‘…the fire rage(s) every way, and nobody in my sight endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods and leave all to the fire…and the wind mighty high and driving it into the city, and everything after so long a drougth, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches…’Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), Secretary to the Admiralty, MP, celebrated author of ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’ and witness to the Great Fire.
Shortly after midnight on 2 September 1666, a catastrophic fire began to consume the City of London within its defensive walls. These ran from Blackfriars in the west up to Moorgate in the north, and round to the Tower of London in the east.
The fire raged for 5 days.
There were 10 recorded deaths, but it is thought many hundreds may have died in the extreme heat and never found. Some 100,000 citizens were made homeless.
13,200 homes were completely destroyed, along with the 500 year old St Paul’s Cathedral, 84 out of the 109 parish churches, and many commercial and administrative buildings including the Royal Exchange, luxury shops and 44 livery company halls. Only 20 percent of the city remained; the rest was in ruins.
However, a handful of buildings and structures survived the inferno and are still around today.
Here we look at five buildings that help tell the story of the Great Fire of London.
Origins of the Great Fire of London
Medieval London was a crowded warren of narrow streets with many timber-framed houses having upper storeys (jetties) leaning out and almost touching each other across the street.
The City was full of fire hazards. Thatch had been banned since the Great Fire of Southwark in 1212, but was still used. Citizens had candles and open fireplaces and lived in their wooden houses among trades using fire, such foundries, glaziers and smithies, as well as alongside warehouses and cellars used for storage of highly flammable materials, such as pitch, oil, tar, alcohol, coal, sugar, tallow and gunpowder.
The summer of 1666 was extremely hot and dry. The Great Fire started just after midnight in the early morning of Sunday 2 September in a bakery run by King Charles II’s baker, Thomas Farynor, in Pudding Lane just north of the old London Bridge.
The quick early spread of the fire was exacerbated by the dithering of the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bludworth. He fatally misjudged the danger of the fire and refused to follow orders from the King and allow adjoining properties to be blown up with gunpowder to create firebreaks. Demolition was then the firefighting technique for major fires. Samuel Pepys himself had urged the King to pursue this path.
The fire, fanned by strong winds from the east, rapidly spread and intensified, eventually creating a firestorm with temperatures reaching around 1,250 degrees centigrade.
Parishes were legally required to store fire hooks, wooden ladders, axes and leather buckets in churches for emergencies but, as the fire raged out of control, such firefighting measures were futile. Fire jumped across and along streets where the jetties of homes nearly touched. Firefighting was hampered by the narrowness of the streets, crammed with frightened citizens fleeing with their wagons and horses, hand carts and possessions.
1. St Alphage London Wall
The City was enclosed by defensive walls up to 6 metres high which risked trapping people within the fire zone. There was chaos and panic as homeless Londoners tried to get out through the seven main gateways – Aldgate, Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldersgate, Newgate, Ludgate – to reach the open fields to the north of the city. Here they set up makeshift shelters. Escape by boat on the River Thames to the south was quickly made impossible by the fire consuming warehouses along the wharves of the river.
Rumours spread that foreigners were to blame for the fire, especially French and Dutch – Britain’s enemies. Immigrant groups were targeted. There was mob violence and lynchings. Foreigners and Catholics were rounded up.
2. St Dunstan’s-in-the-East Church
On the second day, Monday 3 September, the Great Fire reached St Dunstan’s-in-the-East – just to the east of Pudding Lane. Determined to help, John Dolben, Dean of Westminster Abbey (1662 to 1683), summoned a group of scholars from the Abbey’s Westminster School, marching at their head to the church and tasking them with saving the building and nearby houses. They worked together for hours using hand-over-hand buckets of water, eventually bringing the fire under control.
The church was severely damaged, but not destroyed. It was repaired, rather than rebuilt. Then, between 1695 and 1701, architect Sir Christopher Wren (see later) added a tower and spire in the Gothic style of the original.
The church was badly damaged again during the Blitz of the Second World War (7 September 1940-11 May 1941), with only the tower and steeple surviving. In 1971, City of London turned the ruins into a public garden.
3. The Guidhall
The Great Fire was essentially halted to the south of the City by the River Thames, but flames started to spread northwards early on Monday 3rd into the commercial and financial heart of the City, damaging or destroying properties including the vast open air trading piazza, the Royal Exchange, as well as affluent houses and fashionable shops in Lombard Street and Cheapside.
Also in the path of the fire was the Guildhall, just north of Cheapside, built in the early 15th century as the administrative and ceremonial centre of the City of London, still its function today. The flames took hold, causing devastation including the destruction of the medieval roof’s open timberwork. The building was restored four years later in 1670.
The Guildhall undercroft, dating from 1411– one of the most spectacular and extensive in London – withstood the inferno. With its clustered columns and stone-ribbed vaulting, it extends half the length of the Guildhall.
4. Merchants Taylors’ Hall
On nearby Threadneedle Street, the Hall of the Merchant Taylors’ Company – established as a social and religious fraternity of tailors and linen-armourers (padded clothes worn beneath armour) – had occupied the same site since 1347.
The Hall, built in 1400, was burnt out by the Great Fire, with only its ancient walls and foundations remaining. It was restored, only to become another victim of the Blitz. Splendidly restored again post-war, it still has a 14th century undercroft under the Beadle’s office, and original medieval walls, both in the double-height kitchens (built in the 1420s) and also concealed behind mahogany panelling in the dining-hall.
Also on Monday 3rd, as the fire raged out of control, the King had over-ridden the City authorities and taken emergency action. He had put his brother, James Duke of York, in charge (the future King James II: 1685-1688), who set up eight firefighting command posts around the City, each manned by soldiers and volunteers.
They pulled down and blew up buildings in the fire’s path. But the fire outflanked them at every turn. It was at its most intense and widely destructive on Tuesday 4 September, spreading from west to east. The King rode through the City urging Londoners to fight the inferno.
In the evening the fire reached Old St Paul’s, thought to be a safe place because of its massive stone walls. It was full of rescued goods, as well as stock from nearby booksellers and printers in Paternoster Row, the heart of the City’s publishing trade. But the cathedral was undergoing renovation by Sir Christopher Wren and was covered with wooden scaffolding which soon caught fire. The stonework cracked and exploded in the heat. The huge lead roof melted in hot streams, flowing down onto the streets.
The building was destroyed.
5. All Hallows-by-the-Tower
The Great Fire, moving eastwards, also reached All Hallows on Tuesday 4. The church survived because Admiral William Penn, Pepys’ neighbour in Seething Lane close to the church, ordered his men from the nearby naval shipyard to blow up surrounding properties.
Pepys wrote: ‘…(the fire) having only burnt the Dyall (sundial) of Barkeing Church, and part of the porch, and was there quenched.’
Just east of All Hallows was the Tower of London which held vast stocks of gunpowder. The fire, advancing fast, was only 300 yards away. The garrison there – who had had been waiting all day in vain for help from the Duke of York’s firemen – blew up houses in Tower Street to create firebreaks, managing to halt the fire’s progress.
Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary: ‘…I after supper walked in the dark down to Tower-street and saw it all on fire…with extraordinary vehemence. Now begins the practice of blowing up the houses of Tower-street, those next to the Tower, which at first did frighten people but it stopped the fire where it was done…’
By Wednesday 5 September, most fires had been put out. The wind had finally dropped. The firebreaks were working. There were just sporadic outbreaks, including on the western edge of the fire area at Temple and Shoe Lane.
Pepys went to view the devastation. He wrote in his diary: ‘I walked into the town and find Fanchurch-street, Gracious-street and Lumbard-street all in dust. The (Royal) Exchange a sad sight, nothing standing there of all the statues or pillars…Walked into Moor-fields (our feet ready to burn walking…among the hot coles)….and find that full of poor wretches…carrying their goods…Thence homeward, having passed through Cheapside and Newgate-market, all burned…’
On Thursday 6 September, a last fire broke out at dawn at Bishopsgate, but was suppressed. The Great Fire, which had ravaged the City of London for 5 days, was finally over.
At the end of September 1666, a Parliamentary committee determined that the fire had been an act of god and not the result of a foreign conspiracy. The Rebuilding of London Act of 1667 brought in new regulations, such as banning jetties, imposing a maximum number of storeys and decreeing that buildings should be constructed of brick or stone.
A Fire Court was established to settle disputes between landlords and tenants of burnt buildings. The authorities also introduced fire prevention rules, including dividing the City in four, each section having 800 leather buckets, 50 ladders, 24 pickaxes and 40 shovels for future firefighting.
The King ordered the submission of rebuilding schemes. Many were put forward, including by Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Most dispensed with the medieval street plan, replacing it with a grid pattern. These schemes were all deemed prohibitively expensive and impractical in terms of negotiation over land. In addition, there was a shortage of labour and the priority was to rebuild homes quickly. Despite this, many homeless Londoners either lived and worked miserably for many years in shanty towns in poor outlying areas, such as Smithfield and Moorfields, waiting for the rebuilding of their homes, or left the City for the countryside.
The fire area was largely rebuilt within 10 years, including most of the Livery Halls. The rebuilding generally followed the same medieval street pattern as before, which broadly survives to this day.
Wren’s architectural masterpiece, the new St Paul’s cathedral (Listed Grade I), was completed in 1710 after 9 years of planning. He was also responsible, along with Robert Hooke, Surveyor to the City of London, for designing and rebuilding 51 of the 84 parish churches lost to the fire.
Commemorating the Great Fire of London
By the King’s decree, a monument to the Great Fire was erected near Pudding Lane. It stands 202 foot high. Laid on end from its site it would reach the spot where the fire started in the Thomas Farynor’s bakery.
The original plaque, blaming Catholics and the Pope for the Great Fire, was removed in 1830 following legislation outlawing discrimination against Catholics.
This figure marks the spot where the inferno of the Great Fire of London ended to the west. It was believed by some then that the fire was a Catholic conspiracy, and by others that it was god’s punishment for the sin of gluttony. The latter is inferred by further historic words inscribed on a panel of modern stonework on the site explaining that the boy was made ‘…prodigiously fat to enforce the moral…’
Written by Nicky Hughes
Banner image – A painting by an anonymous artist, depicting the Great Fire of London September 1666, created nine years after the event. Homeless Londoners are seen huddled on the river bank, hoping to escape by boat. Old London Bridge is to the left. Centre is the original Old St Paul’s cathedral on fire. To the right is the Tower of London. Shown ablaze are the churches of St Dunstan-in-the-West, St Bride’s, All Hallow’s-the-Great, St Magnus-the-Martyr, St Lawrence Pountney, St Mary-le-Bow and St Dunstan-in-the-East. Image in the Public Domain.