The Fire of London

The Fire of London broke out in a baker's house in Pudding Lane, in the eastern precincts of the City, between one and two in the morning on Sunday, September 2, 1666. Spreading rapidly through densely packed streets of timber houses, filled with combustible materials, it bred "a kind of distraction and stupidity in the inhabitants and neighbors near it" (Strype). Fanned by a strong east wind it soon spread westward toward the heart of the City, overwhelming efforts to halt its advance by bucket brigades and the primitive fire engines available in the period. Rather than combining to fight the fire, most people with houses in its path concentrated on saving whatever they could of their own household belongings. The Lord Mayor attempted to create fire breaks by ordering streets of houses pulled down but the flames leaped over these gaps and kept burning for five days, eventually consuming most of the City. At its height the roar was audible as far away as Oxford, about sixty miles to the west. The smoke gave the sunlight an eerie reddish tinge, while the flames made the sky glow at night. In all, Strype calculated that the fire consumed 300 acres, 13,000 houses, eighty-seven parish churches, St Paul's Cathedral and numerous other public buildings, including the Guildhall. He estimated total financial losses at more than £10,000,000, a stupendous sum equivalent to about four years' income for the Crown. The devastation, graphically shown by Wenceslaus Hollar's engravings of London before and after the conflagration, inspired a crop of laments .

Although a major catastrophe, the Fire at least cleared most of the City of its old housing stock, necessitating a thorough rebuilding.  A number of schemes were presented in the aftermath, by Sir Christopher Wren and others, to reconfigure the street plan of London's medieval center by creating straight thoroughfares interspersed with open squares or ovals, from which streets radiated.  These ambitious schemes were ultimately rejected as too costly, however.  Although a new quayside was created along the Thames, most of the medieval street plan survived unaltered as individuals were encouraged to rebuild promptly on their burnt out houselots.  They were, however, required to meet new regulations stipulating the dimensions of four categories of houses, ranging from mansions down to small dwellings in back alleys.  All new houses were required to be built of brick to fairly uniform designs.  St Paul's and the majority of the destroyed parish churches were redesigned and rebuilt, with Sir Christopher Wren the leading architect; the completion of St Paul's dome in 1700 signalled the end of reconstruction, already essentially complete many years earlier. 

Even before the fire subsided Londoners began to blame the Dutch -- with whom Britain was then at war -- or Catholics for setting it. One aristocratic lady reported rumors of Dutch residents setting their own houses on fire and planting quantities of gunpowder in strategic locations.  A few Catholics were imprisoned and at least one French resident murdered in retaliation for their alleged role as arsonists. The King and Duke of York initially gained credit with the public by taking charge of efforts to fight the flames and organize relief for the Fire's victims. The official version of the City's recovery under the benevolent auspices of its monarch was commemorated by contemporary engravings, as well as a giant pillar called the Monument, which still stands near the site of the original outbreak today, with reliefs along its base that also celebrated Charles II's leadership.  Many Londoners, however, soon  came to see the Fire, along with the plague and the stunning Dutch victory over the English fleet at the Medway in 1667, as evidence of God's displeasure with England, aroused in part by immorality of the King his court. The idea that malevolent papists had set the conflagration eventually became firmly entrenched in London's folk memory, despite the absence of any clear evidence.  This conviction was inscribed on one of the plaques at the base of the Monument after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and commemorated by contemporary prints, like the one at top right.  Other people blamed London's sins, such as gluttony, a view commemorated by a little statue that survives to this day on the exterior of a building at Pye Corner. 

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