Great Fire of London

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Great Fire of London - Detail of painting from 1666 of the Great Fire of London by an unknown artist, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. Great Fire of London

Great Fire of London - The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames.

Great Fire of London - The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of London from Sunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman City Wall.

It threatened, but did not quite reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster (today's West End) and Charles II's Palace of Whitehall and left the suburban slums surrounding the City largely untouched. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and nearly all the buildings of the City authorities.

It is estimated that it made homeless 70,000 of the City's 80,000 inhabitants. The death toll from the fire is unknown and has traditionally been thought to have been small, as only a few verified deaths are recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the ground that poor and middle-class people were not recorded anywhere, and that the heat of the fire would have cremated all victims, leaving no recognisable human remains.

The fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner (or Farynor) in Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September, and spread rapidly. The use of the major firefighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition, was critically delayed due to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm which defeated such measures.

The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England's enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence.

Tuesday, the fire spread over nearly the whole City, destroying St. Paul's Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II's court at Whitehall. Coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously getting underway. The battle to put out the fire is considered to have been won by two key factors: the strong east wind dropped, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks, halting further spread eastward.

The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming. Flight from London and settlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Various schemes for rebuilding the City were proposed, some of them very radical. After the fire, London was reconstructed on essentially the same medieval street plan which still exists today.

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