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The Great Fire of London (September 1666)
 
The fire destroyed 80% of the City

What happened?

Charred wood from the Great Fire.
View full size imageCharred wood from the Great Fire. © NMM
In 1666, the Great Fire of London raged for four nights and days. Over 13,000 houses, 87 churches and the main buildings in the City, including the Old St Paul’s cathedral were destroyed. Incredibly, only six deaths were recorded, but up to 200,000 people were left destitute.

On 2 September, a fire broke out in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, close to London Bridge. It soon spread to neighbouring wooden buildings in the densely-packed medieval streets.

A plan of London as in Queen Elizabeth's day and the south prospect of London as it appeared when it lay in ruins after that dreadful fire in 1666.
View full size imageA plan of London as in Queen Elizabeth's day and the south prospect of London as it appeared when it lay in ruins after the fire in 1666. © NMM
An east wind helped the fire spread with terrifying speed, feeding on the tar and pitch used to seal houses.

There was no central fire brigade. Local people dealt with blazes themselves but this fire was already burning out of control. By Sunday morning, 300 buildings had burned to the ground. The fire had spread down to the river and people were ordered to pull down houses in its path.

By
Platte Grande der Verbrande Stadt London. London on fire 1666
View full size imageThe areas devastated by fire in 1666. © NMM
Monday the southern half of the City had burned. Many Londoners left their homes, carrying what possessions they could away from the advancing fire. River boats were packed with refugees and their belongings.

On Tuesday, the fire destroyed two great buildings: the Guildhall and the Old St Paul's Cathedral. Finally, on Wednesday morning, the wind dropped, the fire lost intensity and broke up. Only then was it possible to douse the flames. The last of the fires were put out on Thursday night.

What happened next?

Sir Christopher Wren.
View full size imageSir Christopher Wren. © NMM

The Great Fire meant London had to be rebuilt. Christopher Wren designed 51 new churches for the City, and built a new St Paul's Cathedral, which was the largest in Europe.

Other changes included the first moves towards organised firefighting: old wooden houses were replaced by brick ones and owners began to insure their premises against fire.

Insurance companies were allowed to provide fire assurances. They introduced new fire engines and firefighters were recruited from the watermen who worked on the Thames. 

Interesting Facts

Much of the information we have about the Great Fire is from Samuel Pepys, who kept a diary of the event. He wrote:

Quotation marks left
September 2nd: Jane (his maid) comes and tells us that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down by the fire… poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside, to another… I saw a fire as one entire arch of fire above a mile long: it made me weep to see it. The churches, houses are all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made and the
Quotation marks right
cracking of the houses.
Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703.
View full size imageSamuel Pepys, 1633-1703. © NMM

The Great Fire cost London an estimated £10 million. At the time, the City's annual income was only £12,000.

In 1986, 320 years after the event, the Baker's Company issued an apology for the fire.

The order of events

Sunday 2 September 1666Fire broke out in a bakery in Pudding Lane, it quickly spread through the nearby streets
Monday 3 September 1666The southern half of the City burned, Londoners left their homes in a mass exodus
Tuesday 4 September 1666The fire burned westward and northward destroying two great buildings: the Guildhall and Old St Paul's cathedral
Wednesday 5 September 1666The wind dropped and the fire lost intensity and broke up
Thursday 6 September 1666The last of the fires were finally extinguished