A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year The Great Fire of London, 1666

The Great Fire of London raged from Sunday, September 2nd to Wednesday, September 5th, 1666. About 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and a multitude of the city authority's buildings were destroyed. The death toll is said to be fairly low – 6-16 deaths are usually proffered as the total killed – but historians estimate that more died, especially poorer citizens. The Fire occurred about a year after the plague killed 68,000 citizens.

On the evening of September 2nd, a fire began on Pudding Lame in the bakeshop of Thomas Farynor, a baker to King Charles II. London's essentially Medieval city layout contributed to the destructiveness of the fire; since most London houses were made of wood and pitch, they were very flammable and it was not long before the fire began to engulf nearby buildings. The Star Inn at Fish Street Hill was consumed, and high winds spread sparks to the Church of St. Margaret and to Thames Street, where the wharves with their hemp, oil, tallow, timber, coal, and liquor provided even more fuel for the flames.

By Monday morning the fire had nearly crossed London Bridge. John Evelyn, one of the most famous chroniclers of the Great Fire, wrote, "The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, they hardly stirred to quench it, so that there was nothing heard or seen but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods, such a strange consternation there was upon them."

The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was quite indecisive and delayed the primary method of fighting fires at the time – the erection of firebreaks by way of demolition. He feared the costs of rebuilding, but his delay was even more costly. By the time he ordered the firebreaks, the fire was spreading to the heart of the city. A royal command was handed down, carried by famous London denizen Samuel Pepys, and the Trained Bands of London (there were no official police or fire departments) were also called in. However, the conflagration could not be contained and raged for another three days. On Tuesday St. Paul's Cathedral was destroyed, and Charles II's court at Whitehall was threatened. It came to a stop at Temple Church, but then revived and moved towards Westminster. At this point the Duke of York called for the Paper House to be demolished as a firebreak, which finally caused the fire to die down. The gunpowder used in creating firebreaks and the dying down of the strong, easterly winds are said to have caused the fire's cessation.

Many Londoners feared that foreigners had set the fire, pointing to the French and the Dutch in particular, enemies of England from the Anglo-Dutch War. Some French and Dutch citizens were subjected to lynching or beatings.

Although the death count was reportedly low, the city faced considerable economic and social problems after the fire. An estimated 80% of the city was destroyed, and thousands of citizens were left homeless and impoverished. The only benefit was that the plague was banished, due to the destruction of the rats infected with the disease.

Charles II encouraged Londoners to resettle elsewhere, as he feared a rebellion among the dispossessed refugees. He appointed six Commissioners to redesign the city, calling for wider streets and brick buildings. Although much of London ended up being rebuilt in a similar fashion to the pre-fire city, the wider streets and brick and stone buildings were important changes. Christopher Wren oversaw the rebuilding of St. Paul's, as well as a monument to the Great Fire which stands at the site of the bakery where the blaze began. The street is now called Monument Street.