24 May 2010

Disasters: The Great Fire of London

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

The Great Fire of London of 1666 was a disaster many historians view as equal parts blessing and curse. In 1666, a conflagration of epic proportion was waiting to happen in a city where fires were common, with major parts of the city already having been burned by six significant fires since the turn of the century.

The London of 1666 was an overcrowded city comprised of timber frame dwellings, some as many as four stories high, leaning out into narrow streets. Londoners used fire to cook their meals and heat their homes, and candles for lighting. Many industries at the time relied upon fire: soap making, dyeing, baking, breweries, tanners, and metal works.

On September 2, 1666, heat from the ovens at the baker's shop of Thomas Farriner--the King's baker--resulted in a fire in the shop. Sparks ignited the wood frame of Farriner's home on Pudding Lane, and quickly spread to nearby buildings. The origin of the fire was close to the river and near a number of warehouses and shops filled with combustible materials such as hemp, hay, oil, coal, timber, tallow, pitch and alcohol. Following a long, hot summer, the water level of the Thames was very low, and the wind quickly channeled the fire along the dockside wharves toward the city.

In the city, strong winds from the east and wooden homes held together by tar and pitch combined with the slow reaction of a populace used to the cry of "Fire!" gave the ensuing inferno such an advantage there would never be any hope of containing it. There was no organized fire brigade at the time. Each district was required to have ladders and buckets on hand, but in many cases the ladders had rotted and the buckets had been carried off and put to other uses.

"The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once; and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruins." ~ Samuel Pepys, diarist, (1633-1703)

By the following morning, the fire had consumed half of London Bridge, and only a fire-break remaining from a previous fire in 1633 prevented the fire from reaching Southwark on the other side of the river. Those fighting the fire began blowing up buildings with gunpowder before the fire could reach them in order to starve the fire into submission. The London population fled to the fields of Moorfields and Finsbury fields, where they gathered to watch the inferno from a safe distance.

Within four days, the Great Fire of London had managed to destroy 80% of the city, eventually burning itself out when it reached the old Roman city walls made of stone, where there was nothing left to feed it. An area of 373 acres had been destroyed within the city walls, and 63 acres were blackened outside the city walls. One sixth of the population of London (100,000 people) were left homeless after 13,200 dwellings were destroyed. Nearly 90 churches were destroyed, including the famous landmark St. Paul's Cathedral. Many people had hidden their belongings in the basement of the cathedral before the flames reached it in the belief that the cathedral would be spared by the fire.

The intensity of the inferno was so great by the time it reached St. Paul's Cathedral that the lead roof of the structure melted, and witnesses reported seeing lead flowing in the streets. The steel underpinnings of the wharves along the Thames melted in the heat, as did the chains of the city gates and the iron bars of Newgate gaol.

Rumors raged as to the cause of the fire with a pace equal to the speed with which it had consumed the city. Those of French or Dutch heritage were immediately suspect due to the recent wars with England. Others claimed the fire was a Catholic plot intended to punish a Protestant city. Innocent foreigners were attacked by angry mobs in the street who were convinced the fire had been a deliberate act of arson. Speculation led to widespread panic and the fear of a French invasion until King Charles II publicly addressed the crowd of refugees in order to assure them the fire had been the result of an accident.

Still, before a formal inquiry into the cause of the fire could be concluded, Frenchman Robert Hubert confessed under torture to the crime and was hanged in October of 1666, his confession signed by Thomas Farriner, in whose bake shop the fire had started.

Although there were only six confirmed deaths attributed to the Great Fire of London, modern historians and archaeologists speculate that the number might more accurately be in the thousands, due to the fact that many of those unaccounted for were the homeless poor. How many remain buried in cellars that were never excavated? The census taken in London in 1673 revealed that 3500 of the rebuilt houses remained unoccupied.

It can always be argued that many of those left homeless by the fire simply moved away and did not return, but when we draw upon a modern example of a tragedy such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack upon the World Trade Center in New York, only about half of the people lost in that tragedy were physically accounted for; the rest appear to have vanished without a trace. In 1666 London, England, the fate of a property owner would have been commented upon, however not necessarily so the fate of many landless, homeless poor.

The Great Fire of London was considered a blessing because London was eventually rebuilt according to its old street plan, but with many improvements. Houses were constructed in brick instead of wood. Architect Christopher Wren designed 51 new churches for the rebuilt city of London, and also designed a monument that now stands where the home of Thomas Farriner formerly stood.

Streets were widened, and pavements were added for the first time. New sewers were constructed, replacing the "Fleet" that had previously flowed into the Thames and was nothing more than an open sewer carrying disease and filth. The fire had burned away the slums, killing the bubonic-plague carrying rats that had previously infested the city after one third of the population of London had died from the plague in 1665. The city of London arose from the ashes a cleaner, healthier, more beautiful city.