his family on the floor above. All bar one managed to escape via an upstairs window, a manservant who was too scared to climb to the adjoining window of next door became the first of only six recorded fatalities. Temperatures of 1,700°C were reached during the fire, making the discovery of human remains impossible, and hence understating the true death toll dramatically.
The recognised method of fire control at that time was by using fire breaks where adjoining property is demolished to prevent the fire reaching a new source of fuel. A long dry summer and drought conditions since the previous November had left the wooden houses tinder dry. Initial attempts by neighbours to douse the flames were proving fruitless, and on the arrival of the parish constables the decision to demolish adjoining property to prevent the fire reaching the waterfront paper warehouses was taken. Naturally the neighbours protested at having their homes demolished and so the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, under whose jurisdiction the decision fell, was summoned. By the time he arrived at the scene a number of adjoining houses were ablaze and the situation was getting out of control. Bloodworth decided that as many properties were rented, and their landlords could not be contacted, then no demolition should take place. His final remark before he left the scene of “Pish! A woman could piss it out”, would prove to be his legacy.
The fire went on to consume 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and the majority of the city’s Civic buildings. The centre of the city within the boundary of the Roman Walls, about 330 acres (130 ha) was gutted. One notable landmark to succumb to the inferno was St Paul’s Cathedral. Ironically the cathedral that stood in 1666 was commenced in 1087 after a fire had destroyed its predecessor, the construction of which was delayed by another fire in 1135. By the middle of the 14th century the cathedral was complete and continued in use until 1666. However, the fabric of the building was in need of repair and earlier attempts of restoration in 1620 had been halted by the English Civil War. The old building was demolished after the Great Fire and the domed building recognised today, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, was built on he same spot.
London bridge, which at that time had properties running its length also fell to the fire. Householders and merchants threw their possessions into boats below or in desperation into the river Thames itself. Finally they themselves took to the river to escape.
In all the Great Fire raged for 4 days but its affects were felt for much longer. A refugee camp was established to the north of the city at Moorfields on the fourth day of the fire, but in the longer term Londoners were evacuated to other parts of the country. Estimations at the time were 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and camped in fields with what little possessions they could carry.
In rebuilding the city lessons had been learned. Though following the original plan of the old city, streets were made wider, routes to the river were obstruction free and most importantly new buildings were made of stone not wood. Much of the modern London skyline has its roots in the reconstruction necessary after the Great Fire of 1666.