How did the great fire of London start?

Discover how a raging inferno destroyed the great capital in 1661

In 1666 London was the largest city in England. Home to 500,000, its congested design comprised an urban sprawl of over-crowded wooden homes inside a defensive city wall. The Great Fire started on 2 September 1666 in the bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane (1), Eastcheap. It’s thought his maid forgot to ensure the ovens were put out, and just after midnight the fire took hold. The summer had dried the housing timber and a strong easterly wind fanned the blaze, ensuring it swept rapidly through the heart of the city on a three-day rampage. The fire-fighting method of the time involved destroying the buildings in the path of the fire to isolate and control it. However, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, delayed in giving the order to commence demolition.

 

firemap
A map of how the fire consumed medieval London, click to enlarge

 

Upon being woken by his servant in the early hours, MP Samuel Pepys who lived nearby (2) decided to climb the Tower of London (3) to survey the destruction. When he discovered the fire had begun to spread west, he took a boat along the Thames to Whitehall (4) to inform King Charles II, who immediately ordered Bloodworth to start demolishing buildings and control the spread. The Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create breaks and halt the progression east, sparing the Tower and Charles II’s court itself, but medieval London was already consumed. The fire was quenched when the strong winds dropped, but monuments including St Paul’s Cathedral (5) and London’s centre of commerce the Royal Exchange (6) had already succumbed. 87 churches were razed and 13,200 houses destroyed, rendering 90 per cent of the population homeless. The city was rebuilt on roughly the same street plan and Londoners were encouraged to relocate by the sovereign who feared a rebellion by dispossessed refugees.

Casualty confusion

Although damage of the fire was extensive, the actual recorded death toll was only six. However, this figure has been challenged in recent times as the deaths of the poor and middle classes were not recorded and many victims may have been incinerated beyond recognition.

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