The Great Fire of London was the worst fire in London’s history. It destroyed a big part of the City of London, including St. Paul’s cathedral and 13,000 houses. After the fire was extinguished, the city was reconstructed following the same medieval street plan which still exists nowadays.
Origin and Development of the Fire
The fire started on the night of Sunday, September 2 1666, at the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane. Even though the neighbours tried to stop it, the fire quickly spread to the adjoining houses and the mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was summoned to give his permission to demolish them. However, as fires were a common occurrence in London at that time, the Mayor downplayed its severity and refused to allow the houses to be destroyed. As a result, the fire jumped from house to house, burning around 300 houses, and panic began to spread through London.
The following morning, Samuel Pepys, clerk of the Privy Seal, ascended to the Tower of London to view the destruction caused by the fire and hurried off to inform King Charles II. The King instructed that the houses in the path of the fire should be demolished but all attempts to do so failed. By the afternoon, the fire pushed towards the city’s centre and had travelled 500 metres west along the Thames. The flames were encouraged by a violent east wind, which sped up the destruction on Monday and Tuesday.
By the 4th of September half of the city, including historic buildings such as St. Paul's Cathedral, had been destroyed despite the tremendous efforts of the firefighters. In the meanwhile, a large mass of refugees fled the city. Moreover, chaos escalated when rumours arose of foreigners setting fires, specifically the French and Dutch, who were England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War. These became victims of several episodes of street violence. Finally, the fire was extinguished on Wednesday 5 September thanks to two key factors: the wind dropped and gun powder was used to create firebreaks and halt the fire.
Consequences of the Fire
After the fire was extinguished, only one-fifth of the city was left standing. Around 13,000 houses, 87 parish churches and most of the civic buildings were destroyed. The loss of property was estimated at around ₤5 to ₤7 million. Even though the death toll of the fire was relatively small, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes and belongings. In this sense, the fire destroyed around 15% of London’s housing.
Right afterwards, a demented French watchmaker called Lucky Hurbert was hanged after he confessed to having started the fire. However, it was later discovered that he was innocent.
Still, the Great Fire contributed to cleansing the city, as it destroyed the overcrowded and disease-ridden streets and promoted the reconstruction of London. This task was given to Sir Christopher Wren, who was also in charge of rebuilding St. Paul’s Cathedral and 52 churches. In fact, the City of London that still exists today is the result of his work. Finally, he designed a monument that commemorates the fire, which still can be found in Pudding Lane.