It was late in the evening of Thursday 2nd September 1666 that a disaster began in the streets of London. It was a small mistake, but with great consequences, when Thomas Farrinor, a baker to King Charles II, thought his fire was out so did not turn off his oven. However, it appears that some smouldering embers ignited some nearby firewood and, by one o’clock in the morning, his house in Pudding Lane was in flames. He, with his wife and daughter, and one servant, escaped through an upstairs window. Unfortunately, the baker’s maid wasn’t so fortunate and became the Great Fire’s first victim.
The London of 1666 was a city of half-timbered, pitch-covered medieval buildings and sheds that ignited at the touch of a spark. There was a strong wind blowing on this morning and sparks flew everywhere. The fire crossed Fish Street Hill, engulfed the Star Inn and then spread into Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were bursting with oil, tallow, and other combustible goods. By now the fire had grown too fierce to be doused by the crude firefighting methods of the day – a bucket-brigades armed with wooden pails of water. The usual solution during a fire of such size was to demolish every building in the path of the flames in order to deprive the fire of fuel, but the city’s mayor hesitated, fearing the high cost of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the fire spread out of control, doing far more damage than anyone could possibly have managed.
By the 4th September half of London was in flames. The King himself joined the fire fighters, passing buckets of water to them in an attempt to quell the flames, but the fire raged on. As a last resort gunpowder was used to blow up houses that lay in the path of the fire, and so create an even bigger fire-break, but the sound of the explosions started rumours that a French invasion was taking place…. even more panic!! As refugees poured out of the city, St. Paul’s Cathedral was caught in the flames. The acres of lead on the roof melted and poured down on to the street like a river, and the great cathedral collapsed. Luckily the Tower of London escaped the inferno, and eventually the fire was brought under control, and by the 6th September had been extinguished altogether. Only one fifth of London was left standing! Virtually all the civic buildings had been destroyed as well as 13,000 private dwellings, but amazingly only six people had died.
Hundreds of thousands of people were left homeless. Eighty-nine parish churches, the Guildhall, numerous other public buildings, jails, markets and fifty-seven halls were now just burnt-out shells. King Charles gave the fire fighters a generous purse of 100 guineas to share between them. Not for the last time would a nation honour its brave fire fighters.