The Great Fire of London of 1666 started in the early hours of 2nd September and raged for 3 days before it finally burnt itself out. It left a scene of total devastation in its wake. Over 51 Churches, 13,000 houses and many public buildings, some 80% of the city, perished in the inferno. Even though over 70,000 of the 80,000 City’s inhabitants were affected, there were relatively few official fatalities. Only 6 deaths were reported but this could be because deaths of poorer people may not have been recorded.
Summer in London that year had been particularly warm and on that fateful day early in September there was a hot easterly wind blowing. This was rare as winds in London are usually south westerly. Once the fire started, the wind quickly fanned the flames and the fire tore through surrounding buildings, spreading west towards the densely populated city.
People abandoned their homes and buildings and fled with as much of their possessions as they could muster loaded on to carts. Many refugees headed north for the hills of Highgate or to Moorfields where makeshift shanty towns would have sprouted up.
The river would have been crowded with boats full of people escaping the fire, down river towards Westminster or south to Southwark and Lambeth.
There was no Fire Brigade as such to tackle the fire. The only way to attempt to dowse the flames was with buckets of water. This was taken from water conduits that ran through the city but with so many people trying to get access to the pipes, water pressure dropped markedly, making it difficult to get a fast water supply. The other way to get water was from the Thames but with so many of the wharfs and warehouses along the riverfront affected by the fire, access to the river was difficult.
The closely-packed nature of the city added greatly to the intensity of the inferno. Many buildings were timber framed and had galleries that leant towards the building opposite, which enabled flames to jump from one side of narrow streets very easily to the other.
Even stone buildings like the massive gothic St Paul’s Cathedral could not escape the deadly attention of the blaze. It had been covered with tarpaulin because of maintenance work to the roof and when the tarpaulin caught fire, it gutted the roof, causing it to collapse in on the Church.
A concerted attempt to build fire breaks by dynamiting buildings in the fire’s path was eventually adopted, and the King, who had been widely criticised for fleeing London the year during the plague, joined in with the effort.
After 4 days, the hot easterly wind suddenly dropped, and the fire which had caused so much damage, finally petered out
The City of London was now virtually a ghost town, just piles of ashes indicating where had once stood its public buildings, churches and homes. London now had an opportunity to change from a medieval city to a more modern city. But what kind of a city was to emerge?
Monument to the Great Fire of London
Thomas Farriner has come to be blamed for the Great Fire of London in 1666. He owned a baker shop on Pudding Lane and was known as the ‘King’s Baker’ as he supplied Royal Navy Ships with biscuits during the Anglo-Dutch War in the mid 1600’s.
Farriner had joined the Bakers Company in 1637 and had his own business and shop in Pudding Lane by 1649. He lived there with his three children and a maid, his wife having died two years previous.
At 10pm on the night on September 1st, Farriner finished his working day as usual, and raked through the coals in the oven of his bakehouse to subdue the fire. Checking there were fresh bundles of dry timber for the fire the next day, Thomas, the maid and the children went upstairs to bed. At about midnight his daughter Hanna went downstairs to the bakehouse, to get a light for a candle from the oven.
They later claimed there hadn’t been enough fire left in the oven to light the candle, and Hanna had to find a light from somewhere else. But had she left the oven door open? Did a hot cinder from the dying fire jump out the oven and land on some of the dry timber stored nearby?
Between 1am and 2am, the family were woken by thick smoke bellowing into their upper floor bedroom. Flames had already taken hold on the stairs, blocking their escape. The only way out was to crawl through a small window in the bedroom and clamber over the roof to safety. Their maid was too frightened to climb out the window and stayed behind. She was one of the several fatalities of the fire.
After the fire, Farriner returned to Pudding Lane and rebuilt his business. He was able to avoid blame, as there was a widespread and popular theory at the time, that the fire had been started by disgruntled Catholics. A French Watchmaker in the city called Robert Hubert, was made scapegoat and was executed. Farriner and his children even signed the bill accusing him of the crime.
Thomas Farriner died 4 years later in 1670 and was buried in St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street.
Fire of London: commons-wikimedia.org, Monument to Fire of London: Shutterstock, Pudding Lane plaque: commons-wikimedia.org