In the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666, a fire broke out in a bakery on Pudding Lane in the City of London. The blaze spread rapidly through the capital and continued to rage for four days.
By the time the last flames were extinguished the fire had laid waste to much of London. Around 13,200 houses had been destroyed and an estimated 100,000 Londoners made homeless.
More than 350 years later, the Great Fire of London is still remembered as both a uniquely devastating episode in the city’s history and as the catalyst for a modernising rebuild that reshaped Britain’s capital. But who was responsible?
A false confession
Occurring amid the second Anglo-Dutch War, rumours that the fire was an act of foreign terrorism began to circulate and a culprit was demanded. A convenient foreign scapegoat swiftly arrived in the form of Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker.
Hubert made what is now known to have been a false confession. It’s not clear why he claimed to have thrown a firebomb that started the inferno, but it seems likely that his confession was made under duress.
It has also been widely suggested that Hubert wasn’t of sound mind. Nonetheless, despite a complete absence of evidence, the Frenchman was hanged on 28 September 1666. It was later discovered that he wasn’t even in the country on the day the fire started.
How did the Great Fire of London start?
It is now widely accepted that the fire was the result of an accident rather than an act of arson.
The source of the blaze was almost certainly Thomas Farriner’s bakery on, or just off, Pudding Lane, and it seems likely that a spark from Farriner’s oven may have fallen onto a pile of fuel after he and his family had retired for the night (though Farriner was adamant that the oven had been properly raked out that evening).
In the early hours of the morning, Farriner’s family became aware of the budding fire and managed to escape the building via a top floor window. With the blaze showing no signs of abating, parish constables decided that the adjoining buildings should be demolished in order to prevent the spread of fire, a firefighting tactic known as “firebreaking” that was common practice at the time.
“A woman could piss it out”
This proposal was not popular with the neighbours, however, who summoned the one man who had the power to override this firebreaking plan: Sir Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor. Despite the fire’s rapid escalation, Bloodworth did just that, reasoning that the properties were rented and that demolition couldn’t be carried out in the absence of the owners.
Bloodworth is also widely quoted as remarking “Pish! A woman could piss it out”, before departing the scene. It is hard not to conclude that Bloodworth’s decision was at least partly responsible for the fire’s escalation.
Why did the Great Fire of London spread so quickly?
Other factors undoubtedly conspired to fan the flames. For a start, London was still a relatively makeshift medieval city comprised of tightly packed wooden buildings through which fires could spread rapidly.
In fact, the city had already experienced several substantial fires – most recently in 1632 – and measures had long been in place to prohibit further building with wood and thatched roofs. But although London’s exposure to fire risk was hardly news to the authorities, until the Great Fire, the implementation of preventative measures had been perfunctory and many fire hazards still existed.
The summer of 1666 had been hot and dry: the timber houses and thatched straw rooves of the area effectively acted as a tinderbox once the fire had started, helping it rip through the nearby streets. The tightly packed buildings with overhangs meant that the flames could jump from one street to the next with ease too.
The fire raged for four days, and it remains the only fire in London’s history to have been given the epithet ‘the Great’.