monument

This is the Monument, located near where the Great Fire of London began in 1666. The Monument, designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1677, is the world’s largest free-standing stone column. Its height, 202 feet, is equal to the distance away it is from the spot where the fire began in the bakery and/or house of Thomas Farriner on the evening of September 1-2, 1666.

Christopher Wren is intimately connected with the aftermath of the fire. He designed the great Cathedral of St. Paul, which was built on the same spot as the previous church which was destroyed spectacularly in the fire. The cathedral took decades to build and was not completed until 1710, nearly 50 years after the disaster. Wren also designed and supervised the rebuilding of 51 other churches destroyed in the fire.

There is a curious ambivalence in history about the Great Fire. It’s a hugely spectacular event, but is it really that important? Part of the ambivalence about it comes, I think, from the misconception that it was not a “disaster” in the sense of great loss of life. Despite wiping out the old city, the “official” death toll from the fire was only 8. If that seems pretty unbelievable, it should.

Neil Hanson, in his book The Dreadful Judgement, disputes the theory that the Great Fire took few lives. He argues that hundreds or even thousands of Londoners died, that most of them were poor people, and that the illusion that few died was promoted by the fact that few corpses were found in the rubble that remained–but that’s not surprising, considering the intense heat of the fire. Deaths may not have made it into the historical record because the way historians usually count them from this period–the “bills of mortality” listing deaths–did not resume until much later after the fire, because the newspapers that printed them were disrupted. It seems scarcely possible that such a huge disaster in a densely-packed 17th century city could be so bloodless.

As a historian, I agree with Hanson’s argument. I believe the Great Fire of London killed very many Londoners. The Monument, then, is not a monument to the property lost, but the lives who were cut short as well.

dresden 1945

What fire does to a modern city: Dresden, February 1945.

The Great Fire of London is also instructive as a piece of environmental history. So many factors–weather, wind, rainfall, the urban composition of 17th century England, the nature of Londoners’ relationship to their city–come together so vividly in this story. I think it does matter.

Could something like this happen again? We tend to think not. Modern cities are just as combustible as 17th century ones–perhaps even more so, given the amount of fossil fuels that are present in modern cities–but our system of urban fire control is so much more sophisticated. Today, a fire breaks out and we dispatch publicly-funded first responders, armed with various technological weapons, to stop it before it spreads.

But what if that system of fire control breaks down? We have seen fires comparable to London’s in more modern times–for instance in 1945, when the bombings of Tokyo and Dresden caused such widespread destruction. Both of these fires killed upwards of 100,000 people, thus also giving the lie to the incredible claim that only 8 died in 1666. Any natural force, like fire, dependent on human institutions to control it is subject to catastrophic failure. Thus, I wouldn’t be so sure that a fire like London’s couldn’t happen again, even in this century.

Thanks for going with me on this journey through the Great Fire of London. As I leave this subject I quote the traditional cry of the London night-watchmen in the 17th century, which Thomas Farriner may have heard as he settled down to bed on the evening of September 1, 1666, the last night in history on which old medieval London existed:

“Midnight. Look to your lock, your fire and your light, and so good night.”

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