What Was the Great Fire of London?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Great Fire of London was a fire which devastated the British city of London in 1666. 13,000 houses alone were destroyed, along with almost 100 churches, and the fire created a stream of refugees who contributed significantly to social unrest in and around London in the months following the fire. The Great Fire of London is widely regarded as a very important point in the city's history, and in British history in general, since it had such a profound impact on 17th century British society.

The Great Fire of London destroyed 13,000 houses.
The Great Fire of London destroyed 13,000 houses.

At the time of the fire, London was still essentially a medieval city, but it had expanded radically. It was a city of extremely narrow streets, riddled with dead-ends and restricted access, and most of the homes were wood or wattle and daub. London had been in the grip of a drought, so the city was tinder dry, and a strong wind from the East set the stage for potentially devastating fire conditions.

The Great Fire caused a mass evacuation of residents across the Thames.
The Great Fire caused a mass evacuation of residents across the Thames.

On 2 September, a fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The fire was reported, and citizens arrived to start putting it out, and they were unable to control it. Demolition of the neighboring buildings was recommended to stop the fire in its tracks, but the Lord Mayor of London was afraid to give the order, so the fire pushed on, consuming much of the city within the historic Roman Wall, and occasionally jumping across to other neighborhoods. It took three days to put the fire out.

Firefighting was not nearly as advanced in the 17th century as it is now, but some historians have suggested that if the order to demolish had been given sooner, a firebreak could have been created. As it was, the fire was allowed to flow essentially unchecked through the city, spurring a mass evacuation across the Thames and creating thousands of refugees, many of whom were extremely angry about the loss of their homes.

Contemporary accounts of the Great Fire of London are actually quite detailed, thanks to diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, who both wrote extensively about the fire as they saw it. Remarkably few deaths were recorded, which some people have suggested may be due the fact that the deaths of impoverished Londoners probably went unremarked and therefore unrecorded. The fire certainly changed the London landscape forever, and the Great Fire of London is commemorated in numerous London museums.

In the wake of the Great Fire of London, the architect Sir Christopher Wren managed to snag the commission for rebuilding St. Paul's Cathedral, a noted London landmark, and he built an additional 50 churches in the demolished region. Wren was also tasked with constructing the memorial for the fire, a major landmark in modern London.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Fa5t3r

@umbra21 - It's possible that there weren't that many deaths, simply because there would have been no way to ignore the fire. The whole city would have known about it almost as soon as it started. It's not like today when some people might have been caught by surprise in their apartment buildings.

It's not like firefighters would have been throwing themselves into it either, since they didn't have the same equipment back then. I imagine that aside from maybe the first few hours and maybe a few accidents there wouldn't need to be that many deaths. It was still a horrendous loss of livelihoods and probably a great many books and other historical objects went up in smoke as well.

umbra21

@clintflint - It's nice that they have so many memorials and discussion about it, but I think it's pretty awful that they don't know how many people died in the Great Fire of London.

I went to one of the London Experience shows and they had a kind of interactive thing about the fire and how scary it must have been for the people there. I mean, fire is bad enough these days, but back then every single building was basically made of wood and straw. There were probably hundreds of deaths, they just didn't care because they weren't rich people.

clintflint

You can climb to the top of the memorial for the Great Fire in London. I did it when I was there. I think you have to pay, but I got in on a city pass that included a lot of different attractions.

It is a very steep climb and they actually give you a nice certificate once you get back down.

The view from up there was amazing. I was actually pretty annoyed that my camera was almost out of power and I only managed to get a couple of shots. I know there are probably hundreds of other photographs out there of the same view, though.

I'd definitely recommend it. Unless you have a heart condition, in which case you might not want to take those stairs.

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