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