Great Fire of London

Tuesday, 31 October 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Architecture, London
Reading Time:  17 minutes

Monument to the Great Fire of London and Pudding Lane © flickr.com - It's No Game/cc-by-2.0

Monument to the Great Fire of London and Pudding Lane © flickr.com – It’s No Game/cc-by-2.0

The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through central London from Sunday 2 September to Thursday 6 September 1666, gutting the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall, while also extending past the wall to the west. The death toll is generally thought to have been relatively small, although some historians have challenged this belief.

The fire started in a bakery in Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on Sunday 2 September, and spread rapidly. The use of the major firefighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of removing structures in the fire’s path, was critically delayed due to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm which defeated such measures. The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over nearly the whole City, destroying St Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II‘s court at Whitehall. Coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously getting underway. The battle to put out the fire is considered to have been won by two key factors: the strong east wind dropped, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks, halting further spread eastward.

The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming. Flight from London and settlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Various schemes for rebuilding the city were proposed, some of them very radical. After the fire, London was reconstructed on essentially the same medieval street plan, which still exists today.

By the 1660s, London was by far the largest city in Britain and the third largest in the Western world, estimated at 300,000 to 400,000 inhabitants. John Evelyn, contrasting London to the Baroque magnificence of Paris in 1659, called it a “wooden, northern, and inartificial congestion of Houses”. By “inartificial”, Evelyn meant unplanned and makeshift, the result of organic growth and unregulated urban sprawl. London had been a Roman settlement for four centuries and had become progressively more crowded inside its defensive city wall. It had also pushed outwards beyond the wall into squalid extramural slums such as Shoreditch, Holborn, and Southwark, and had reached far enough to include the independent City of Westminster. By the late 17th century, the City proper—the area bounded by the city wall and the River Thames—was only a part of London, covering some 700 acres (2.8 km²; 1.1 sq mi), and home to about 80,000 people, or one quarter of London’s inhabitants. The City was surrounded by a ring of inner suburbs where most Londoners lived. The City was then, as now, the commercial heart of the capital, and was the largest market and busiest port in England, dominated by the trading and manufacturing classes. The City was traffic-clogged, polluted, and unhealthy, especially after it was hit by a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague in the Plague Year of 1665. The relationship between the City and the Crown was often tense. The City of London had been a stronghold of republicanism during the English Civil War (1642–1651), and the wealthy and economically dynamic capital still had the potential to be a threat to Charles II, as had been demonstrated by several republican uprisings in London in the early 1660s. The City magistrates were of the generation that had fought in the Civil War, and could remember how Charles I‘s grab for absolute power had led to that national trauma. They were determined to thwart any similar tendencies in his son, and when the Great Fire threatened the City, they refused the offers that Charles made of soldiers and other resources. Even in such an emergency, the idea of having the unpopular royal troops ordered into the City was political dynamite. By the time that Charles took over command from the ineffectual Lord Mayor, the fire was already out of control.

Great Fire of London © museumoflondonprints.com - Josepha Jane Battlehooke Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul's © Yale Center for British Art - anonymous Monument to the Great Fire of London and Pudding Lane © flickr.com - It's No Game/cc-by-2.0 Great Fire of London map © Bunchofgrapes/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul's © Yale Center for British Art - anonymous
Only a few deaths from the fire are officially recorded, and deaths are traditionally believed to have been few. Porter gives the figure as eight and Tinniswood as “in single figures”, although he adds that some deaths must have gone unrecorded and that, besides direct deaths from burning and smoke inhalation, refugees also perished in the impromptu camps. Field argues that the number “may have been higher than the traditional figure of six, but it is likely it did not run into the hundreds”: he notes that the London Gazette “did not record a single fatality” and that had there been a significant death toll it would have been reflected in polemical accounts and petitions for charity. Hanson takes issue with the idea that there were only a few deaths, enumerating known deaths from hunger and exposure among survivors of the fire, “huddled in shacks or living among the ruins that had once been their homes” in the cold winter that followed. The dramatist James Shirley and his wife are believed to have died in this way. Hanson maintains that “it stretches credulity to believe that the only papists or foreigners being beaten to death or lynched were the ones rescued by the Duke of York”, that official figures say very little about the fate of the undocumented poor, and that the heat at the heart of the firestorms was far greater than an ordinary house fire, and was enough to consume bodies fully or leave only a few skeletal fragments, producing a death toll not of eight, but of “several hundred and quite possibly several thousand.” The material destruction has been computed at 13,200–13,500 houses, 86 or 87 parish churches, 44 Company Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and the three western city gates—Ludgate, Newgate, and Aldersgate. The monetary value of the loss was estimated at around 9–10 million pounds (equivalent to £1.79 billion in 2021). François Colsoni says that the lost books alone were valued at £150,000. Evelyn believed that he saw as many as “200,000 people of all ranks and stations dispersed, and lying along their heaps of what they could save” in the fields towards Islington and Highgate. The fire destroyed approximately 15 percent of the city’s housing.

A special Fire Court was set up from February 1667 to December 1668, and again from 1670 to February 1676. The aim of the court, which was authorized by the Fire of London Disputes Act and the Rebuilding of London Act 1670, was to deal with disputes between tenants and landlords and decide who should rebuild, based on ability to pay. Cases were heard and a verdict usually given within a day; without the Fire Court, lengthy legal proceedings would have seriously delayed the rebuilding which was so necessary if London was to recover. Radical rebuilding schemes poured in for the gutted City and were encouraged by Charles. Apart from Wren and Evelyn, it is known that Robert Hooke, Valentine Knight, and Richard Newcourt proposed rebuilding plans. All were based on a grid system, which became prevalent in the American urban landscape. If it had been rebuilt under some of these plans, London would have rivalled Paris in Baroque magnificence. According to archaeologist John Schofield, Wren’s plan “would have probably encouraged the crystallisation of the social classes into separate areas”, similar to Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the mid-1800s. Wren’s plan was particularly challenging to implement because of the need to redefine property titles. The Crown and the City authorities attempted to negotiate compensation for the large-scale remodelling that these plans entailed, but that unrealistic idea had to be abandoned. Exhortations to bring workmen and measure the plots on which the houses had stood were mostly ignored by people worried about day-to-day survival, as well as by those who had left the capital; for one thing, with the shortage of labour following the fire, it was impossible to secure workmen for the purpose. Instead, much of the old street plan was recreated in the new City. According to Michael Hebbert, this process “accelerated the development of scientific survey and cartographic techniques”, including the development of ichnographical city maps. The reconstruction saw improvements in hygiene and fire safety: wider streets, open and accessible wharves along the length of the Thames, with no houses obstructing access to the river, and, most importantly, buildings constructed of brick and stone, not wood. The Rebuilding of London Act 1666 banned wood from the exterior of buildings, regulated the cost of building materials and the wages of workers, and set out a rebuilding period of three years, after which the land could be sold. A duty was imposed on coal to support civic rebuilding costs. Most private rebuilding was complete by 1671. New public buildings were created on their predecessors’ sites including St Paul’s Cathedral and Christopher Wren’s 51 new churches. English economist Nicholas Barbon illegally reshaped London with his own rebuilding schemes, which developed the Strand, St. Giles, Bloomsbury and Holborn. These were completed despite strict restrictions which stated it was illegal to build between the City of London and Westminster.

In addition to the physical changes to London, the Great Fire had a significant demographic, social, political, economic, and cultural impact. The fire “caused the largest dislocation of London’s residential structure in its history until the Blitz“. Areas to the west of London received the highest number of new residents, but there was a general increase in the population density of the suburbs surrounding London. Approximately 9,000 new houses were built in the area in which over 13,000 had been destroyed, and by 1674 thousands of these remained unoccupied. Tenants who did remain in London saw a significant decrease in the costs of their lease. The fire seriously disrupted commercial activity, as premises and stock were destroyed and victims faced heavy debts and rebuilding costs. As a result, economic recovery was slow. The City of London Corporation borrowed heavily to fund its rebuilding, defaulting on its loans in 1683; as a result, it had its privileges stripped by Charles. The commercial district of London had significant vacancies as merchants who had left the city resettled elsewhere. Charitable foundations experienced significant financial losses because of direct fire-related costs as well as loss of rental income. Despite these factors, London retained its “economic pre-eminence” because of the access to shipping routes and its continued central role in political and cultural life in England. According to Jacob Field, “the reaction to the Fire revealed England’s long-standing hostility to Catholics, which manifested itself most visibly at times of crisis”. Allegations that Catholics had started the fire were exploited as powerful political propaganda by opponents of pro-Catholic Charles II’s court, mostly during the Popish Plot and the exclusion crisis later in his reign. The Royalist perspective of the fire as accidental was opposed by the Whig view questioning the loyalties of Catholics in general and the Duke of York in particular. In 1667 strict new fire regulations were imposed in London to reduce the risk of future fire and allow any fire that did occur to be more easily extinguished. The fire resulted in the emergence of the first insurance companies, starting with Nicholas Barbon’s Fire Office. These companies hired private firemen and offered incentives for clients who took measures to prevent fires—for example, a cheaper rate for brick versus wooden buildings. Confusion between parish and private firefighting efforts led the insurance companies in 1832 to form a combined firefighting unit which would eventually become the London Fire Brigade. The fire led to a focus in building codes on restricting the spread of fire between units. The Great Plague epidemic of 1665 is believed to have killed a sixth of London’s inhabitants, or 80,000 people, and it is sometimes suggested that the fire saved lives in the long run by burning down so much unsanitary housing with their rats and their fleas which transmitted the plague, as plague epidemics did not recur in London after the fire. During the Bombay plague epidemic two centuries later, this belief led to the burning of tenements as an antiplague measure. The suggestion that the fire prevented further outbreaks is disputed; the Museum of London identifies this as a common myth about the fire. On Charles’ initiative, a Monument to the Great Fire of London was erected near Pudding Lane, designed by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, standing 61.5 metres (202 ft) tall. In 1681, accusations against the Catholics were added to the inscription on the Monument which read, in part, “Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched”. The inscription remained until after the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 when it was removed in 1830 following a successful campaign by City Solicitor Charles Pearson. Another monument marks the spot where the fire is said to have died out: the Golden Boy of Pye Corner in Smithfield. Although it was never implemented, Wren’s plan for the rebuilding of London has itself had a significant cultural impact. The decision not to implement the plan was criticized by later authors such as Daniel Defoe and was frequently cited by advocates for public health. It also featured heavily in textbooks for the nascent discipline of city planning and was referenced by reports on the reconstruction of London after the Second World War. Wren presenting the plan was the subject of a Royal Mail stamp issued in 2016, one of six in a set commemorating the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. Cultural responses to the Great Fire emerged in poetry, “one of the chief modes of media in seventeenth-century England”, as well as in religious sermons. At least 23 poems were published in the year following the fire. More recent cultural works featuring the Great Fire include the 1841 novel Old St. Paul’s (and the 1914 film adaptation), the 2006 novel Forged in the Fire, the 2014 television drama The Great Fire, and the musical Bumblescratch, which was performed as part of the commemorations of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire.

Read more on Wikipedia Great Fire of London (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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