London Fire Brigade

The Great Fire of London

London in 1666

In the 17th Century, people were not as aware of the dangers of fire as they are today. Buildings were made of timber covered in pitch and tightly packed together.

The design of buildings meant flames could easily spread from building to building. Following a long, dry summer the city was suffering a drought; water was scarce and the wooden houses had dried out, making them easier to burn.

Londoners had originally not been alarmed by the blaze due to fires being a common occurrence at the time.

Schools: find out more about our Key Stage 1 Great Fire of London workshops or take our interactive quiz.

How did the Great Fire of London start?

The Great Fire of London started on Sunday, 2 September 1666 in a baker's shop belonging to Thomas Farynor.

Although he claimed to have extinguished the fire, three hours later, at 1am, his house was a blazing inferno.

Farynor’s bakery was situated in Pudding Lane. The fire spread quickly down Pudding Lane and carried on down Fish Hill and towards the Thames.

The fire continued to spread rapidly, helped by a strong wind from the east; when it reached the Thames it hit warehouses that were stocked with combustible products such as oil and tarrow. Fortunately the fire couldn't spread south of the river because a previous blaze in 1633 had already destroyed a section of London Bridge.

What happened?

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, Guildhall and St. Paul’s Cathedral, built during the Middle Ages, was totally destroyed.

Although the verified death toll was only six people it is unknown how many people died in the great fire of London because many more died through indirect causes.

In 1666 there was no organised fire brigade. Firefighting was very basic with little skill or knowledge involved. Leather buckets, axes and water squirts were used to fight the fire but had little effect.

Samuel Pepys, a diarist of the period and Clerk to the Royal Navy, observed the fire and recommended to the King that buildings were pull-down, as it may be the only way to stop the fire.

The Mayor was ordered to pull-down burning houses using fire hooks but the fire continued to spread.

People forced to evacuate their homes chose to bury or hide what valuables they couldn't carry. Pepys buried his expensive cheese and wine.

How did they put out the Great Fire of London?

Pepys spoke to the Admiral of the Navy and agreed they should blow up houses in the path of the fire. The hope was that by doing this they would create a space to stop the fire spreading from house to house.

The Navy, which had been using gunpowder at the time, carried out the request; by the next morning - Wednesday, 5 September 1666 - the fire has been successfully stopped.

Pepys recorded in his diary that even the King, Charles II, was seen helping to put out the fire.

What happened next?

London had to be almost totally reconstructed. Initially this meant temporary buildings were erected that were ill-equipped and enabled disease to spread easily. Many people died from this and the harsh winter that followed the fire.

The cost of the fire was estimated to be £10 million - at a time when London’s annual income was only £12,000; many people were financially ruined and debtors' prisons became over-crowded.

As a result, early fire brigades were formed by insurance companies as a way of recouping the costs of extinguishing fires.

Sir Christopher Wren planned the new city and the rebuilding of London took over 30 years. The site where the fire first started is now marked by a 202-foot monument, which was built between 1671 and 1677.