A fire broke out in a bakery on Sunday, September 2, 1666, and three days later, much of medieval London was gone.
The fire started at the lowly bakery of Thomas Farriner on Pudding Lane. Things started to heat UP shortly after midnight, and due to the narrow streets, highly flammable building materials, and lack of fire fighting expertise, the fire spread rapidly.
17th Century firefighting consisted of fire breaks, which meant the destruction of entire sections to keep them from catching and spreading the fire. But even that was delayed by the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor of London. Sir Thomas Bloodworth wrung his hands while the city burned.
The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and most of the municipal buildings of the city.
70,000 of the 80,000 city’s residents were homeless after the fire.
The death toll is unknown as well as controversial. Seems there were only six verified deaths! But, back in the day, deaths of the poor and middle-class were rarely reported. Plus, the fire was so hot, it probably cremated most of its victims, leaving no visible remains.
Archaeologists tell us the fire reached 1700 degrees Celsius!
Of course, as in all disasters, the first item on the agenda after the fires died down was to lay blame.
Scapegoats abounded! Robert Hubert confessed to starting the fire. Said he was an agent of the Pope and had started the fire in Westminster. He changed his story to say that he started it in Pudding Lane. He was convicted, and hanged at Tyburn even though questions about his fitness to testify were plentiful.
Once dead and buried, it was determined he was actually on a ship in the North Sea the day the fire started.
Of course King Charles II, on the throne at the time of the great fire, did little to help. His actions came after the disaster. He had a monument erected – designed by the great Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke no less – at Pudding Lane. It stands 200 feet tall and is a constant reminder to the city’s great fire.
In the spirit of blaming, the monument was inscribed with this message: “Here by permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city…the most dreadful Burning of this City, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction. Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.”
The Anti-Catholic movement of the 17th and 18th Centuries is sort of England’s Confederate Battle Flag.
Some say the Great Fire of London was in the end a good thing.
The plague epidemic a year before killed a sixth of the Londoners. Some historians suggest that since plague didn’t recur in London after the fire, the fire saved lives in the long run by burning down so many places with rats and their fleas which transmitted plague.
Others agree to disagree, saying that most of the truly unsanitary housing was left unscathed.
One would think a disaster of such magnitude would change London for ever. I really didn’t. Sure, new buildings were constructed and new building requirements demanded, but what remained of London after the fire, remained for another 100 years or so.