On this day: London’s Great Fire in 1666

Thomas Farynor, known in London as the King’s Baker, had a bakery in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. He needed to keep his ovens at a steady high temperature, so he kept lots of dry wood in his kitchen. At about two o’clock in the morning of Sunday 2nd September, this wood caught fire. Actually, the fire may have been caused by a spark from the oven falling
onto a pile of fuel nearby.

The flames spread quickly, and soon all the downstairs rooms in the bakery were on fire. Mr Farynor and his servants had to climb onto the bakery roof and jump across to the house next door. By the time Mr Farynor had woken his neighbours, the whole bakery was on fire.

Samuel Pepys lived nearby and on Sunday morning walked to the Tower of London. There he saw the fire heading west, fanned by the wind, and described ‘pigeons… hovering about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down’. With Sir Thomas Bloodworth dithering, Pepys went to Whitehall, informing the King and his brother James, Duke of York, of the situation. Although Charles II immediately ordered Bloodworth to destroy as many houses as necessary to contain the fire, early efforts to create firebreaks were overcome by the strength of the wind, which enabled the fire to jump gaps of even twenty houses. By the end of Sunday the fire had begun to travel against the wind, towards the Tower, and Pepys had begun to pack.

Samuel  Pepys

By dawn that morning, dozens of buildings in the area were alight. By Monday, the people of London could hardly see their city for smoke.

The fire was spreading fast through the city. London Bridge was alight, and 300 houses had burned down. That night, the sky was so bright, it looked like daytime.

On Tuesday, the fire was so hot that people could not get close enough to put it out. St Paul’s Cathedral, London’s most famous building, catches fire. By the evening, the wind that had carried the flames, had calmed down.

Fires in London were common, even inevitable, given the capital’s largely timber construction. Yet for years there had been warnings of London’s total destruction by fire: in 1559 Daniel Baker had predicted London’s destruction by ‘a consuming fire’. In April 1665, Charles had warned the Lord Mayor of London of the danger caused by the narrow streets and overhanging timber houses. Furthermore, a long, hot summer had left London dry and drought had depleted water reserves.

A strong east wind blew, sending the the flames of the fire from house to house across the very narrow streets. Many buildings were warehouses which stored barrels of brandy and spirits and oil which are very flammable. The barrels exploded in the heat and threw balls of  flame out of windows and doors.

By Wednesday 5th September, the wind changed direction, and the fire stopped spreading. There was no fire brigade at the time of the Great Fire, so the King took charge in fighting the fire.

King Charles II

Special ‘fire-posts’ were created and fire-fighting equipment were sent to them. Soldiers were sent in to help. The King Charles II ordered houses to be knocked down, so the fire could not spread. Water from the river, fountains and wells were passed in buckets along lines of men and thrown on the fire. Syringes were also used by watchmen.

A quick way of demolishing houses was to blow them upwith gunpowder, but this technique wasn’t used until the third day of the fire (Tuesday 4 September). Fire Posts, each staffed by 130 men, were set up around the City to fight the blaze. On Tuesday night the wind dropped and the firefighters finally gained control.

The Great Fire of London lasted for five days. It had burned 13,200 houses and 87 churches.  Around 100,000 people were left homeless. However, fewer than 10 people are recorded as dying in the Great Fire. 88 churches were burned down,  including St Paul’s Cathedral. London had been devastated by the fire, so King Charles asked the great architects to build a new city.

One architect, Christopher Wren, planned a cleaner and healthier city, with houses built of brick and stone, and with no wooden buildings allowed. St Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt. It still stands today, although parts of it has altered.

London’s Great Fire destroyed the Great plague infection, together with 13,200 houses. A coal duty was imposed to pay for repairs, and strict building regulations drafted to cut the risk of fire. For many, it seriously suggested divine wrath that England had turned its back on its Puritan heritage.

Sir Christopher Wren presenting to King Charles II his plan for rebuilding London

At the end of September, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to investigate the fire. During the investigation a French Protestant silversmith and watchmaker, Robert “Lucky” Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators. His colleagues claimed he was unbalanced and the details of his confession changed as flaws were continually unearthed.

Stephen Peidloe gave Robert Hubert a fireball, which he pushed into the bakery on Pudding Lane, on the end of a long pole, through a window (later was confirmed that bakery had no windows)

The Earl of Clarendon commented that ‘Neither the judges, nor any present at the trial did believe him guilty; but that he was a poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it‘. He was helped by a jury – that included three Farynors – and was hanged at Tyburn. However, Hubert wasn’t actually in London when the fire started. As his body was being handed to the Company of Barber-Surgeons for dissection, it was torn apart by the mob.

The Monument commemorates the Great Fire. Its height is  61½ metres tall – the distance it stands from the site of Thomas Farynor’s bakery in Pudding Lane. The top of the monument is reached by climbing up the narrow winding staircase of 311 steps. A cage was added in the mid-19th century at the top of the Monument to prevent people jumping off, after six people had committed suicide between 1788 and 1842.



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