Fire engine

Great Fire of London - 350 years on

01 September 2016

London has a rich history of incidents and large fires. 350 years ago this week, between the 2 and 5 September, the Great Fire of London destroyed large parts of the City and resulted in around 100,000 people being homeless.

This blog revisits what Sadiq Kahn called “one of the most important moments in the history of the capital” and investigates its impact and legacy on emergency management in London.

This also kick starts our 30Days30WaysUK activity. Are you as prepared as you could be? Take the preparedness challenge this September.

Fascinating Facts about The Great Fire

  • 1700
    degrees
    The estimated maximum temperature (°C), hot enough to melt stone
  • 1.1
    Billion
    Estimated equivalent cost of the fire in modern prices
  • 25%
    displaced
    Proportion of residents who did not return to the City after the fire
  • 202
    height in feet
    The Monument is the same height as distance from Pudding Lane
London in 1666

Medieval London was very different to today, with a much smaller population (about 5% of the current 9 million). Buildings were closely packed and made from combustible materials. People used candles or open flames for heating, lighting and cooking and fire could (and often did) spread easily between buildings.

"Bellmen" patrolled the streets, keeping watch for fire raising the alarm by ringing church bells. Everyone in the city had a role to play in fighting fire, using water pumped through leaky wooden pipes or carried in leather buckets.

One of the ways that so much is known about the Great Fire, and about London in general, is through first hand accounts like the diaries of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and lesser known characters like Rector William Taswell.

You can also get a feel for what London, and the fire, were like in the immersive Minecraft maps developed by the Museum of London.

About the Great Fire of London

Witness statements (still held at Guildhall) indicate that initially people thought this had been a deliberate act. Many people pointed towards foreigners, the French and Dutch, which lead to violent backlashes.

The subsequent enquiry found the most probably cause was an unextinguished bakers oven. At school we learn that this was the bakery of Thomas Farriner at 23 Pudding Lane. However, recent discoveries in the London Metropolitan Archives of plans from 1679 suggest that the seat of the fire could actually have been on what is now Monument Street.

From the early hours of Sunday 2 September 1666 the fire spread quickly due to strong winds. The diary of John Evelyn records what the fire was like on that first day:

"All the skie was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seene above 40 miles round about for many nights...so hot and inflam’d that...one was not able to approach it, so that they were forc’d to stand still and let ye flames burn on..."

After burning ferociously for four days fire abated. Over 100,000 people had been made homeless, and buildings, churches and livelihoods had been lost.

Many of the well-off found accommodation in the Bloomsbury and Mayfair areas. The poor however, were accommodated in large camps on the outskirts of the city. There are only 6 known direct fatalities, but many more are thought to have died in these camps, which remained for 8 years.

Financial losses were enormous, estimated at £1.1billion in today’s money; made worse by the ongoing recovery from the Great Plague the previous year.

Could the Great Fire happen again today?

Fire remains a very serious risk. We should all be aware of key fire safety messages. However, many of the factors which contributed to the Great Fire are not applicable today.

Better Buildings

  • the 1667 Rebuilding Act introduced restrictions on building density, height and construction materials. Since then many more building and planning regulations have been agreed to make us all safer from lots of different risks.

Better Firefighting

  • water pipes (which had previously been made from hollowed out elm trees) were upgraded by the Fire Prevention Regulations of 1668, which also introduced an early version of fire hydrants.
  • insurance companies in the City began to form private fire brigades to protect their client’s property. In 1833 10 insurance companies came together to form the London Fire Engine Establishment. Following another incident (the Great Fire of Tooley Street, 1861) this organisation recommended to the Home Secretary that fire safety and response should be a public provision. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade was created on 1 Jan 1866 as a public service, and this year under the name London Fire Brigade, celebrates it’s 150th birthday.
  • in 1672 the flexible fire hose was invented by a Dutch artist, constructed from leather sections connected every 50ft with brass fittings. Another Dutch inventor, John Lofting, moved to London and developed the ‘Sucking Worm Engine’ in 1690 as an early version of a modern fire engine (there is a print in the British Museum collection).

Different Population

  • The resident population of the City of London is now just over 8,000. It would therefore be hard to have so many people and families displaced as happened in 1666. However, as the financial capital of the country it’s conceivable that an incident of this scale would have unprecedented economic impact at local, national and international scales.

Improved Emergency Response and Recovery

  • There were a number of examples of poor emergency management, which ultimately resulted in King Charles II and the Duke of York having to take charge of elements of the response. This is a very unlikely possibility in 2016!
  • London now has a partnership approach to planning for, responding to and learning from emergencies – find out more about what we do and the emergency plans for London.
  • We've worked with partners to develop a Recovery Protocol, so we can help people, businesses and communities to quickly regain some normality following an incident.
  • National initiatives like JESIP allow different organisations to work together to common principles

 

Find out more

There is so much more that can be said about the Great Fire that we haven’t been able to cover here – to find out more the  Fire!Fire!, the Museum of London exhibition runs until 17 April 2017.

We can personally recommend the view from the top of The Monument, but if the thought of 311 steps is daunting then have a look at the 360-degree webcam instead.

Finally, a range of commemorative events runs for the remainder of the year marking the 350th anniversary. We'll be attending as many as we can and sharing how the Great Fire is still relevant in emergency planning in London today.

 

Matt, London Resilience Officer