The Great Fire of London swept through the city in September 1666, devastating many buildings including 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, The Royal Exchange and Guildhall. St. Paul’s Cathedral, built during the middle ages, was totally destroyed.
The death toll was six people, yet a great many others died through indirect causes.
London, at the time, was not aware of the dangers of fire, with buildings made of timber covered in pitch, and tightly packed together. The upper floors often projected out above the lower floors. This meant that the upper floors would reach the neighbours’ houses, and flames could easily spread from building to building. There were also many warehouses which mainly stored combustible goods, such as oil and tarrow.
A long, dry summer had brought drought to the city. Water was scarce and the wooden houses had dried out making them easy to burn.
The Great Fire of London started on 2 September 1666. It started in the baker, Thomas Faynor’s shop. Although he claimed he had put the fire out, three hours later, at 1am, his house was an inferno.
Faynor’s bakery was situated in Pudding Lane. The fire spread quickly down Pudding Lane, and carried on down Fish Hill and towards the Thames. When it reached the Thames it hit the warehouses and London Bridge.
The fire continued to spread rapidly, helped by a strong wind from the East.
In 1666 there was no organised fire brigade. Firefighting at the time was very basic and there was little skill or knowledge involved. They used leather buckets, axes and water squirts which had little effect on the fire.
Samuel Pepys was a diarist of this period and Clerk to the Royal Navy. On observing the fire he recommended to the King that they needed to pull down the buildings, as it may have been the only way to stop the fire. The Mayor was ordered to pull down the houses using fire hooks but the fire continued to spread.
Samuel Pepys spoke to the Admiral of the Navy and agreed that they should blow up houses in the path of the fire. By doing they would create a space to stop the fire spreading from house to house. The Navy were used to using gunpowder and so they carried this out. By the next morning, this had successfully stopped the fire.
As a result of the fire, London had to be almost totally reconstructed. Initially this meant temporary buildings, which were makeshift, ill equipped and disease easily spread. Many people died from this and the harsh winter that followed.
The cost of the fire was £10m, and at a time when London’s annual income was only £12,000. Many people were financially ruined and debtors' prisons became over crowded.
There were some benefits of the fire. One of these was that the black plague which had killed many people was eliminated by the burning down of diseased, rat-infested properties.
The new city was planned by Christopher Wren and rebuilt using stone over the following 30 years.