- Date: September 2-6, 1666
- Location: London, England
- Important figures: Thomas Farynor, King Charles II, Mayor Thomas Bloodworth, Samuel Pepys
- Casualties: Between 4-16, possibly higher
- Buildings destroyed: 13,000 homes, 85 churches, and 50 company halls
- Land burned: 373 acres
A Dangerous Setting
September 2, 1666—one of the most infamous days in the history of London, England. The long, dry summer was nearing its end, and the city was left parched from the excessive heat. At the time, London was known for narrow streets and tight-packed rows of houses made mostly of wood and tar pitch. Town officials had already issued fire hazard warnings, but the people did little to prepare. The combination of dry wood, flammable tar, and close quarters would prove deadly.
London had already suffered a recent tragedy. According to an article on the Great Fire by Bruce Robinson, England had lost 68,000 of its people to the plague in two years. With these losses hanging over the city, London faced a diminished and exhausted population. The summer of 1666 had already been a lengthy one—and would become even longer.
The Fire Begins
On September 1, 1666, Thomas Farynor (sometimes spelled Farrinor), the King’s royal baker, put out the coals in his bakery oven on Pudding Street and went to bed. Then, in the early hours of Sunday morning, disaster struck. Embers from the stove sparked a small fire in the bakery, which soon spread to the rest of the building, and then to Farynor’s home. Once he realized what was happening, Farynor took his family and fled, as did all but one of the bakery workers—who soon became the first casualty.
At first, the fire was small and nonthreatening. In the early morning, not many people were worried. Firefighting methods of the time included bucket brigades, which were slow and required many people to be successful. Another technique involved tearing down houses in an attempt to stop the fire from spreading to fresh material. Neighbors and other residents tried bucket brigades first, but this soon proved useless. As the fire grew, the citizens abandoned their attempts and instead ran to collect their families and evacuate the area.
One reason the fire advanced so quickly was the tremendous wind that grew during the night. Combined with flammable houses and squashed quarters, the flames soon became an inferno. Within hours, an entire sector of London had been consumed. Citizens fled. Some ran to awaken the mayor, Thomas Bloodworth.
Mayor Thomas Bloodworth has become famous as the man who did nothing, or very little. Multiple records show he did not help prevent the fire at first, despite his responsibility as mayor. When people asked for help in the fire’s early stages, Bloodworth stated that the blaze was no threat and could easily be put out. By the time he realized his mistake, it was too late.
Most notably among these eyewitness accounts is the diary of Samuel Pepys, a businessman and civil servant in London who kept a detailed journal from 1660 to 1670. His entries on the Great Fire of London are remarkable and present a thorough description of the disaster. The day of the fire, one of Pepys’ maids woke him at three o’ clock in the morning to alert him. Pepys went to the window, determined it was nothing worry about, and then went back to bed.
Later that same day, Pepys would go to the Tower to alert the officials. Afterwards, he and some acquaintances roamed the streets to examine the city. His diary entry from September 2, 1666 describes his interactions with Mayor Thomas Bloodworth,
“At last met my Lord Mayor in Canningstreet, like a man spent, with a handkercher about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, “Lord! what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses; but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.” … So he left me, and I him, and walked home, seeing people all almost distracted.”
The people needed the mayor’s authorization to start pulling down buildings, and he did not give it to them until the fire had already progressed to an unstoppable rate. The entire city of London was now in considerable danger.
The Fight Continues
The people of London spent the next two days battling the great fire. Officials and townspeople alike did all they could to defeat the flames. Meanwhile, thousands of others evacuated the city with as many belongings as they could carry or fit into carts. Together, they left the heart of London and headed toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. They jammed the streets and slowed progression.
The following day, Tuesday September 4, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary “Now begins the practice of blowing up of houses in Tower-streete, … [which] stopped the fire where it was done… and then it was easy to quench what little fire was in it…” This technique of “blowing up houses” carried the same logic as tearing them down. If there was nothing for the fire to burn, it would slowly die. The people of London continued using gunpowder to explode houses into the following day.
On Wednesday morning, the blustering winds which had fanned the great flames finally dwindled. The fire changed direction and went toward the Thames River. With the houses on all other sides demolished and the river in front of it, the fire was at last contained. The people of London fought viciously and at last, after four days of tireless effort, they put the great fire out.
The aftermath was devastating. Numbers vary according to sources, but The Great Fire, as it would come to be called, destroyed roughly 13,000 homes, 85 churches, and 50 company halls. Among these was St. Paul’s Cathedral and a third of the London Bridge. Overall, the Great Fire burned most of the entire city from the east side to the west, and spared little.
Records also vary regarding the death toll, but it was surprisingly low for such a disaster. Only between four and sixteen people are officially recorded to have perished in the flames. About 100,000 people were left homeless, however, making up the majority of London’s population at the time. It was a blow that would take decades to overcome.
Reconstruction and Trials
King Charles II started plans for rebuilding within a week of the fire. The architect Sir Christopher Wren oversaw the rebuilding of St. Paul’s cathedral—a fourteen-year process—as well as a large portions of other churches across London. He and another architect, John Evelyn, drew up plans including a new layout for London with wider streets and houses made from stone instead of wood. Unfortunately, these designs proved to be too expensive, and the new London remained much the same as the old one.
Not long after the fire, Samuel Pepys encountered another friend who “hopes we shall have no publique distractions upon this fire, which is what every body fears, because of the talke of the French having a hand in it.” During the time spent fighting the fire, the English fell into panic. They formed mobs and blamed it on the French and any other foreigners who happened to be in the city. Other eyewitnesses describe brutal mobs terrorizing anyone who did not speak English fluently enough. Accusations flew. They needed someone to blame.
Over the following months, Parliament held investigations to find the cause of the fire. In January 1667, they officially declared “nothing hath yet been found to argue it to have been other than the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry.” In other words, it was a natural disaster. However, the people of London sought to hold someone accountable. During the 1670s and 1680s, various officials blamed the fire on the Papists, a Catholic movement. As a result, the Great Fire memorial bore a plaque reading “the City of London was burnt in the year 1666 by the Papists… to introduce arbitrary power and Popery into this Kingdom.” It remained there until 1831.
In the end, after centuries of blame-shifting, false accusations, and fruitless investigations, the bakers of London gathered in 1986 to formally apologize to the city and its mayor. They presented the city with a plague which officially stated that Thomas Farynor was solely responsible for the Great Fire of London in 1666. After over three hundred years, it was a fitting end to the misled debate—the fire began with a baker, and so it also ended.
The official Monument to the Great Fire of London can be found on the corner of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in London, England.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Great Fire of London" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/great-fire-london/, April 21, 2017