A large portion of the city of London burnt to the ground in a fire which began in the early morning hours of today’s date, September 2, in 1666. And it all began when on of the King’s own bakers didn’t turn off his oven before going to bed. In spite of the flame’s widespread progress throughout the city, only about 16 people were killed. But a huge amount of damage had been done with 430 acres being swallowed up, 13,200 homes nearly 87 parish churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City’ government. 70,000 of the city of London’s citizens were left without homes, all of their possessions lost, and themselves financially ruined. Estimates are that some 80% of the city was destroyed. The fire threatened but did not actually reach the Palace of Whitehall, the residence of King Charles II.
The Baker Sets the Blaze Going
At this point in time, London was an extremely flammable city. Most of its dwellings were made of wood with many of the poorer homes covered with tar. This worked well in keeping the rain out, but was really perfect for catching fire. Plus they were built very close together, with very narrow streets separating them. Put this with a long dry summer and a good wind, and you had the makings of a perfect storm. So it happened that late on the evening of September 1, the king’s baker, one Thomas Farrinor (of Farynor according to one source), located on Pudding Lane failed to properly douse the oven he was using, and sparks from it ignited firewood that was lying nearby. At about 1:00 a.m. the whole bakery had caught fire. The good baker was able to escape with his family, but the fire rapidly spread adjacent buildings, and the Great Fire of 1666 was on.
Samuel Pepys (below), a member of Parliament, and a naval official to the King recorded much of his experiences in the fire in his diary:
“Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . “
The Fire Spreads…
Well in spite of Mr. Pepys originally blase’ reaction to the flames, they continued to spread and eat up more and more real estate. The fire department didn’t exist back then, so the old fashioned bucket brigade was the only way of fighting this fire. But the strong winds that settled on London that morning saw to it that flames and sparks flew everywhere. The fire spread into Thames Street which was crowded with riverfront warehouses which were packed with oil, tallow, and tons of other highly combustible items. And of course this all went up immediately before spreading the fire even further.
The usual solution at this point was to blow up everything in the fire’s path to create firebreaks, But this was only of limited use, since the explosions would be set off, but before the debris could be cleared away, the strong winds would blow right into the break and light it anew.
And the People of London Flee the Flames..
Pepys remarked on the people carrying away their belongings, and the dismay of one govern- mental representative to the peoples indifference to his authority:
“[I hurried] to [St.] Paul’s; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] 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 distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire. The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.”
Thousands of ordinary citizens of London resorted to dragging their possessions with them as described above, many of those either travelling near the Thames River, and in some cases on the river with whatever craft they could find (above). These benighted souls ran to the hills in the surrounding areas of London. By September 5, the fire had finally burnt itself out. They seemed to return briefly in the legal district, but these buildings were successfully blown with gunpowder, and that at last brought the fire to an end. In the 1670s, a memorial column the Great Fire of London was built near the starting point of the blaze. Even though an official investigation of the fire declared that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” was the cause of the inferno, an inscription darkly hinted that it had been the work of “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.” In 1986 the bakers of London finally admitted the culpability of one of their ancestors, Thomas Farrinor and presented a plaque attesting to that fact on Pudding Lane,
“Eyewitness to History” Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987