Great Fire of London Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Great Fire of London devastated the city, but it also destroyed the vermin that had caused recurrent plague there for centuries. The fire gave the restored King Charles II an opportunity to demonstrate his compassionate leadership.

Summary of Event

The Great Fire of London began insignificantly enough on the evening of Saturday, September 1, 1666. Thomas Farrinor, Farrinor, Thomas the king’s baker, went to bed at 10:00 p.m., leaving some kindling too near the smoldering coals of his oven in Pudding Lane, near Thames Street in the city of London. By 1:00 a.m. on September 2, he was awakened by a servant and found his house filled with smoke. [kw]Great Fire of London (Sept. 2-5, 1666) [kw]London, Great Fire of (Sept. 2-5, 1666) [kw]Fire of London, Great (Sept. 2-5, 1666) Natural disasters;Sept. 2-5, 1666: Great Fire of London[2260] Architecture;Sept. 2-5, 1666: Great Fire of London[2260] England;Sept. 2-5, 1666: Great Fire of London[2260] Great Fire of London (1666) Farrinor, Thomas Bludworth, Thomas Charles II (1630-1685) James II Pepys, Samuel Wren, Christopher

Farrinor escaped with his wife and daughter through an attic window along a gutter to an adjoining house. His maid died, trapped in the blaze. Soon thereafter, Lord Mayor Thomas Bludworth Bludworth, Thomas was called, but he considered the fire to be of little importance and returned to bed. Samuel Pepys, Pepys, Samuel secretary of the British Admiralty and a noted diarist, was roused by servants in his home in Seething Lane, but he also returned to bed with limited concern, unaware that a strong east wind was blowing dangerous sparks onto the roofs of adjacent houses and nearby warehouses, many of which held tallow, oil, spirits, and other highly flammable goods.

By morning, some three hundred houses and the north end of London Bridge were reported to be on fire. Later in the day, the steelyard was blazing out of control. With many of London’s buildings built of pitch-covered timber, firefighters using buckets of water, hand pumps, and long-handled fire-hooks to pull down burning timbers found their efforts of little use as the fire intensified and began to grow. Because the mayor and others were afraid of being held responsible for compensation, they refused to order the demolition of buildings in the path of the spreading fire, which probably would have contained it.

On Monday, September 3, more than 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) of riverfront buildings, from London Bridge to Cannon Street, were destroyed. This destruction was soon followed by the whole of Lombard Street and the Royal Exchange. Merchants refused to allow the demolition of Billingsgate Fish Market. It burned later that day, and the fire spread to the western edges of the city at Baynard’s castle. Pepys went to the royal palace in Whitehall to warn King Charles, who ordered that houses be pulled down and sent his brother, James James II (king of England) , duke of York and Albany, to oversee demolition after the lord mayor continued to be unable to enlist and organize the firefighting efforts of London citizens.

Tuesday, September 4, was the worst day. By then, all of the waterfront buildings from west of the Tower of London past the Three Cranes were destroyed, and the fire began to spread northward up the small hill toward Cheapside and the heart of the city of London. In the evening, Saint Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed, along with all of Cheapside and the Guildhall. Continued high winds spread the fire to the north and west of Newgate, burning the Inner Temple. As the fire fanned westward in a giant arc, propelled by the wind and poorly built houses and shops, fire containment units were established to halt its spread. They were effective but were helped greatly by the diminution of the wind, which allowed the firefighters to halt, control, and eventually dowse the flames.

On Wednesday, September 5, with nearly five-sixths of the city burned, subsiding winds and the effective demolition of buildings had the fire under control by midnight. On Thursday, September 6, two hundred soldiers were brought in to prevent further fires from sparks and smoldering embers. Each unit, headed by a representative from the government or nobility, had five justices of the peace, the parish constable, thirty soldiers, and one hundred citizens. King Charles rode from point to point on horseback, at first to inspect the damage but then to calm those fleeing or encourage those fighting the fire, frequently offering money rewards for valiant efforts.

The duke of York was placed in control of the city and in charge of guards intent on keeping the peace and preventing looting and other disorder. The king also talked to refugees camped out in Moorfields and defused rumors that arsonist plots by Papists or foreign powers had started the fire. Seamen were enlisted from the dockyards and began the systematic demolition of whole streets with gunpowder. This, with a fortunate diminution of the strong winds, brought about the end of the fire.

Only eight people died in the fire or its aftermath, largely because of chaotic but successful voluntary evacuation. The loss of property, however, was catastrophic. During the four days of the fire, 13,200 houses burned and 100,000 people were made homeless. Four hundred streets, alleys, and courtyards were ruined with great masses of rubble and collapsed buildings. Five-sixths of the city of London—some 400 acres (162 hectares)—was wiped out. Almost the entire medieval city was destroyed, including the huge gothic Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the medieval Guildhall, Tudor Royal Exchange, 44 of the 51 halls of the city livery companies, and 84 of London’s 109 parish churches.

Significance

Despite the horrific destruction to property, there were several positive outcomes of London’s Great Fire. First, the substantial London population of rats was eliminated. They had been the major contributors to the spread of the plague in 1665, only the latest episode in a recurring and deadly epidemic.

The diary accounts of prominent Londoners, such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Evelyn, John contributed to the art of English prose; minor writers, such as Thomas Vincent, and major ones such as, John Dryden, Dryden, John memorialized the Great Fire and its significance. In addition, the nearly complete destruction of the old and dilapidated medieval and Tudor London provided unprecedented and unique opportunities for the comprehensive rebuilding of the city. This rebuilding process brought attention to the genius of Sir Christopher Wren, Wren, Sir Christopher whose architectural designs dominated the London cityscape for the next 250 years and provided major contributions to the monumental architecture of the world’s urban centers.

Coming in the first decade of the restored monarchy, after the Commonwealth and Interregnum, the demonstrated and compassionate leadership of King Charles II Charles II (king of England) and his brother, the duke of York, helped to stabilize the immediate catastrophe and encourage long-term confidence in the monarchy and royal government. The ineptness of the lord mayor contributed to the impressiveness of the royal leadership, but the king and the duke showed practical and activist understanding in following the advice of Samuel Pepys and other advisers to halt the fire by demolishing decrepit buildings in its path. More important, they showed wise and compassionate understanding in encouraging the firefighters and calming the fears of the refugees about arsonists and foreign invaders, who were rumored to have started the fire as part of a feared invasion by the French or the Dutch, then enemies of the English.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aubin, Robert Arnold. London in Flames, London in Glory: Poems on the Fire and Rebuilding of London, 1666-1709. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1943. This is the most comprehensive of the dozens of broadsides and other published poetic responses to the fire.
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    xlink:type="simple">Barker, Felix, and Peter Jackson. “The Great Fire.” In London: Two Thousand Years of a City and Its People. London: Cassell, 1974. Standard history of London, brilliantly and copiously illustrated. It is invaluable for establishing the historical context before and after the fire.
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    xlink:type="simple">Baron, Xavier, ed. London, 1066-1914: Literary Sources and Documents. East Sussex, England: Helm Information, 1996. Includes lengthy excerpts from all of the major written accounts of the Great Fire in poetry and prose, including the work of John Dryden, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Wright, and Thomas Vincent.
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    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Walter G. The Great Fire of London. London: Bodley Head, 1920. Although at times somewhat pedestrian, the book’s wealth of detail makes it the foundation for all later research.
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    xlink:type="simple">Hanson, Neil. The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Popular narrative, lively and well-written, based upon first-hand accounts. Offers several theories about the origin of the blaze.
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    xlink:type="simple">Milne, Gustav. The Great Fire of London. London: Historical, 1986. Written by a member of the Museum of London’s archaeological department, the book is thorough and factual. It includes excerpts from personal and official accounts of the fire, and more than one hundred photographs and illustrations.
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    xlink:type="simple">Tinniswood, Adrian. By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London. London: Jonathan Cape, 2003. Tinniswood, an architectural historian, examines the political, legal, and cultural significance of the fire, and describes how London was rebuilt to become a stronger, safer, and more habitable city.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles II (of England); John Dryden; John Evelyn; James II; Samuel Pepys; Sir Christopher Wren. Great Fire of London (1666)

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