The Great Fire of London was an inferno of such all-consuming proportions that it left 85 per cent of the capital’s population homeless. Striking on 2 September 1666, it raged for nearly five days, during which time its destructive path exposed London’s makeshift medieval vulnerability.
The fire tore through the city’s densely packed wooden buildings with such ease that the task of rebuilding the city demanded a modernising vision. The Great Fire was a transformative moment for London – devastatingly destructive but also, in many ways, a catalyst for changes that have come to define the city we know today. Here are 10 facts about this catalytic event.
1. It started at a bakery
Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse, located in Fish Yard off Pudding Lane in the City of London, was the source of the blaze. It is thought that the fire ignited when a spark from the oven fell onto a pile of fuel at around 1am.
2. Firefighting was hampered by the lord mayor
The practice of ‘”firebreaking” was a common firefighting tactic at the time. It essentially involved demolishing buildings in order to create a gap. The logic being that the absence of combustible materials would halt the fire’s progress.
Unfortunately, this course of action was initially scuppered when Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London, refused to grant permission to demolish buildings. Bloodworth’s declaration in the early stages of the blaze that “a woman could piss it out” certainly gives the impression that he underestimated the fire.
3. Temperatures hit 1,700°C
Analysis of melted pottery fragments – found in the burnt-out remains of a shop on Pudding Lane – have revealed that the temperature of the blaze hit heights of 1,700 degrees celsius.
4. The officially recorded death count is widely thought to be a significant underestimate
Only six people were recorded as having died in the fire. But the deaths of working class people weren’t recorded and so it’s highly likely that the actual death toll was much higher.
5. St Paul’s Cathedral was the most famous building destroyed by the fire
The remains of the cathedral were demolished and work commenced on building a replacement in 1675. The spectacular cathedral we know today was designed by Christopher Wren and remains one of London’s greatest architectural landmarks.
Interestingly, Wren had already proposed the demolition and redevelopment of St Paul’s before the fire, but his proposals had been dismissed. Instead, renovation work was commissioned and it’s thought that the wooden scaffolding surrounding the building likely accelerated its destruction in the blaze.
6. A French watchmaker was falsely convicted of starting the fire and executed
In the aftermath of the fire, the search for scapegoats led to the execution of Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker from Rouen. Hubert gave a false confession, stating that he threw a fireball through the window of Farriner’s bakery. It soon became clear, however, that Huber wasn’t even in the country at the time the fire started.
7. The fire sparked an insurance revolution
The Great Fire was especially devastating because it struck in an age before insurance; with 13,000 homes destroyed, the financial implications of the inferno were significant. The scene was set for the emergence of an insurance market that would offer financial protection in such circumstances.
Sure enough, in 1680 Nicholas Barbon founded the world’s first fire insurance company, aptly named the “Insurance Office”. A decade later, one in 10 London houses were insured.
8. The fire arrived hot on the heels of the Great Plague
It’s fair to say that the 1660s was a tough time for London. When the Great Fire struck, the city was still reeling from the last major outbreak of the plague, which claimed 100,000 lives – a staggering 15 per cent of the capital’s population.
9. A monument was built to commemorate the Great Fire
Measuring 202 feet in height and located 202ft from the site of Farriner’s bakehouse, Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire of London still stands as a lasting memorial of the Great Fire. The column can be ascended via 311 steps, leading to a viewing platform with panoramic views of the city.
10. Some argue that the fire was ultimately beneficial to London
It may seem perverse given the terrible damage it inflicted on the capital, but many historians see the Great Fire as being the key spur for lasting improvements that ultimately benefited London and its inhabitants.
In the wake of the blaze, the city was rebuilt in accordance with new regulations that minimised the threat of such a fire taking hold again. Stone and brick were used instead of wood and progressive legal reforms were introduced that ultimately helped London become the city it is today.