It is no exaggeration to describe the fire which started in London on September 2nd 1666 as 'Great'. The city had suffered large blazes before and after, including those started by the aerial might of the Nazi war machine, but none came close to the four days and nights of constant fire which raged through over four hundred acres of densely packed housing, stores and workplaces. While few died, anywhere up to 200,000 people suddenly found themselves homeless and often destitute, while religious fears and paranoia tinged the whole catastrophe with an air of anti-Catholic hatred. England's great capital city was put on the verge of ruin by a conflagration that literally burnt itself into popular memory.
The Waiting Disaster
In 1666 London's medieval streets were narrow and the buildings close, most constructed from timber, wattle and daub, plaster and pitch and filled with the equally flammable essentials of everyday life: straw, tallow and firewood. In and around these materials were the candles and hearths of every home and business, each one a potentially dangerous spark. Londoners didn’t need hindsight to see the Great Fire of London as inevitable: people were worried, not just about a major fire, but about something so large it wiped London out entirely. Daniel Baker predicted such in 1559 and the fears were still strong in the 1660s, when the king himself asked London's mayor to reform the building regulations and tackle the threat of fire.
The Fire Starts
In the early hours of September 2nd 1666 a fire began at a bakehouse in Pudding Lane. We don't know exactly where this building was in the Lane; it is supposedly 62 meters from the base of the fire Monument - but evidence from contemporary accounts (both eyewitness reports and later parliamentary findings) leaves us in no doubt that the fire began there. The bakehouse was owned by Thomas Farriner (also spelt Farynor), a baker to the king, and historians are confident that he, or one of his staff, failed to douse their ovens properly that September night, leading to an ember blowing out and igniting nearby straw. On this, contemporary opinion was not so clear cut (see below).
The Fire Spreads
Farriner, his family and staff were awoken around 1am by the smell of smoke; all fled apart from a maid who was too scared to either clamber over the rooftops with them or jump. She stayed and died, the first human casualty of the Great fire. Sparks from the bakehouse showered surrounding buildings, igniting stable materials out in a yard at the Star Inn in Fish Street. Soon after the Church of St. Margaret caught alight and fire spread to the buildings in Thames Street, riverside warehouses packed with products like timber, coal, oils, tar, spirits and other combustibles. Here the fire caught such hold, gained such strength, that the attempts of ad hoc civilian groups to douse the flames with Thames water failed against overwhelming heat. By 4.00 am Parish Constables had awoken the Mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, and brought him to the scene. His comments about the fire can't be repeated here, but he was openly derisive; he was also too scared to order the demolition of nearby buildings to create firebreaks and he soon returned to bed.
Strong winds both fed the fire and carried the sparks further and further. By 7:00 an estimated three hundred buildings were ablaze. Shortly after, London experienced its one stroke of luck. Most of London’s bridges bore buildings down either side and the fire was easily working its way along London Bridge, from where it could ignite the South of London. Fortunately, a fire thirty-three years previously had left a gap between buildings, a gap which the fire wasn’t yet strong enough to cross. The fire thus stopped halfway across the Thames, burning itself out before it could go further and saving the South. The same did not happen to the north, east and west.
Why The Fire Spread So Quickly
The fire spread in two ways: by igniting what was next to it and constantly spreading outward, or 'jumping' outward thanks to the strong wind, which carried burning embers across gaps. In contrast, London's population had two ways to combat the flames: use water – whether from buckets and pumps – to douse the flames – or create firebreaks by quickly pulling down a line of buildings and clearing the timber, thus effectively starving the fire of material.
The fire was too strong and the technology too basic to move the quantity of water needed, so the population initially had to try making firebreaks using ropes, hooks, any working animals they could keep calm and their own strength. Unfortunately, the firebreaks proved inadequate. The winds were now strong enough to carry embers across huge gaps - a contemporary figure claims across the space of twenty houses – and for the first couple of days people simply couldn’t create firebreaks fast enough and far enough to stop the flames advancing.
People Add To The Woes
People also caused a problem, often refusing permission to their houses to be destroyed. Mayor Bludworth initially refused to order firebreaks for fear of who would pay compensation. Even when King Charles II ordered the population to make breaks, others refused; people wanted the houses in front of their used as a break and their saves. The diary of Samuel Pepys – the man who initially informed Charles II of the situation – records the Mayor saying later in the day: "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." A third method was proposed during the evening of September third, supposedly by the navy, but it was swiftly rejected by homeowners; it involved using gunpowder to quickly create large empty spaces.