By Professor Robert Bucholz, Loyola University Chicago
The summer of 1666 was hot and dry. Most people were grateful because they thought that the heat would kill off the plague. Instead, it fueled The Great Fire of London—one of the worst disasters in the history of the city.
When a fire began on the 2nd of September, it at first seemed to be nothing unusual. London was continually burning. There had been fires in A.D. 60 and in 675—which destroyed the first St. Paul’s Cathedral, and in 1087, which destroyed the third St. Paul’s Cathedral. A series of fires between 1132 and 1135 destroyed swathes of property from London Bridge north to St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1212, a fire in Southwark destroyed St. Mary’s Church and houses on London Bridge, and there was another major fire in 1632.
Why did London burn so readily? Daniel Defoe recalled the Old London of his childhood:
The streets were not only narrow, and the houses all built of timber, lath and plaster, or, as they were very properly called paper work … But the manner of the building in those days, one story projecting out beyond another, was such, that in some narrow streets, the houses almost touched one another at the top.
Early modern London industry used open flames, such as smithies and bakeshops. There were also tar and combustibles down by the docks, so the whole thing was ready to go up.
This is a transcript from the video series London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World. Explore it now, on The Great Courses.
Ground Zero: The King’s Bakery on Pudding Lane
The family escaped by climbing through an upstairs window into the next house, all but one frightened maid who refused to leap, the fire’s first casualty.
The Great Fire began on the morning of the 2nd of September, just after midnight in the house and bakery of Thomas Farriner, the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane, just north of the river. He probably failed to damp the fire properly for the night. The family escaped by climbing through an upstairs window into the next house, all but one frightened maid who refused to leap, the fire’s first casualty. Neighbors tried to fight the fire, but Londoners had few tools with which to do so, having only buckets, if a fountain was nearby; ladders to rescue those on upper floors; and staves with which to pull houses down to form firebreaks. The summer’s dryness and high winds overwhelmed their efforts.
About 1 a.m. the parish constables arrived, and they suggested pulling down houses as a firebreak. The lord mayor, Sir Thomas Bludworth, was then awakened and brought to the scene and told the same thing. Bludworth was reluctant—the area was full of rich mercantile property—so he went back to bed, exclaiming with impeccable sexism, “Why, pish! A woman could piss it out!” These would become famous last words.
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The Great Fire of London Through the Eyes of Samuel Pepys
That night the maids in the household of diarist Samuel Pepys were up late preparing food for the next day’s Sunday dinner. At 3 a.m. they woke their master and mistress “to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City.” But Pepys, like his mayor, dismissed it and went back to bed. When he awoke the next morning, he decided to check out the scene. At 7 a.m. he headed up to the Tower of London; what he saw appalled him.
Pepys went to Whitehall to break the news to the king and duke of York. Only a few years earlier, Charles and the court had been criticized for fleeing the plague. They were determined they weren’t going to make the same mistake twice. The king immediately ordered the pulling down of houses. Pepys tried to bring the order back by coach, but the streets were clogged with refugees.
By mid-morning, people were giving up trying to put out the flames and tried to save their belongings.
By mid-morning, people had given up trying to put out the flames and tried to save their belongings. Some took their possessions to the crypt of St. Paul’s. They thought that their goods would be safe there because the crypt was made of stone. Goldsmiths, who had vaults, also took in valuables. Some tried carting their goods to Westminster. On Saturday, a cart cost a few shillings to rent. On Monday, it cost 40 pounds.
“Every creature coming away loaden with goods to save, and here and there sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs.” Pepys eventually had to get out and walk through the throng.
At this point he found Bludworth whining, “Lord, what can I do? I am spent! People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses. But the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.” At least the king never turned to him and said, “Heck of a job, Bludy.” Instead, when Charles arrived at the scene he ordered the Coldstream Guards to start pulling down houses and he ignored the mayor. By about 2 p.m., a firestorm arose, created by high winds and the chimney effect as the heat rose in the narrow areas between London’s buildings.
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“One Entire Arch of Fire”
That evening, the Pepyses watched the flames. At first, they rented a boat to watch on the river, but they were hit by sparks and eventually retired to an alehouse on the South Bank and there they saw “one entire arch of fire from this to the other side of the bridge. And in a bow up the hill for an arch of above a mile long.”
On Monday, the 3rd of September, the flames pushed north, west, and south. In the south, the fire was physically stopped by the river, but it threatened to cross London Bridge. In the city, the Royal Exchange and Cheapside went up. The magistrates ordered the city gates to be shut to persuade people to return and fight the fire. The order was rescinded the following day.
By this time, the lord mayor had fled. But Charles II put his brother, the duke of York, in charge and he organized command posts headed by courtiers. He dragooned able-bodied men into teams to pull down houses; he rode up and down with the lifeguards to rescue foreigners; there are even semi-witness accounts of Charles and the duke of York manning bucket brigades.
Tuesday, the 4th of September, saw the worst destruction. The fire leaped over firebreaks at Fleet Street and Cheapside, heading east, north, and west toward Whitehall Palace in the west and the Tower of London, with its gunpowder stores, in the east. At the center of this conglomeration was St. Paul’s; the old cathedral never had a chance. The crypt was loaded with goods and books from the nearby booksellers. The structure was surrounded by wooden scaffolding from current renovations, the lead roof started to melt, and it ran down the walls into the crypt, igniting it. The collapse of St. Paul’s was the climax of the fire.
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London’s Spirit Endures
On Wednesday, the 5th of September, the winds died down. The firebreaks started to work and eventually the fire was put out or died out is perhaps more accurate.
The fire destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and virtually all of the City of London within the walls. The fire never crossed London Bridge and so did not burn Southwark, nor did it ever get to Westminster and so the Whitehall and the Westminster complex survived.
Now a part of that story goes that in the summer of 1673, Sir Christopher Wren went to the site of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral to mark the spot for the center of the dome of its replacement. According to legend, he asked a workman, “go fetch me a stone,” and the worker returned with a piece of masonry that contained the word resurgam, “I shall rise again.” Wren instantly decreed this the motto of the new cathedral.
Common Questions about the Great Fire of London
Several scapegoats have been blamed for the Great Fire of London. A French watchmaker named Robert Hubert initially accepted blame, saying he started the fire in the name of the Pope. This confession led to additional theories assigning blame to Catholics at large.
No one knows who, precisely, started the Great Fire of London. The fire originated at Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. In the weeks leading up to the September 2 conflagration, the city had experienced a major drought which likely contributed.
The Great Fire of London is important for its impact on the city of London. The fire gutted the city and put an enormous economic burden on Londoners, as well as social and political challenges.
Few people died in the Great Fire of London. Although the fire destroyed more than 13,000 homes and dozens of major buildings, death toll estimates range from 6-8 people.