Europe’s Bonfire: The Story of the Great Fire of London
In the early hours of September second, 1666, a fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery, Pudding Lane. From humble beginnings it quickly grew in scale, until the flames embodied a firestorm and a routine combustion became the largest conflagration London had ever known. For five days, the Great Fire raged in the English capital. In its wake, a dense web of medieval streets was replaced with a field of smouldering ashes, and nearly a hundred thousand people were left homeless.
Farriner’s bakery, near old London Bridge, became ground zero for a disaster desolating three hundred and seventy-three acres, or 80 per cent, of the intramural City. A further 63 acres north and west of the walls were burned too. The effects were local, national, and European in scope. The metropolis, with a population of around 400,000 in 1666, was England’s first city; nearly 15 times the size of its nearest rivals, Norwich and Bristol. On the continent, only Paris and Naples constituted serious demographic rivals. It was also the heart of English trade, manufacturing, culture and politics. Disaster struck in this context, the effects transcending immediate despair.
A number of factors allowed the Fire to build. London was at this time a flammable city, and its crumbling, insalubrious buildings were unrepresentative of the commercial powerhouse it was becoming. Wattle-and-daub constructions (called ‘paperwork’), unkempt and ramshackle, defined the old City. Combined with the drying heat of a hot summer, the pious lethargy of a Sunday, and an insufficient local response, such conditions laid the groundwork for the ensuing bonfire.
At this time, the predominant means of fighting fires was to create firebreaks. Pulling down houses (usually with long poles called ‘fire hooks’) to halt their spread was considered the best means of containment. Small water pumps (which had the appearance of a large syringe) and buckets, often kept in churches, would be used to quell remaining flames. The Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, when roused to deal with the Fire, failed to appreciate that the situation demanded more than these traditional methods. ‘Pish, a woman might piss it out’, he is reported to have said. Instead of pulling down the homes of rich merchants and incurring their subsequent wrath, he downplayed the emerging disaster and returned to bed.
Bludworth would be proven catastrophically wrong. Far from dying down, the Fire grew. A long bow of flames pressed north and west through the City, fanned by the wind and illuminating the night sky. In the area of its origin, the citizenry were possessed by fear, and sought sense of the unfolding calamity. As they rushed to flee, a widespread conviction possessed them: that the flames had not come by accident.
Animated by thoughts of blame, Londoners settled on the foreigners of the metropolis as scapegoats. Acts of irrational cruelty ensued. A man was almost dismembered in Moorfields, the tennis balls he was carrying mistaken for fireballs. Elsewhere, a Frenchman was struck dead by a blacksmith with an iron bar, his blood flowing in a plentiful stream to his ankles. A woman, suspected of incendiary action, had her breasts cut off. A member of a Swedish diplomatic delegation, rushing to find his mistress, was nearly lynched on a street corner.
The outward focus of blame was sharpened by the contemporary wartime context. England had been at war with the Dutch since the previous year, and France since March. For the mob, these were obvious culprits. Soon, a notion prevailed that they had not only incited the Fire but were bearing down on London with an invading force. The traditional enemy of English Protestantism, Roman Catholics, were simultaneously suspected, supercharging international hostilities by plugging them into a Counter-Reformational confessional context.
Eventually, the fanning winds faltered, and efforts to contain the flames prevailed. The latter had been managed by the king, Charles II. In the aftermath, he assured the displaced citizens of the capital that the Fire was an accident, and no product of foreign design. Despite this, popular responses continued to embrace calumny. In October, the courts trialled and sentenced one Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker from Rouen, apprehended in the general exodus of foreigners after the Fire. Hubert, likely deranged, was the only person convicted for involvement, largely on the basis of his unfounded if generously provided testimony.
But popular currents of blame were not the only response. For the social and intellectual elite of the period, gathered in their coffeehouses and exclusive societies, the Fire was an unrivalled opportunity. Rather than a tragedy, it was considered a purgative. Although the flames devastated, they made way for necessary reforms too. A rebuilt London would thus be an improved one, with grand buildings and thoroughfares befitting its emergent imperial status, and a cityscape to rival those on the continent.
The new built environment would be safer and healthier too, targeting the insanitary conditions harbouring sickness and death. Indeed, London had been struck by the Great Plague just the previous year. This killed around 100,000 people and, excepting irregular and isolated cases, marked an end to the disease in England – a condition which many contemporaries attributed to the Fire.
The diarist John Evelyn, recording his impressions, wrote that London, in its demise, resembled the burning of Troy. With ‘above ten thousand houses’ burning, the ‘crakling and thunder of impetuous flames’ brought to mind a rapturous and ‘hideous’ storm, and the pandemonium of citizens embraced an almost apocalyptic fervour. ‘London was, but is no more’, he recorded, and not without reason. The signs of the old City suffered erasure: 6 consecrated chapels and 87 parish churches were burned, 3 City gates wrecked, and 52 livery halls destroyed. Many of its great monuments were felled: the Guildhall, old St Paul’s cathedral, Baynard’s Castle, Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange. More than sheer destruction, in their wake they left ontological loss. The Fire scarred the physical and mental landscapes of London, rupturing the City’s narrative and necessitating rebirth.
Emerging from the ashes, a post-Fire London rebuilt itself anew. On the eve of England’s imperial expansion, disaster cleared the way for an appropriate capital, replacing the old town with a city of brick and stone. The image of the phoenix, recurring throughout the mythology of the Fire, was thus appropriate. John Dryden, in his panegyric to London, gave lyric voice to this. With London assuming its mantle as the cockpit of an international commercial empire, its reconstructed urban fabric stood testament to its fortunes:
More great then humane, now, and more August, New deifi’d she from her fire does rise: Her widening streets on new foundations trust, And, opening, into larger parts she flies.
Jake Bransgrove is a recent Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland. He now studies Architectural History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. His Masters Thesis focused on the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.