great fire of london

This week marks the anniversary of one of the great disasters in world history: the Great Fire of London, which broke out 347 years ago tonight, on the night of September 1-2, 1666. This week I’ll be doing a series of posts tracking the great blaze day by day as it burned out the heart of old London, making room for the modern city.

London in 1666 was a strange, wonderful but dangerous place. Most of the city at that time was still bottled up behind the old Roman-era city walls, and it was cramped and bursting at them like a pair of too-tight jeans. The population density was incredible even by modern standards as Tudor-era houses made of wood and plaster clustered together and grew like trees around tiny, dizzying narrow lanes. Brick streets were filthy open sewers. There was no modern sanitation; what few “water mains” there were under the streets consisted of hollowed-out logs, and forget about modern services like fire protection or police. The heart of the city were its markets, narrow plazas and squares bursting with clothing, meat, vegetables, tobacco or anything else for sale. Behind these markets were lively taverns, crawling with whores, cut-purses and drunkards. London in 1666 makes Detroit in the 1970s look like a utopian paradise in comparison.

It was also a time of great change in Britain. The new king, Charles II, had been on the throne only six years, after the British monarchy was restored following 20 bloody years of civil war, political and religious upheaval. London had already suffered a staggering disaster just a year before the Great Fire, where the horrible bubonic plague of 1665 burned through England, killing tens of thousands. England was also at war with the Dutch. and trying furtively to expand overseas with its North American colonies. Catholics or “Popists” were thought to be the worst enemy of English society, although many Britons still were Catholic, more than a century after Henry VIII decided to get a divorce and launch the English Reformation.

charles II

Charles II was known as a womanizer and a libertine during his years on the throne. Certainly he had epic hair.

The weather at the start of the fire is important. By September 1666 southeastern England had been in the grip of a drought for ten months. Everything was tinder-dry and the summer had been very hot. In the last days of August it became unseasonably windy. Observers report it as a “gale,” but there was no rain, just wind.

Against this backdrop–and a city that was an environmental disaster as well as an extreme fire hazard–Thomas Farriner, a baker who supplied bread to the British Navy, stumbled home from the pub late on the night of Saturday, September 1. He lived in Pudding Lane, a traditional street for bakeries, and his house was attached to his bakery shop. He claimed that the hearth in his bakehouse was cold when he went to bed that night. In any event, in the middle of the night, between 1 and 2 AM, Farriner woke up and found his house burning. He, Hannah and his servant Teagh managed to escape out a window, but another servant, Rose, was left behind and perished in the flames. Within an hour all of Pudding Lane was on fire. Fire companies mustered out, but there was very little water because the city was so dry; a few bucket brigades were organized, but they were largely powerless against the flames.

Famously, the Lord Mayor of London, Lord Thomas Bludworth, arrived at the scene of the fire. He got out of his carriage, took one look and said, “Pish. A woman might piss it out.” These famous last words would come back to haunt him, as he was later blamed for doing very little to stop the spread of the fire.

puddling lane london

The former site of Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse and home, where the Great Fire began, is today an office tower.

What caused Farriner’s fire? We can’t know. It might have been an incompletely-extinguished coal in his bakery, but he insisted that the bakehouse was not on fire at the time his house was, so it could have been a spark in the wooden chimney of his house. Historian Neil Hanson, who wrote a gripping 2001 book The Dreadful Judgment about the fire, suggests that perhaps some of the wood in his chimney, chemically altered by decades of heat, combusted spontaneously. It’s hard to say.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll track the progress of the fire on its first full day, September 2.