Firefighters in London begin blowing up homes in a desperate attempt to halt the spread of a great fire through the city on this day in 1666. All other attempts to stop the progress of the flames over the previous three days had failed. By the time the fire was finally snuffed out the following day, more than 100,000 people had been left homeless.
London in the 17th century was no stranger to large fires. In one incident, a gunpowder fire killed 27 people and, in another, the homes on London Bridge were consumed in a blaze. Just outside of London, hundreds of houses burned in Oxford, Marlborough, Southwold and Newport in the years leading up to 1666. Still, the city had not established an official fire department.
In 1666, London was one of the largest cities in the world, with 400,000 residents spread out over 458 acres within the city’s walls. At about 2 a.m. on Sunday, September 2, a fire broke out in the home of Thomas Farynor, one of the king’s bakers. Most of Farynor’s family escaped the flames by climbing out a window and onto a neighbor’s roof. However, a servant in the house did not use this exit because he was afraid of heights; he died in the fire.
The tightly packed houses on London’s narrow streets were susceptible to fire because of their wood frames. Also, most homes contained supplies of flammable materials such as oils, tallow and resin. A strong westerly wind toward the city center helped to fan the flames. At 3 a.m., the mayor was awakened to alert him of the spreading blaze, but he determined that the fire was not seriously threatening and did not take action.
Despite his optimism, the fire continued to spread during the day on Sunday, outpaced only by the rumors that it had been set by foreigners. Mobs began assaulting immigrants throughout the city. King Charles II showed up and directly supervised the firefighting efforts. Meanwhile, looting was rampant and entrepreneurs from outside the city took the opportunity to charge residents outrageous prices to haul their belongings out of the fire’s range. By Sunday night, the fire had advanced more than a half mile west.
On Monday, the king took steps to restore civil order to the city and brought in the militia. The militia, however, was powerless to stop the fire from destroying the high-end business section of the city. The Royal Exchange, where commodities were traded, was consumed, but Leadenhall, a large marketplace to the north, was saved. On Tuesday, September 4, the fire picked up strength. The residents of Oxford, 60 miles away, could see and smell the smoke. St. Paul’s Cathedral, the most prominent building in the city, burned, along with the thousands of valuable books stored inside. The Tower of London was spared only because the surrounding buildings were demolished and torn down to prevent them from burning. The fire even managed to jump the city’s walls and spread to the suburbs.
Finally, on September 5, weakening winds allowed the fire to be contained, although it was not fully brought under control until the morning of Thursday, September 6. Remarkably, although a good portion of the city had been devastated, only eight people lost their lives to the blaze. The ground remained too hot to walk on for a day and ash clogged the streets. King Charles II ordered that bread be brought to the city to feed the displaced people. He also addressed the refugees and told them that it was not the French or Dutch who were responsible for the fire but, instead, that it was God’s will. His words did not stop his citizens from hanging a French watchmaker who had been coerced into confessing.
The following week, a royal proclamation mandated that any rebuilding of the city be done with brick and stone and that any land that was not rebuilt within three years of the fire would be seized by the government. The first major set of building codes was established and a special court was charged with the resolution of all disputes involving the fire. Possibly because of these new regulations, London did not replace all the homes lost in the blaze until nearly 30 years had passed. Other reforms that came out of the Great Fire were the advent of fire insurance and the formation of dedicated firefighting squads.