The Great Fire of London – 1666

The Great Fire of London started in a pie shop on Pudding Lane, now commemorated by a 65 m (202 ft) Doric column surmounted with flames of gold. The Monument appears to celebrate the disaster, and there are good reasons why it should.

The fire consumed four fifths of the city within its Roman walls (then still standing, and enclosing roughly what is now known as The City). It swept away 430 acres of Saxon, Norman, Plantagenet, Tudor, Elizabethan and Jacobean development – 13,000 houses, 52 guild halls, 89 churches, and old St Paul’s Cathedral – as well as the squalid accretions of a millennium of poverty, disease and crime, oozing filth from their interstices. Prohibition on building with wood and thatch and of workshops using open braziers or forges had been ignored for centuries, and the widespread practice of extending the upper floors of houses over the roadway meant that many already narrow lanes were virtual tunnels.

Medieval London had grown at random. Stone buildings were rare. Anyone who could afford to had long since moved westwards into what is now the West End and the City of Westminster. Burning slums held little interest, until the population as a whole realized that the mayor’s indecision and inaction had allowed a firestorm to develop out of anyone’s control. Worse, the City merchants had supported Cromwell in the recent Civil War; now they rejected King Charles II’s offer of troops to create firebreaks. Only a firebreak on London Bridge – densely built over and one of the sights of Europe – stopped the fire from spreading to the markets and middens of Southwark; while beyond the walls to the west, the King’s on-the-spot direction finally halted the flames at Fleet Street and Holbom.

The disaster had a silver lining. The inferno helped sterilize the bubonic plague that had decimated London only a year before.

It was almost worth it.

When was the Great Fire of London: September 2-6 1666

Where was the Great Fire of London: London, UK

What was the Great Fire of London death toll: The five known deaths take no account of the poor and homeless who simply disappeared. Contemporary estimates put property damage at £8 million, and £2 million more of merchant goods. But the Plague, which had killed 68,000 Londoners in the previous two years, scarcely troubled the city again.

You should know: King Charles II did a great job in organizing the recovery. He more or less kept London’s medieval street plan, and encouraged the finest architects while  restraining Christopher Wren’s more grandiose schemes. By 1671, 9000 new buildings were complete; by 1700 London was Europe’s biggest city. The influx of European  craftsmen also initiated the effortless cosmopolitanism which has characterized London ever since.

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