On the 2 September 1666 a small fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane. As the fire spread, and action was required, the Lord Mayor of London is famously quoted as saying “Pish! A woman could piss it out”. This was of course a lack of judgement perhaps not matched until 1 January 1962 when executives from Decca Records rejected The Beatles, saying that “guitar groups are on the way out”! As the fire grew it destroyed 13000 houses, 87 church’s, 52 Livery Halls, St Paul’s Cathedral, London’s Guildhall, the Royal Exchange and most other buildings of note within the 436 acre site of what became known thereafter as ‘The Great Fire of London’.
However 1666 was not the only time that the devastation of fire visited the inhabitants of London, and indeed was not even the first blaze to be entitled the ‘Great Fire of London’!
Emperor Hadrian visited London (or rather Londinium as the Roman city was then called) in the year 122 to see an important commercial outpost of his vast Empire. However sometime over the next 10 years a huge fire or possibly a number of fires caused untold damage to the city, between Newgate Street and what is today the site of the Tower of London. Few buildings managed to survive, with only some of the more important stone structures, such as the Roman fort at cripplegate, being robust enough to survive the flames. Through archaeological evidence it is estimated that most buildings within the 100-acre area were so severely damaged that much of the area was unoccupied for almost a century following the first Great Fire of London!
Fires were a regular occurrence in the pre Norman London. During the seventh century, the first St Paul’s Cathedral, which was a wooden construction, was burnt to the ground. Houses and whole streets were often raised to the ground and the lives of the city’s inhabitants, largely housed within thatched cottages, were blighted by the threat from candles and fires.
When the Norman’s arrived in 1066 they attempted to reduce the threat of fire by introducing a “couvre feu” or curfew forbidding fires and lights to be used after 8PM. The results of Norman leadership are questionable, in the year 1077 London was gripped by huge fire and in the year 1087 poor old St Paul’s Cathedral was once again raised to the ground along with most of the city!
In 1135 a massive blaze struck London. Starting near Cannon Street the day after the Christmas festival the blaze rapidly spread eastwards and eventually burnt down the then wooden London Bridge and once more St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed! The fire was so significant that for almost a century the blaze was referred to as the ‘Great fire of London’.
That was until the year 1212 when another Great Fire of London wrought its destruction on the weary inhabitants of London. The fire broke out on the 12 July in Southwark and with stunning rapidity laid waste to all in its path, including much of Borough High Street and the church of St Mary Overie, which was on the site of the current day Southwark Cathedral. It is not sure how many people died (records from the era are notoriously unreliable), but is almost defiantly more than any of the other Great Fires (including that of 1666, which was surprisingly only about half a dozen). Many Londoners lost their lives after fleeing onto London Bridge, when the winds changed and the blaze took root on the northern end of the bridge their fates were tragically sealed. Further Major fires of London are noted in 11th century London in the years 1220, 1227 and 1299, but none that had the impact of the Great fire of 1212.
In the era of Henry the VIII as tobacco smoking became a popular past time of the upper classes fires were regularly started by people smoking in bed. It is a sad truth that to this day smoking in bed is major cause of fire and proof that in history lay lessons for us all!
33 years before the most famous ‘Great Fire of London’, in 1633 a major fire broke out and burnt down a third of all the properties, which then existed on London Bridge. A number of people were killed and the embers smouldered for over a week. The buildings on London Bridge where never rebuilt and it was due to this lack of reconstruction that the Great Fire of 1666 was unable to spread to the south side of the river.
After the fire of 1666 precautions were taken, fire engines were built and men were trained in the skills of fire fighting. However fire is a determined enemy and fire often revisited the city.
In 1698 Whitehall Palace a 23 acre pride and joy of the nation was burnt to the ground along with 150 nearby houses. In 1707, 100 houses were destroyed in Shadwell killing10 people. In 1715, 50 people died in a blaze in Wapping. In 1834 the 12th century Houses of Parliament were almost entirely destroyed by fire. The Royal Exchange again burnt down in 1838 and the Tower of London followed just 3 years later in 1841 destroying thousands of historic relics. The list goes on.
Today fire still presents a threat to life and property in the metropolitan area of London, and with professional public fire fighters and state of the art fire fighting equipment we can still struggle to hold back the flames, which have haunted the city for centuries. Indeed the history of London fires is an ever updating story and certainly not the exclusive property of historians. In 1987 the King’s Cross Fire killed 31 people and lead to major changes to safety regulations on public transport. In recent years we have seen the massive 2005 blaze at the Hemel Hempstead oil depot and in 2007 the 19th Century Cutty Sark, docked at Greenwich, was gutted in a sudden fire. In 2008 a significant section of the world famous Camden Market was burnt to the ground and at the time of writing is still being rebuilt.
So the next time somebody mentions the Great Fire of London, be sure to ask which one!
About the Author:
Simon Collins is a local London historian and a Tour Guide. Simon offers world class London Tours throughout the year!
Tags: Fires, Great Fire, History, London —