The Great Fire (image source: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk)
Today marks the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire Of London. To recognise this the Museum of London currently has on display until April 2017 an excellent temporary exhibition. As well as a wealth of information, there are also original artefacts on show like the original leather buckets and fire squirt pipes residents used to stop the fire as well as some of the possessions affected residents tried to salvage from their burning homes.
Only a year before the Fire, London was devastated by the Great Plague of 1665 which killed 100,000 people (a fifth of the city’s population). There are a few reasons why the fire had the devastating impact it had. Firstly, most of the buildings of the city of London back then were made out of timber. The city at the time also didn’t have the proper facilities to reduce the fire. There were certainly no fire brigades and sadly one of the only ways to effectively put out the fires was to tear down many of the wooden houses to prevent the fires from spreading further. It had also been a very dry and hot summer and combined with a strong wind from the east, those initial small flames began to spread to almost all of the city of London.
The fire began very early one morning on Sunday 2nd September 1666 at a bakery on Pudding Lane close to London Bridge. The mayor of London at the time, Sir Thomas Bludworth, two hours after the fire didn’t take it seriously and was reported to have said, ‘Pish! A woman might piss it out’. Later in the morning the great London diarist of the time, Samuel Pepys, told the King in Whitehall ‘that unless his majesty did command houses to be pulled down nothing could stop the fire’. By the evening the fire had already grown half a mile wide enveloping great parts of the city.
A portrait of the 17th century MP Samuel Pepys who witnessed the Great Fire and wrote about it in his famous diary (image source: http://www.twitter.com)
Most of the residents of London were ill-equipped to deal with the fire. Most of the methods the residents used were ineffective. Water carried in heavy leather buckets and fire squirts were used to try and reduce the fire, but with little to no success. It was, however, Charles II and his brother James who established firefighting bases around the city on the morning of the next day on Monday 3rd September 1666 to tackle the fire. It seemed that Samuel Pepys was indeed right when he said that the only way to reduce the fire was to pull down many of the wooden houses. By doing this not only was the fire prevented from spreading further, it also created gaps between the rows of wooden houses which the flames couldn’t cross. The first major casualty of the day were the printers of the London Gazette which earlier in the day printed the news that ‘a sudden and lamentable fire’ is burning down London.
On Tuesday the next day, the fire has engulfed even greater parts of the city. By 6am, one of the most important streets of the city of London, Cheapside, began to burn. When night fell, gunpowder was used to blow up houses to prevent the fire from reaching the Tower Of London. Around 8pm, the fire had burnt large parts of St Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately, as the night progressed, much of the wind began to die down and by the morning of Wednesday 5th September, most of the fire had been eradicated.
The fire had left many residents homeless. More than 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 436 acres of the city were in ruins. It had also created a great housing shortage and rents for the properties unaffected by the fire were extortionate. Whilst residents were fleeing their homes they also tried to scavenge many of their possessions. Money, musical instruments, pets and Parmesan cheese were some of the things residents tried to save. Some unscrupulous carters helping residents to save and transport their stuff made a killing with some charging residents £20 (£3000 today) to hire their carts. Samuel Pepys was one of the fortunate few who’s house was unaffected by the fire. He also protected his Parmesan cheese and wine from the fire by burying them in his garden.
The architect Sir Christopher Wren who was responsible for rebuilding the city of London (image source: http://www.britannica.com)
The principle person involved in rebuilding London was the great architect Sir Christopher Wren who redesigned St Paul’s Cathedral and many other churches and buildings affected by the fire. All new homes, churches and buildings were made with brick instead of wood in order to be able to withstand future fires. Few original relics (one example being the Tower of London) of London before the Great Fire remain and in many ways the year zero of the London that one sees today is the London of Christopher Wren.
by Nicholas Peart
2nd September 2016
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