The Great Fire of London in 1666 would decimate London, result in its rebuilding, and changes in how buildings and streets were laid out in the city. Let’s find out more about it.
In 1666, London was a huge city and the capital of Britain. While many of the important homes and buildings were often made of stone, most homes and buildings were made of oak and often used tar to weatherproof them. Streets were also narrow with buildings close together making it hard for people and carts to move about on narrow streets. Sanitation was also poor since many people tossed their garbage-and chamber pots-into the street. The modern toilet had not been invented so most bodily waste went into these pots. Add to it horse manure on the streets, and most cities like London had some unpleasant odors especially in summertime.
Firefighting was also different back then. It comprised mainly of local bucket brigades and primitive water pumps on trucks. Since fire was considered a serious threat, people were told to be vigilant and make sure their homes were safe. However, as it turns out, people were not always so careful. On the evening of 1 September 1666 Thomas Farrinor, a baker employed by King Charles II on Pudding Lane, went to bed not making sure that the fire is his oven was properly extinguished. Sometime during the night sparks from the dying embers in the oven ignited firewood lying nearby. Not long after the house would soon become engulfed in flames. Farrinor and his family would flee and survive the fire. Sadly, a maid in the home did not survive as she did not want to jump out of the window.
Sparks from the fire would spread across the street to the Star Inn. It ignited the straw in the stables along with other combustibles and soon the inn was ablaze. The fire would spread from there to Thames Street. Warehouses on the riverfront would soon ignite as well. Full of candles, lamp oil, tallow and coal, the fire would grow larger and begin to spread. The local fire brigade was quickly overwhelmed and had to retreat. The primitive water fighting trucks of the time could barely navigate the streets. Panic ensued as people raced to the Thames with everything they owned. Attempts at using firebreaks by tearing down homes and buildings was tried but the fire overwhelmed them. The fire got so bright it could be seen 30 miles away. Finally on 5 September it started dying out and on the next day it was put out. There was one flare up in the Temple district but when a building containing gunpowder blew up with a powerful bang, the last remnants of the fire was over.
Four-fifths of London was destroyed and remarkably only 16 died. But 100,000 were homeless. The fire burned down the historic St. Paul’s Cathedral along with scores of other churches, buildings, and historic landmarks. King Charles II had a massive task to rebuild the city. He commissioned noted architect Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild St. Paul’s which still stands to this day. New homes and buildings had to be built with bricks and stones; wood was not allowed. And walls had to be thicker and buildings not so close together. Also, streets were widened and the old narrow streets and alleys banned. Access to the river was made easier as well by restricting housing that would block access. The homeless were suggested to go to other cities, towns, and villages outside of London to resettle. Economically it would take many years for London to recover. Most businesses had lost their premises and whatever goods were stored. The commercial district lost a lot of its businesses as they relocated elsewhere. London’s access to shipping routes and that it was the capital kept the city from completely losing its place in the world.
One of the more disturbing aftereffects was the strong anti-Catholic and anti-foreign sentiment that emerged. While most reasoned after studying how the fire began it was an accident, there were many who believed Catholics, Dutch, and French were involved. Opponents of pro- Catholic King Charles II made it an issue. That is why in the Monument that was put up in 1670’s had an inscription on it blaming the disaster on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.” This was removed in 1830 but at one time practicing Catholicism in England was forbidden and those who refused to recognize the sovereignty of the monarch over the Pope would be executed usually by the horrific method of being hung, drawn, and quartered.
Sadly, the rebuilding scheme did not reshape London as it was originally hoped. They kept pretty much the old layout. Had some of the plans suggested, such as Wren’s, London would have rivaled Paris. Insurance companies were born out of this disaster to help aid those who lost homes or buildings to fire. They began to hire private firemen and to promote safety measures with their clients. This did lead to conflicts with local fire brigades and the private firemen hired by these insurance companies. Ultimately it led a combined fire unit called the London Fire Brigade in 1832, which began the process of permanent fire departments being established to put out fires.
As for the man who started the fire, Thomas Farriner, he would rebuild his shop on Pudding Lane and continue baking until he passed away in 1670. Members of the Worshipful Company of Bakers in 1986 apologized for the fire and put up a plaque on Pudding Lane that one of their own had caused the Great Fire of 1666.