In the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666, a fire broke out in a bakery in Pudding Lane, in the City of London, rapidly spreading west into the heart of the city. Overcrowded with wooden and thatched houses, the city was an easy target for the flames which were fanned by strong winds from the east and devoured everything in their path. The main firefighting technique of the time was to demolish the buildings in the path of the fire so it would have nothing to catch, but the authorities were too delayed in their response and the fire became too large for the demolition to have any effect. It raged until Wednesday 5th September when the winds died down and the garrison at the Tower of London used gunpowder to explode the buildings nearby, causing firebreaks big enough to halt the flames in their tracks. The devastation to the city, however,St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the City authority buildings were destroyed, leaving 70,000 out of the inner city’s 80,000 inhabitants homeless. Westminster, the court at Whitehall and the suburban slums remained untouched and fewer than ten people died (although there is suggestion that many more deaths were caused but went unregistered), but the aftermath of the fire saw a gutted city with thousands homeless and the danger of rebellion. Various attempts were made to lay the blame at the doors of the Catholics or the French, among others, but it is today believed that the cause of the fire was simply an accident. On the orders of Charles II, many of the dispossessed were evacuated and the rebuilding of the city began slowly, using a similar plan as before but less flammable building materials and greater organisation. Catastrophic as it was, the fire did much to make London a cleaner, safer and more modern city. Most of the buildings built after the fire remain in the City of London to this day.
There are several excellent eyewitness accounts of the Great Fire of London in literature and works of art, one of the most famous of which is Samuel Pepys’ diary. A Monument to the Great Fire of London was erected on the corner of Pudding Lane, a London landmark known today simply as ‘The Monument’.
Play the Great Fire of London educational game online.