Great Fire of London

From New World Encyclopedia
London, as it appeared from Bankside, Southwark, during the Great Fire; derived from a print of the period by Visscher

The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of London, England, from Sunday, September 2 to Wednesday, September 5, 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall destroying the homes of an estimated 70,000 of the central City's approximately 80,000 inhabitants. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster (the modern West End), Charles II's Palace of Whitehall, and much of the suburban slums, which housed an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people.

The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities. The death toll from the fire is unknown and is traditionally thought to have been small, as only a few verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded anywhere, and that the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims, leaving no recognizable remains.

Already staggering due to the Great Plague of London in which several tens of thousands of people died due to the bubonic plague in 1665, the city faced overwhelming social and economic problems following the fire. Evacuation from London and settlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Despite numerous radical proposals, London was reconstructed on essentially the same street plan used before the fire. For all its tragedy, the fire did open the way for rebuilding what was emerging as an imperial capital on a grander, more Renaissance-like city that was also much more hygienic. Buildings, such as the new St. Paul's, rose from the ashes to rival the great cathedrals of Milan, Florence, and even Rome.

Before this fire, two earlier fires of London, in 1133/1135 and 1212, both of which destroyed a large part of the city, were known by the same name. Later, the Luftwaffe's fire-raid on the city on December 29, 1940 became known as The Second Great Fire of London.


The fire broke out on Sunday morning, September 2, 1666. It started in Pudding Lane at the house of Thomas Farynor,[1] a baker to King Charles II. It is likely that the fire started because Farynor forgot to extinguish his oven before retiring for the evening and that some time shortly after midnight, smoldering embers from the oven set alight some nearby firewood. Farynor managed to escape the burning building, along with his family, by climbing out through an upstairs window. The baker's housemaid failed to escape and became the fire's first victim.

Most buildings in London at this time were constructed of highly combustible materials like wood and straw, and sparks emanating from the baker's shop fell onto an adjacent building. Fanned by a strong wind from the east, once the fire had taken hold it swiftly spread. The spread of the fire was aided by the fact that buildings were built very close together with only narrow alleys between them.

The use of the major firefighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition, was critically delayed due to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm that defeated such measures. The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St. Paul's Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II's court at Whitehall, while coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously mobilizing. The battle to quench the fire is considered to have been won by two factors: the strong east winds died down, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks to halt further spread eastward.

An eye-witness account of the fire is recorded in the Diary of Samuel Pepys:

By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side of the bridge![2]


Within the walls of the city, the fire consumed almost five-sixths of the whole city; and without the walls it cleared a space nearly as extensive as the one-sixth part left unburnt within. Scarcely a single building that came within the range of the flames was left standing. Public buildings, churches, and dwelling-houses, were alike involved in one common fate.

In the summary account of this vast devastation, given in one of the inscriptions on the Monument to the Great Fire of London, and which was drawn up from the reports of the surveyors appointed after the fire, it is stated, that:

The ruins of the city were 436 acres (1.8 km²), viz. 333 acres (1.3 km²) within the walls, and 63 acres (255,000 m²) in the liberties of the city; that, of the six-and-twenty wards, it utterly destroyed fifteen, and left eight others shattered and half burnt; and that it consumed 400 streets, 13,200 dwelling-houses, 89 churches [besides chapels]; 4 of the city gates, Guildhall, many public structures, hospitals, schools, libraries, and a vast number of stately edifices.

The value of the property destroyed in the fire has been estimated as exceeding ten million pound sterling, which corresponds to roughly 1 billion pounds in 2005 money [2]. As well as the buildings, this included irreplaceable treasures such as paintings and books: Samuel Pepys, for example, gives an account of the loss of the entire stock (and subsequently the financial ruin) of his own preferred bookseller. Despite the immediate destruction caused by the fire, it is nevertheless claimed that its remote effects have benefited subsequent generations: for instance, it completed the destruction of the Great Plague which, greatly in decline by 1666, had taken the lives of 68,590 people, the previous year; and it also led to the building of some notable new buildings, such as the new St. Paul's Cathedral. What emerged was a city fitting to be the capital of Britain's emerging empire, and of the English Renaissance.

While only 6–16 people were thought to have died in the fire, author Neil Hanson (2001) believes the true death toll numbered in the hundreds or the thousands. Hanson believes most of the fatalities were poor people whose bodies were cremated by the intense heat of the fire, and thus their remains were never found. These claims are controversial, however.

Aftermath and consequences

The London Gazette front page from September 3–10, 1666, reporting on the Great Fire of London

The fire took place during the very expensive Second Anglo-Dutch War. Losses in revenues made it impossible to keep the fleet fully operational in 1667, leading to the Raid on the Medway by the Dutch.

After the fire, a rumor began to circulate that the fire was part of a Roman Catholic Church plot. A simple-minded French watchmaker named Robert "Lucky" Hubert confessed (possibly under torture) to being an agent of the Pope and starting the fire in Westminster. He later changed his story to say that he had started it at the bakery in Pudding Lane. He was convicted, despite some belief that he was either not of sound mind or lying, and was hanged at Tyburn, London on September 28, 1666. After his death, it surfaced that he had not arrived in London until two days after the fire.[3] The London Gazette says that “divers strangers, Dutch and French were, during the fire, apprehended upon suspicion of that they contributed mischievously to it, who are all imprisoned.”

British architect Christopher Wren was put in charge of rebuilding the city after the fire. His original plans involved rebuilding the city in brick and stone to a grid plan with continental piazzas and avenues. But because many buildings had survived to basement level, legal disputes over ownership of land ended the grid plan idea. From 1667, Parliament raised funds for rebuilding London by taxing coal, and the city was eventually rebuilt to its existing street plan, but built instead out of brick and stone and with improved sanitation and access. This is the main reason why today's London is a modern city, yet with a medieval design to its streets. Wren also re-built St. Paul's Cathedral 11 years after the fire.

Lessons in fire safety were learned, and when the current Globe Theatre was opened in 1997, it was the first building in London with a thatched roof since the fire.

Cultural impact

The Monument to the Great Fire of London, known simply as The Monument, was designed by Wren and Robert Hooke. It is close to the site where the fire started,[4] near the northern end of London Bridge. The corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane, where the fire ended, was known as Pye Corner, and is marked by a small gilded statue known as the Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, supposedly a reference to the theory expounded by a non-conformist preacher who said that had the cause of the fire been lewdness it would have started at Drury Lane, or had it been lying it would have been at Westminster, but since it started in Pudding Lane, it was caused by gluttony.

John Dryden commemorated the fire in his poem of 1667, Annus Mirabilis. Dryden worked, in his poem, to counteract paranoia about the causes of the fire and proposed that the fire was part of a year of miracles, rather than a year of disasters. The fact that Charles II was already planning to rebuild a glorious city atop the ashes and the fact that there were so few reported fatalities were, to Dryden, signs of divine favor, rather than curse.

Predictions of a fire in London

There had been much prophecy of a disaster befalling London in 1666, since in Hindu-Arabic numerals it included the Number of the Beast and in Roman numerals it was a declining-order list (MDCLXVI). Walter Gostelo wrote in 1658 "If fire make not ashes of the city, and thy bones also, conclude me a liar forever!…the decree is gone out, repent, or burn, as Sodom and Gomorrah!" It seemed to many, coming after a civil war and a plague, Revelation's third horseman.

Prophesies made by Ursula Southeil (Old Mother Shipton), William Lilly, and Nostradamus are also sometimes claimed to predict the Great Fire.

A large fire had already burnt around the northern end of London Bridge in 1632. In 1661, John Evelyn warned of the potential for fire in the city, and in 1664, Charles II wrote to the Lord Mayor of London to suggest that enforcing building regulation would help contain fires.

Further reading

  • Hanson, Neil. The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London. New York: Doubleday, 2001. ISBN 0385601344
  • Robinson, Bruce. [3] BBC's History website. London's Buring: the Great Fire.
  • Latham, Robert and William Matthews, eds. The Diary of Samuel Pepys: A New and Complete Transcription. London: Bell & Hyman, [1970] 1983. ISBN 0713515511
  • Tinniswood, Adrian. By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003.


  1. Farrinor's name is variously spelled Farriner, Fraynor, Farryner, or Farynor.
  2. Samuel Pepys Diary 1666 - Fire of London Access date Dec. 19, 2006.
  3. Thomas Bayly Howell, A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Year 1783, with Notes and Other Illustrations (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1826), 18. [1]
  4. The Monument stands 61 meters (202 feet) tall, the height marking the monument's distance to the site of Farynor's shop in Pudding Lane, where the fire began.


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