The Great Fire of 1666 demonstrated how much damage could be caused by one small fire when there was no efficient fire-fighting service.
The fire began at a humble bakery in the City. In the small hours of 2 September 1666, the baker and his family fled their building after smelling smoke. As the night was windy the flames spread quickly. By the morning, Pepys noted that 300 houses, several churches and part of London Bridge had been destroyed. Two days later, half the City had gone.
|Platte Grande der Verbrande Stadt London. © NMM|
|A plan of London... after that dreadful fire in 1666, by Thomas Bowles. © NMM|
By the end of the week, it was clear that the fire had destroyed 13,200 houses, along with many public buildings, 87 parish churches and St Paul's Cathedral.
The fire had also caused considerable damage beyond the City walls.
'Fighting' the fire
|Charred wood from the Great Fire of London. © NMM|
Once the fire had spread to several buildings, there was little anyone could do with the equipment and organization of the time. There were basic fire services at the parish level, but they were overwhelmed by the scale of the fire.
The only way to contain the fire was to demolish houses in its path and hope that the flames would not leap the gaps between the buildings. This was successful in some places.
|Sir John Evelyn's plan for re-building the City of London. © NMM|
After the Great Fire, the City authorities spent much time discussing how London was to be rebuilt.
Some wanted a complete break with the past. John Evelyn hoped for a City of Italian-style piazzas and wide streets. Wren had similar hopes.
In the end, the City was rebuilt on its former grid pattern. Fortunately, Wren oversaw the rebuilding of the City’s public institutions, churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. Much of Wren’s creation survives to this day.
A monument and denunciations...
|London Bridge and the river as seen from the top of the Monument. © NMM|
Another physical reminder of the Great Fire was Wren’s Monument, built on the site of Farriner’s bakery. Completed in 1677, it was 60 metres (202 feet) high and one of the tallest structures in the City.
It soon became a popular place from which to view the buildings below.
Some years later, an inscription was added, claiming that Catholics had started the fire.
... but no reforms
Despite Wren’s magnificent buildings and his Monument, little was done to prevent such a disaster from happening again. Parishes remained responsible for dealing with fires. The next step forward came not from the authorities but from private enterprise.
|Christopher Wren. © NMM|