Great Fire of London begins - HISTORY
Year
1666

Great Fire of London begins

In the early morning hours, the Great Fire of London breaks out in the house of King Charles II’s baker on Pudding Lane near London Bridge. It soon spread to Thames Street, where warehouses filled with combustibles and a strong easterly wind transformed the blaze into an inferno. When the Great Fire finally was extinguished on September 6, more than four-fifths of London was destroyed. Miraculously, only 16 people were known to have died.

The Great Fire of London was a disaster waiting to happen. London of 1666 was a city of medieval houses made mostly of oak timber. Some of the poorer houses had walls covered with tar, which kept out the rain but made the structures more vulnerable to fire. Streets were narrow, houses were crowded together, and the firefighting methods of the day consisted of neighborhood bucket brigades armed with pails of water and primitive hand pumps. Citizens were instructed to check their homes for possible dangers, but there were many instances of carelessness.

So it was on the evening of September 1, 1666, when Thomas Farrinor, the king’s baker, failed to properly extinguish his oven. He went to bed, and sometime around midnight sparks from the smoldering embers ignited firewood lying beside the oven. Before long, his house was in flames. Farrinor managed to escape with his family and a servant out an upstairs window, but a bakery assistant died in the flames–the first victim.

Sparks from Farrinor’s bakery leapt across the street and set fire to straw and fodder in the stables of the Star Inn. From the Inn, the fire spread to Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were packed full with flammable materials such as tallow for candles, lamp oil, spirits, and coal. These stores lit aflame or exploded, transforming the fire into an uncontrollable blaze. Bucket-bearing locals abandoned their futile efforts at firefighting and rushed home to evacuate their families and save their valuables.

It had been a hot, dry summer, and a strong wind further encouraged the flames. As the conflagration grew, city authorities struggled to tear down buildings and create a firebreak, but the flames repeatedly overtook them before they could complete their work. People fled into the Thames River dragging their possessions, and the homeless took refuge in the hills on the outskirts of London. Light from the Great Fire could be seen 30 miles away. On September 5, the fire slackened, and on September 6 it was brought under control. That evening, flames again burst forth in the Temple (the legal district), but the explosion of buildings with gunpowder extinguished the flames.

The Great Fire of London engulfed 13,000 houses, nearly 90 churches, and scores of public buildings. The old St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed, as were many other historic landmarks. As estimated 100,000 people were left homeless. Within days, King Charles II set about rebuilding his capital. The great architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a new St. Paul’s Cathedral with dozens of smaller new churches ranged around it like satellites. To prevent future fires, most new houses were built of brick or stone and separated by thicker walls. Narrow alleyways were forbidden and streets were made wider. Permanent fire departments, however, did not become a fixture in London until well into the 18th century.

In the 1670s, a memorial column commemorating the Great Fire of London was erected near the source of the calamity. Known as the Memorial, it was probably designed by the architect Robert Hooke, though some sources credit Christopher Wren. The column stands 202 feet above the pavement and features sculpture and engravings that tell the story of the conflagration. Even though an official inquiry into the Great Fire concluded that “the hand of God, a great wind, and a very dry season” caused it, an inscription on the Memorial (removed in 1830) blamed the disaster on the “treachery and malice of the Popish faction.”

In 1986, London’s bakers finally apologized to the lord mayor for setting fire to the city. Members of the Worshipful Company of Bakers gathered on Pudding Lane and unveiled a plaque acknowledging that one of their own, Thomas Farrinor, was guilty of causing the Great Fire of 1666.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Vietnam independence proclaimed

Hours after Japan’s surrender in World War II, Vietnamese communist Ho Chi Minh declares the independence of Vietnam from France. The proclamation paraphrased the U.S. Declaration of Independence in declaring, “All men are born equal: the Creator has given us inviolable rights, ...read more

The Battle of Actium

At the Battle of Actium, off the western coast of Greece, Roman leader Octavian wins a decisive victory against the forces of Roman Mark Antony and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. Before their forces suffered final defeat, Antony and Cleopatra broke though the enemy lines and fled to ...read more

Japan surrenders

Aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Japan formally surrenders to the Allies, bringing an end to World War II. By the summer of 1945, the defeat of Japan was a foregone conclusion. The Japanese navy and air force were destroyed. The Allied naval blockade of Japan and intensive ...read more

First ATM opens for business

On this day in 1969, America’s first automatic teller machine (ATM) makes its public debut, dispensing cash to customers at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York. ATMs went on to revolutionize the banking industry, eliminating the need to visit a bank to conduct basic ...read more

Allies celebrate V-J Day

On this day in 1945, the USS Missouri hosts the formal surrender of the Japanese government to the Allies. Victory over Japan was celebrated back in the States.As Japanese troops finally surrendered to Americans on the Caroline, Mariana, and Palau islands, representatives of ...read more

Ho Chi Minh dies

President Ho Chi Minh of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam dies of a heart attack in Hanoi. North Vietnamese officials announced his death the next day.Ho Chi Minh had been the heart and soul of Vietnamese communism since the earliest days of the movement. Born in 1890, he was ...read more

47th North Vietnamese MiG shot down

Phuc Yen, 10 miles north of Hanoi, and one of the largest air bases in North Vietnam, is smashed by U.S. fighter-bombers. During the attack, a MiG was shot down, bringing the total to 47 enemy aircraft shot down since the beginning of the North Vietnamese offensive. At this ...read more

Whites massacre Chinese in Wyoming Territory

On this day in 1885, 150 white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, brutally attack their Chinese coworkers, killing 28, wounding 15 others, and driving several hundred more out of town.The miners working in the Union Pacific coal mine had been struggling to unionize and strike for ...read more

Lord of the Rings creator Tolkien dies

On this day in 1973, J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the best-selling fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings–the source of the award-winning blockbuster movie trilogy directed, co-produced and co-written by Peter Jackson–dies at the age of 81 in Bournemouth, England. ...read more

Great Tokyo Fire continues to blaze

On this day in 1923, aftershocks and out-of-control fires continue to rock Tokyo, Japan, and the surrounding area following a massive earthquake. In total, 143,000 people died in the disaster, which is known both as the Great Kwanto Earthquake and the Great Tokyo Fire, as the ...read more

Trial of Mathias Rust begins

The trial of Mathias Rust, the 19-year-old pilot who flew his Cessna plane into Red Square in May 1987, begins in Moscow. Rust had become an international celebrity following his daring intrusion into Soviet airspace and landing in the center of Moscow, but the Soviet government ...read more

McClellan is restored to full command

President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly restores Union General George B. McClellan to full command after General John Pope’s disaster at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, on August 29 and 30. McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac, saw much of his army transferred ...read more