The Great Fire Of London

The Great Fire Of London (1666)

London's burning, London's burning!
Fetch the engine, fetch the engine!
Fire, fire! Fire, fire!
Pour on water, pour on water!

The Great Fire of London started just after midnight on Sunday 2 September 1666. It started in a baker's shop on Pudding Lane. A maid of Thomas Farriner, the King's baker, forgot to put out a fire in an oven that night and a spark from it fell onto a bundle of sticks or sacks. The bundle caught fire and in no time at all the bakery was burning! The family managed to escape, but the maid was not so lucky and died in the blaze.

At first it was thought the fire could be contained and there was little alarm beyond Pudding Lane. But London, at this time, had very narrow streets of mostly wooden buildings and the fire spread quickly. The summer of 1666 had also been a dry one, making it easier for the buildings to burn, and a strong wind fanned the flames. Soon the fire had spread to a number of streets and there was nothing the inhabitants could do to put it out! They tried, with buckets of water and fire engines (which were tubs of water carried on wheels), but the fire was too fierce. The King, on the advice of Samuel Pepys, ordered the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, to pull down houses to make firebreaks, but not even this worked as the wind blew the flames across the breaks!

The fire raged on for another three days, destroying most of the city and making thousands of people homeless. The frantic Londoners fled the city, throwing their belongings into carts, loading them into boats, or carrying them on their backs. Samuel Pepys describes the exodus in his diary, and also tells how birds were singed by the flames, falling from the sky, and how the fur of a rescued cat had been burnt off its body! It was the stuff of nightmares. Choking black smoke covered the sun, the ground felt like it was on fire, and the burning air was scorching.

It was only when the wind began to die down that the fire came under control. The firebreaks started to be effective, stopping the fire in its tracks, and by Wednesday morning the worst was over. The city was still burning but the great fire was dying. Remarkably, there had been little loss of life, the official death toll being only six people, but most of the city was gone. St Paul's Cathedral was gutted, The Royal Exchange had burnt down, so had The Guildhall, Custom House, and many shops and market places. Several prisons were also lost, company halls, inns and taverns, and over 13,000 houses!

Rebuilding the city took many years and cost a lot of money. But the new London that emerged from the ashes was a better and healthier one. The new streets were wider, to help stop fires spreading, the new buildings were of stone or brick, to stop them burning as easily, and thousands of possibly plague infected rats had been killed in the fire, perhaps helping to bring an end to the deadly disease. As part of the rebuilding, a monumental column was erected near Pudding Lane to commemorate the Great Fire. This column still stands today, and from the top of it is a panoramic view of modern London, a London that the fire helped to shape.