The Great Fire of London destroyed four-fifths of the buildings in the city.
The immediate cause of the fire was the failure of a well-known baker, to properly put out the oven before going to sleep. This led to an uncontrolled fire. However, the most important cause was the flammable material which made up most of London at the time and the proximity of the buildings.
Though the fire was horrifically widespread, by some miracle only 16 people lost their lives in this man-made disaster.
The Immediate Cause
The official inquiry into the fire determined that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” were behind the fire. However, it had some fairly trivial immediate causes.
The fire started on the night of September 1, 1666. Thomas Farriner, a baker who provided bread for the Royal Navy, did not properly extinguish the oven in his bakery on Pudding Lane. At around 1 or 2 AM, the Farriner family woke up gasping for breath.
The door was blocked, so Thomas and his two children had to escape through the window. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of firewood stored in the house and it soon went up in flames. The family maid was too afraid to jump and soon burned to death.
The Deeper Cause
The truth is, 17th Century London was a massive fire hazard, and it is not surprising that fire this destructive occurred at that time. The buildings were mostly made of oak timber and were prone to fires regularly.
Many houses also covered their walls in tar. This was a useful substance for keeping out rain, but very flammable, especially in conjunction with all of the wood that was used at that time. Finally, the homes were built very close to each other, particularly in the poorer parts of the city.
To make things worse, London was very dry due to the hot summer it had just experienced. In retrospect, London that day was essentially a tinderbox waiting for a spark.
Attempts to Put Out the Fire Fail
The mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, soon arrived on the scene and oversaw the initial attempts to put out the fire. There was no organized fire department in the city at that time, so attempts to put out the fire were improvised. The water pipes which ran under the streets of the area were severed to fill buckets and were used in an attempt to douse the flames.
Another measure suggested was the destruction of nearby buildings, to stop the fire from spreading uncontrollably. However, the mayor was hesitant to do so and anger the owners of the buildings in the area. Bludworth decided to seek out permission from the owners, but in the meantime, the fire had spread far beyond the immediate area.
Soon the fire had spread to the nearby Star Inn and from there to Thames Street. The street was filled with riverfront warehouses, many of them filled with highly flammable materials such as lamp oil and coal. As a result, some of these warehouses exploded.
London had fire engines to deploy, but unfortunately, they were too large to get into the narrow alleyways surrounding the bakery. The attempts by bucket wielding locals to put these fires out proved increasingly hopeless.
Thousands of people gathered their most valuable possessions and loved ones, leaving the city for safer grounds on the hills surrounding the city. It would be several days before the fire would stop burning.
Around 13,000 homes were burned down in the disaster. This left 100,000 people or so homeless by the time the fire died down. Also, 90 churches were destroyed, including the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Learning the Lessons of the Fire
The city of London was swiftly rebuilt. It was decided to build the houses further from each other. Roads were made wider and the very narrow alleyways of the type which had surrounded Pudding Lane were outlawed.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, the centerpiece of the city, was soon rebuilt and was more spectacular than ever.
The new buildings were built of stone and brick whenever possible, instead of wood. Although the number of resources used for fire fighting was soon increased, a fully professional fire department would only emerge a few decades later.