London was well acquainted with fires but the Great Fire was by far the worst London ever experienced.
About two o’clock on Sunday morning, the second of September, 1666, an assistant to the king’s baker, who lived with the baker and his family above the bake house, awoke to find his tiny room full of smoke. He alerted the rest of the household, told them of the loud crackling of burning timber from below, and urged them to escape immediately. Within minutes flames began to consume the steps leading to the upstairs so there was no way of escape in that direction. They all climbed into the attic above, squeezed through the narrow window that opened on to the roof, and scrambled along to the next house from which they could reach the ground and escape. Many others were less fortunate as flames jumped from house to house across the city. Before the end of the day the fire was out of control and all efforts were focused on rescuing people and taking them to a safe place.
London was well acquainted with fires at this time and this familiarity tended to make people indifferent to reports of fires. People waited too long in 1666 and, as a result, many lives that could have been saved were lost. It is easy to understand Londoners’ indifference to fire alarms; they have been experiencing fires from their earliest days during the time of Roman occupation of the city in the first century. In his classic publication, London, the Biography, Peter Ackroyd gives a list of dates for the known fires that swept over some or all of London in the years before 1666: 60, 125, 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, 1087, 1093, 1132, 1136, 1203, 1212, 1220, and 1227. There were other fires in the more than four hundred years between 1227 and 1666 but records for these were not well kept. The slow reaction to the 1666 fire was almost universal, partly because people thought it was just one more fire that would soon go out but also because, for a short time after the first house went up in flames, there was a time delay before the second house caught fire.
Furthermore, there were underlying environmental factors that would make this fire more destructive than all the previous ones. The month of August, 1666, had been exceptionally hot with almost no rain so the thatch and timber of the crowded buildings were the kind of tinder that would quickly ignite. Additionally, as the fire grew from its beginnings in a house near London Bridge, it was aided by a wind from the southeast that pushed the flames westward and northwestward toward the vast majority of the houses and public buildings that were occupied by the city’s half million, probably Europe’s most populated city at that time. The narrow streets, all that were needed four hundred years ago for horse-drawn wagons, made it easy for fires to jump to the other side of a street. The houses on either side were even more accessible as they formed a continuous line of buildings so each home caught fire from its contact with the next. Public officials were not allowed to pull down parts of houses that had caught fire because they would be held responsible for all the damages if the building did not completely burn down. Therefore, they had to wait until the whole building was destroyed by fire before intervening.
The first line of flames followed the lower elevations running alongside the Thames River, but bursts of fire appeared nearby as embers were blown ahead in all directions by the following wind. As parish churches became engulfed in fire and smoke their clerks made desperate efforts to recover the parish records and get them out of the buildings. Their priorities were clear: if you can rescue only one thing, make it the records, not the money. It was a clear indication of the speed at which the fire advanced that almost all churches rescued only their parish registers. The most troublesome loss of all on this first day was the destruction of the water conduit, a large lead pipe that carried water uphill to the center of the city. The wooden wheels that pumped the water from the river burst into flames as the fire reached them and the lead melted under the heat. As we will see in later accounts of both fires and earthquakes, it was the loss of water rather than the actual flames that caused the greatest amount of damage. That was true for the San Francisco earthquake and the subsequent fire in 1906 and in the Tokyo earthquake of 1923. In the case of London, no one would get access to water in any quantity for more than a year, a particularly dangerous condition for a city that had so recently survived the scourge of the Black Death and was very much aware of the risks of endemic diseases.
As the fire reached the various quays along the river it found plenty of incendiary resources in sheltered areas and on the waterfront. Stacks of timber, hay, straw, and coal, all standard commodities of trade at that time, were piled up, ready to be transferred to the barges that would take them downstream to where the sea-going ships lay at anchor. There were also smaller quantities of other tinder-dry commodities—barrels of lamp oil, tar, pitch, and tallow. The heat that resulted from all of these products catching fire boiled the beer in the hundreds of barrels that had been stored in the various breweries on the waterfront. The barrels burst their staves and the beer flowed away into the river. Even at this stage, in the early hours of Sunday morning, no general alarm had been given. Samuel Pepys, the writer from whom we received much of our information about the fire and who lived in London at this time, told of his lack of interest in the fire when it was first reported to him. At first, in the middle of the night, when one of his servants awoke him, he looked out of his window and seeing the fire so far away decided to go back to bed. He was about to do the same four or five hours later but changed his mind when told that over three hundred houses had been burned down within the previous four hours. His home was close to the Tower Bridge so he dressed quickly and found his way to a high point on the bridge where he could see the extent of the fire. In his own words as he looked around there was “an infinite great fire burning in all directions.”
Pepys took a boat and moved upstream under the bridge to observe more closely the rapid advance of the fire along the banks of the river. No one tried to fight the fire in any way and this surprised him. All efforts were directed at getting valuables out of homes before they went up in flames. Any barge or boat on the river became a target on to which people threw their clothes and other larger possessions. They then found their way, as best they could, on to these same boats or barges to watch the sad spectacle of their houses being destroyed, wondering all the time about their future prospects. Pepys watched with horror as one of the great landmarks of the city, the church of St. Laurence, which had a steeple that soared above all other buildings in the city, burst into flames while the main line of the fire was still some distance away. He concluded for the first time that this was no ordinary fire like those that had come before it. Others too came to the same conclusion. Up to this moment most of the city’s population had gone about their normal activities, attending church and offering prayers for the unfortunate people along the river who had lost their homes. Now, as St. Laurence’s steeple came crashing down before the eyes of most Londoners, a state of near panic set in.
By afternoon of the first day the fire had reached Whitehall and Westminster Abbey and every department of government was under threat yet, at the Palace of Charles the Second, little was known of the extent of the fire. Pepys arrived at the palace at this time where he told all the staff about the things he had seen. A general alarm soon spread as far as the king and Pepys was called in to repeat his report. He used the opportunity to urge the king and the Duke of York, who happened to be at the palace, to give command that houses be pulled down ahead of the fire. This move had been avoided up to this time because of the liability risks. Now it was apparent that no alternative could stop the fire so the king instructed Pepys to go to the lord mayor of London and command him to spare no houses in order to stop the spread of the fire. Pepys found it hard to get to the lord mayor’s place in the eastern part of the city. Every spare wagon had been commandeered by a few who were escaping with their possessions and the streets were clogged with people. The lord mayor threw up his hands in desperation when told of the king’s command. “What can I do?” was all he said. He went on to explain to Pepys that no one would obey him and whenever he and one or two others began to pull down houses the fire overtook them before they could complete their work. He had started the demolition of buildings in the night and was tired from six hours of continuous work.
Monday, the third of September and the second day of the fire, was another warm day with the strong wind from the southeast still blowing. It had become even stronger during the night, so strong that ships in the English Channel had to take shelter on the French side. The glare of light reflected from the smoke clouds overhead had been visible all night as the fire continued to sweep westward over the great houses in and around Westminster and farther west in and beyond Chelsea. The world outside London slowly became aware of the tragedy. Often half-burnt newspapers would be carried by the wind up river as far as Eton. One writer described London’s yellow smoke as the output of a giant furnace ascending to heaven, a smoke so great that it darkened the sun at midday. No one person was yet fully aware of the scale of the fire. There were no methods of communication that could inform them. Thus, on this second day of the fire, people were still arriving at friends’ houses with their belongings not knowing until they arrived that their friends were busy gathering what they could take away with them before the fire struck. September the fourth, the fire’s third day, saw the wind abating and the advance of the fire firmly stopped by an order from the king to use gunpowder to blow up houses in the path of the fire and thus create an effective break.
As the smoke cleared and people could see the desolate mass of ruined homes, stumps of chimneys, and broken towers, many of them left the city for good with no hope or wish ever to return. Most of London had been destroyed. The work of reconstruction would be enormous. One sad aspect of the fire was the behavior of some who had carts and coaches for hire and decided to charge exorbitant prices for carrying personal possessions out of the city. Survivors had no choice; they had to pay the price or forfeit their possessions. Only one-fifth of the city was untouched by the fire. The reconstruction had to be seen as the creation of a new city and, to their credit, Londoners accepted the challenge and got to work. All the city homes were rebuilt or replaced within five years. The new streets were wider and brick became the common building material instead of wood. For the first time in the history of the city and after the many fires that had assaulted it over that time, London now had a fire insurance plan in place. Never again would the possessions of hundreds of thousands of people be wiped out by a single fire.