The Great Fire of London (September 1666) consumed a devastatingly large fraction of the city, with an estimated 70,000 inhabitants having their homes utterly destroyed. This isn’t to forget St Paul’s Cathedral and as many as 13,200 domestic properties being engulfed by the flames, which started in a bakery.
But why did the fire spread so quickly, and how did society begin to rebuild following this tragic incident? Find out all this and more, below.
City Fire Risks
In the 1600s, London was brimming with fire risks of all kinds, something that had arguably been demonstrated by disasters prior to the Great Fire of London. Even with all the warning signs though, the city remained very much a hazard, with many buildings being constructed from wood and thatched roofing.
Although this issue had been addressed lawfully, these two inexpensive materials, among others, were still being used. Whilst stone was used in some areas of the city, this type of masonry was normally reserved for the wealthy. This may have been part of the reason the poorer estates set ablaze, and the wealthy areas didn’t suffer as much devastation.
Another risk that played a key role in the way the fire spread was the river front. The River Thames did its part when it came to fending off the fire, providing both an escape route and a source of water, which was used to bring the fire to an end. But the poor were burdened with cellars that contained a lot of combustible materials and objects. Unfortunately, this added greatly to the list of fire hazards.
How the City Fought Back
Though firefighting techniques and procedures were actually quite efficient at the time, nothing could have prepared emergency services for the Fire of 1666.
Usually, they would use water and knock down buildings as their main port of call, but in this instance, it wasn’t a possibility, due to a delay in orders. By the time orders were given, the fire had engulfed so many houses that the appropriate services couldn’t make their way through the streets without an inevitable struggle.
Sadly, the firefighters’ other resort (water) was not successful either, as their access to the main water sources in the city had been cut off by the fire. So, what do historians believe stopped the fire?
Well, it is thought that the technique of fire breaks, in this case, bringing down buildings using explosions, was what eventually ended the disaster.
How Society Rebuilt
Just a couple of days following the fire, sketch-based proposals were suggested, though it is thought none of them would have worked as short-term solutions. In saying this, although London wouldn’t have benefited from the plans put forward, Richard Newcourt’s interpretation of how the city should be laid out was later used in Philadelphia.
In October 1666, one proposer who offered sketches, Christopher Wren, was appointed as one of many Commissioners by King Charles. Wren, among others, made a start regulating how the city should rebuild.
Narrow streets were broadened, and some made straighter, whilst an entirely new street was created, which ran through the city’s collection of private properties. This street was named King Street.
Outdoor markets were relocated indoors and gates that had perished in the fire were reconstructed. Aside from this though, the actual development of the city was fairly stunted, with little to no effort put into erecting modernised public properties.
In saying this, however, by the time 1670 had come around, roughly 6000 properties had been built to accommodate residents. And, by 1676 it is thought that, aside from several parish church sites, the entire area had been rebuilt. Plus, homes that had been constructed after the fire were rebuilt mostly with brick, which arguably proved to be a massive turning point for the city at this time.
So, this is just a short guide to how society rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, and a little more about the fire and the city’s efforts to contain and end it. Of course, today, it’s very different, as we benefit from having specialist fire and flood restoration services, as well as improved masonry to rely on.