I recently researched the Great Fire of London and was struck by the number of similar themes to Grenfell. From failure to heed warnings, comply with regulations to fighting over who would pay to rebuild to failure by officials to do the ‘right thing’
In 1666, the Great Fire of London burned for four days and destroyed a quarter of the city. Only 6 people, by official counts, died. The fire spread horizontally and resulted in ‘brick and stone’ replacing more flammable building materials and wider distances between building.
Before the fire….
- As early as 1559 there had been warnings that London would be destroyed by a fire.
- In 1661, King Charles II had ordered that overhanging windows and jetties not be built. The order was ignored.
- In April 1665, King Charles II warned the Lord Mayor of the danger of a fire due to the narrow street and overhanging wooden houses.
- Regulations to build using brick and stone had been ignored (although thatch by this point was mostly not in use).
Sunday 2nd September 1666
- At 1 am a fire broke out in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane. The baker and his family escaped through an upstairs window. A maid who didn’t want to climb over the rooftops died. Within an hour nearby church bells were rung to alert people.
- By 3 am the fire had grown so large it could be seen a quarter of a mile away. Residents tried unsuccessfully to douse the fire. The Lord Mayor was woken and told the news but took no action.
- By 4 am the fire had reached the banks of the Thames, setting alight warehouses full of goods, some of these exploded. The streets were full of people, some with carts with their belongings trying to escape the fire.
- By 5 am the Lord Mayor was advised to destroy houses in the fire’s path to stop it spreading. He ignored the advice as he didn’t want to have to pay for rebuilding the houses.
- By 6 am more than 300 houses had been destroyed.
- By 10 am people were fleeing London afraid the fire would reach their properties.
- By 10pm the fire covered half a mile east and north of Pudding Lane. King Charles ordered the Lord Mayor to pull down houses in the fire’s path.
Monday 3rd September 1666
- The fire kept spreading due to hot, dry, windy conditions. By 6 am many people had packed their good onto boats on the River Thames, while others fled the city.
- King Charles II put his brother James in charge of fighting the fire as it appeared that the Lord Mayor had left the city.
- People were desperate to salvage what they could before fleeing the city. Those with carts made huge sums charging them out for as much as £40 a cart. By 11 am people were prohibited from bringing carts near the fire.
- By 2pm the fire had reached the banking region. Bankers hurriedly moved coins fearing the fire would melt them.
- At 8pm an easterly wind prevented the fire spreading further east and the Thames halted it spreading South. With the fire just yards away, attention turned to preserving the Tower of London, many people had put their valuables in the tower and barrels of gunpowder were stored there.
Tuesday 4th September 1666
- The fire continued to spread reaching the shopping area of Cheapside and engulfing some of the halls of the livery companies.
- By 12 noon King Charles II joined a line of people passing buckets of water to pour on the flames.
- At 1 pm prisoners from Newgate prison were led south to escape the fire, some saw it as a chance to escape. People began looting goods from properties and shops.
- A large firebreak had been created by James to the north of the city containing the fire, at 4pm the flames leapt across the break.
- At 5pm the roof of St Paul’s caught fire, it is thought this was due to wooden scaffolding that had been erected for building works. Molten lead from the roof ran down the streets.
- At 6pm people began looking for the person who started the fire. The baker claimed his innocence. Robert Hubert, a watchmaker’s son, confessed to starting the fire by throwing a fireball through the window. It is believed he was mentally ill and didn’t understand the severity of what he was saying. He was found guilty at a trial and executed.
- By 7pm St Pauls had been completely destroyed.
Wednesday 5th September 1666
- By 7am the wind changed, blowing the fire toward the Tower of London. Chains of people passed buckets attempting to put out the fire and protect the tower.
- By 12 noon a number of houses near the tower had been pulled down and this stopped the spread.
- People set up makeshift tents with salvaged possessions in a large public park Moorfields to the North of the city. The price of bread around the park doubled.
- At 4pm the wind dropped and the spread of the fire halted
- By 8pm fires to the west had been extinguished. There was rumour that Dutch and French immigrants were marching to Moorfields and would kill survivors, causing widespread panic.
Thursday 6th September 1666
- The fire was extinguished.
- 87 churches and 13,200 houses were destroyed. Only 6 deaths were officially recorded, some believe that the toll was much higher.
- Around 100,000 people lost their homes and flocked to open spaces around the city such as Moorfield and Finsbury Parks. They were homeless and starving.
After the fire…
- People set up camp in open spaces outside the city. For most this was temporary, but some stayed there for 8 years.
- Some people moved in with friend and relatives, rents soured. Some people left the city.
- The King set up a fundraising scheme to help the penniless. On 6 October 1666 people collected money and sent it to London. Over a couple of years, it raised about 2.4 million pounds (in today’s money)
- Londoners could petition the Lord Mayor for funds if they were desperate. The Lord Mayor allegedly embezzled large sums from the fund.
- Throughout 1667 people cleared rubble and surveyed affected areas. By the end of the year only 150 new houses had been built.
- It took 50 years to rebuild the burned areas.
- There were many disputes between tenants and landlords about who would pay to rebuild houses.
- It is a myth, that the Great Fire is what turned the city from wood and thatch to ‘bricke and stone’. Thatch had been banned since 1189.
- In 1607 King James said brick and stone buildings would be less subject to fire. For 60 years, new buildings were meant to have been built from brick and stone. The uptake on this was slow and many ignored the regulations.
- In February 1667, after the Great Fire, The Building Rebuilding Act said that ‘all the outsides of all Buildings in and about the said Citty be henceforth made of Bricke or Stone’ requiring
- All houses were to be in brick or stone; no wooden eaves were allowed.
- Roofs were pushed back behind brick parapets.
- Wooden window frames were reduced. Later they were recessed behind brick so that only a narrow edge of the wooden frame was exposed to possible fire.
- Party walls between houses had to be thick enough to withstand two hours of fire. This would give the neighbours a chance of rescuing the people and extinguishing the blaze before it could spread.
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