London’s Burning

09 02 fire of london 1Today marks the outbreak of the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was obviously not a brilliant thing for anyone at the time, but in hindsight, it’s pretty spectacular. What started as a small fire in a bakery on Pudding Lane spread over four days and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, most of the buildings belonging to the City authorities and St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the time, the most effective way of controlling a large fire was to pull down other nearby buildings to create a fire break. Due to the indecision of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, this was not done until the following night, by which time the blaze had become an uncontrollable firestorm. Hot air from the flames was rising so quickly that it created a vacuum at ground level which caused strong winds to rush in from all directions. This made the fire spread erratically.

09 02 fire of london 2The City of London was a very crowded place surrounded by a Roman wall. Most of the buildings were made of wood and thatch which made them extremely flammable. Access by road was restricted to the eight gates in the city wall. The city was open to the river on its south side and the Thames should have been the important source of water that could have helped to put the fire out as well as a means of escape for the citizens. But this area was packed with buildings made from tar paper and warehouses containing many flammable materials including gunpowder so most of the waterfront soon became inaccessible. There was a second water supply from a water tower at Cornhill but unfortunately the pump which supplied it was also destroyed by the fire. Although fire engines were available the fire was to hot for them to be able to get close to the flames.

By the following day people start to give up trying to fight the spread of the fire and settled instead for trying to move their belongings to a safer place. Flying embers cause seemingly unrelated fires to break out and people started to suspect that the fire was a result of terrorism. Britain had recently been at war with the Dutch so suspicion fell on foreigners. The Coldstream Guards, who had been brought in to help out began to put more effort into rounding up suspicious people than to fighting the fire. These worries were fuelled by burning of the General Letter Office and the headquarters of the London Gazette. As people struggled to save their possessions, anyone with a cart or a boat that was still able to reach the shore was able to make a lot of money transporting goods of the upper classes to safety. The streets were crowded and the gates jammed with people who now just wanted to leave the city to the flames. Magistrates ordered the city gates shut to encourage people to fight the fire instead of leaving. The Lord Mayor seems to be one of the people who left as he isn’t mentioned again.

The King himself, Charles II, took management of the situation. He put his brother James, Duke of York, in charge of organizing groups of fire fighters who were well paid and well fed. They also rescued foreigners who had fallen victim to mobs. It was reported that the king also worked manually to throw water on the flames and demolish buildings.

St Paul’s Cathedral was thought to be safe because it was surrounded by a plaza and had thick stone walls. The crypt had been packed with printers goods from nearby Paternoster Row. Unfortunately building was undergoing restoration under the direction of a man named Christopher Wren. It was surrounded by wooden scaffolding which caught fire on the third day. The lead on the roof melted and ran down the streets making them impassable. The stones exploded like grenades. When the fire moved east towards Tower of London, which was packed with gunpowder, the garrison stationed there started to blow up houses on a large scale to prevent the spread. It was this method that really helped to stop the spread of the fire the following day.

Both Samuel Pepys and a man named John Evelyn, who was a founding member of the Royal Society, described walking through the ruined city after the fire was out. They both describe how the ashes burned their feet. The fire had been fed not just by the wood and thatch of buildings but also the oil, pitch, coal, tallow, fats, sugar, alcohol, turpentine and gunpowder stored near the river. The flames had been hot enough to melt the steel that was also stored there. The iron chains and locks on the city gates had also melted. The official death toll was very small but we will never know how many perished in the flames.

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