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.


Arson At The Heart Of The Roman Empire 64 AD

In AD 64 Rome was the greatest city in the Western world – the capital of an Empire approaching the height of its power. With nearly a million citizens spread across its seven hills, Rome was accustomed to dealing with serious fires in the hot, dry summers. It had the means, the knowledge, the experience and the perpetual vigilance to cope without batting an imperial eyelid.

The fire that destroyed ancient Rome began by the Circus Maximus, sweeping through the wooden shops and tenements clustered in the warren of streets around the huge stone building. A strong southeast wind drove the flames simultaneously up the Aventine and Palatine hills, faster than anyone could contain them. The fire took on a life of its own, in six days reducing four of Rome’s 14 districts to charred ash and leaving very little upright in seven more. When it looked like burning itself out, it re-ignited – according to the historian Tacitus, with help. Nothing important was spared, including Nero’s favorite palace, the Senate House, the Forum, and the temple of the Vestal Virgins, one of Rome’s oldest and most sacred sanctuaries. It swallowed up 1,700 private houses and 47,000 insulae (literally ‘islands’, meaning multiple-occupancy tenement blocks) and every slum in between.

If the Emperor Nero was directly or indirectly responsible, he got what he wanted – the space in the center of Rome to build his cherished ‘dream city’. But he also made a terrific show of helping to save the citizens, which diminishes the probable myth that he strummed the lyre while crooning a favorite verse-song called ‘The Sack of Ilium’. However, the combination of malicious conspiracy and ostentatious generosity is entirely consistent with Nero’s known instabilities – and frankly, it makes a much better story.

When was the Roman Arson: July 18-27 AD 64
Where was the Roman Arson: Rome, Italy
What was the Roman Arson death toll: Fear and panic caused more death and injury than the fire. Not even the near-contemporary accounts speak of large numbers of casualties from the fire itself. The real death toll came later in the arena of the Coliseum, where Nero sent every Christian the Praetorian Guard could arrest. Christians – then a small but irritatingly vocal evangelistic sect – were convenient scapegoats for the conflagration. After the Great Fire of Rome, Nero derived amusement from holding torch lit dinner parties – using the flaming carcasses of Christians as human torches.

You should know: Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day – but Nero’s new Palace, the 300-acre Domus Aurea, still survives in Rome’s ancient center, exactly where he ‘dreamed’ it would be.


Collinwood School Fire – 1908

Fatal fires don’t come more harrowing than the crackling inferno that took Collinwood’s children in 20 awful minutes, and prompted the grief-stricken community literally to vote itself out of existence. It is the worst school tragedy in Ohio’s history.

A crisp, sunny, Midwest March morning is no time for a waking nightmare. In the two-story, brick schoolhouse, teachers and children assumed it was a drill when they heard the booming gong sound three times for a fire alarm. Lake View School was well-practiced, and in each class the little boys and girls quickly lined up to go to their designated exit. Down below, the school caretaker — who had arrived that morning at 06.30 for his usual routine of cleaning and stoking up the coal furnace, and been confronted around 09.30 by a girl shouting about ‘fire in the basement’ — had seen the smoke for himself. From the gong he rushed to open the front and back doors to help everyone get clear of the building more easily.

Air rushed in and, with an explosive roar, flames erupted out of the basement and filled the hall and front stairway, meeting the converging lines of children head-on. Singed and already choking, discipline went by the board. So many children rushed the back door that they jammed each other in a panicked tangle of arms and legs. Others behind them flung themselves on top, trying to scramble to safety. Pushed back by flames and blocked by the pile of screaming bodies, those still trying to come downstairs turned back, creating a new mayhem at the windows and fire escape.

Outside, the first adults to the scene pulled outstretched limbs as they burned, but the children were locked in fatal embrace, ten deep and screaming in agony. In 20 gruesome minutes, they died while their parents tried to beat the flames with naked fists. And it was Ash Wednesday.

When was the Collinwood School Fire: March 4 1908

Where was the Collinwood School Fire: Lake View School, Collinwood, Ohio, USA

What was the Collinwood School Fire death toll: Of nearly 400 children, 172 died alongside two teachers and one of the rescuers; 19 could not be identified; many others were known only by some adjacent trinket, ring or watch. Nothing at all remained of the school except the blackened brick walls and a chimney stack.

You should know: The township of 20,000 was utterly devastated. Volunteers had to keep a suicide watch on parents driven mad with grief; but the town itself opted to disappear, by means of annexation to the city of Cleveland. The last act of residents was to vote for a memorial garden to cover the ground plan of the school. Among many heartbreaking mementoes was a piece of broken slate board. Written on it in chalk was the beginning of the sentence ‘I like to go to school… ‘. At least the disaster forced schools throughout America to revise safety regulations and codes of practice.