Just one spark. Probably the embers in the baker’s oven aren’t fully extinguished, the spark sets fire to nearby kindling material, and flames spread to wooden furniture and walls. Within minutes the whole ground floor is alight.
It’s 1.00 am and upstairs from the bakery Thomas Farriner is sound asleep. Thankfully his son is not. He smells smoke, and runs to wake his father. For a moment Farriner is disoriented. He cannot understand what his son his saying. Then he too smells the smoke. He leaps from his bed and runs downstairs, but is met by a wall of smoke and flame. There is nothing he can do to halt the fire. The house has two storeys above the ground-level bakery. Farriner’s wife Hanna died in 1665, and his daughter Mary is married. But his other two children, Thomas and Hanna, are in the house. He gathers them and the maidservant. Their only hope is to go up.
It’s September 2nd, 1666, the bakery is in Pudding Lane, and the blaze there is the beginning of the Great Fire of London.
Farriner’s house – as almost every home in mediaeval London – is made entirely of wood. The late summer has been warm with no rain. The dried out wood is perfect fuel for the fire which is spreading fast. If the family don’t escape quickly, they’ll die when the flames reach them or the house collapses.
Farriner forces open an attic window. He climbs out onto the thatched roof, reaches back and pulls his children after him. He crawls to the edge of the roof, but he’s now in great danger of falling to his death on the street below. At upper levels, houses in Pudding Lane extend over the street, almost touching the houses opposite. Farriner can reach across to the butcher’s home across the street, gets his attention, and with his help Farriner and his children clamber over to safety. But not their maid. She’s still in the attic, terrified by the fire below yet too frightened of falling to climb out the window. Farriner’s maid is the first to die in the Great Fire.
This is part one of a multi-episode account of the Great Fire of London. We’ll see why fire in one house spread quickly to others, why fire-fighting attempts proved futile, how city leaders failed, and later how prejudice led to severe violence against immigrant Londoners, why the fire finally stopped, and how the building of a new London began. And much more.
Before picking up the story of the fire again, there are six background facts worth knowing in order to understand why and how events unfolded as they did.
First, London was a very large city. The population in the 1660s is estimated between 350,000 and 500,000. That’s immense for its time, around ten to fifteen times the size of other British cities. It made London likely the largest city in Europe and the third largest in the western world. Behind the old Roman walls, in the mediaeval city, a huge population lived in overcrowded streets, their houses virtually touching each other. A ring of suburbs surrounded the old city, including the independent City of Westminster. A fire could spread easily and widely.
Second, because homes were made of wood, thatch, and doused in flammable pitch, they could catch fire easily and be completely consumed by flames within minutes. Many also stored highly flammable hay and straw. And the ‘jetties’ – the overhanging upper storeys – meant fire in one easily spread to others. But the houses were built like that because wood was a relatively cheap building material, and tax was paid only on the ground level footprint of a home, not its overall size. Officially that kind of structure was banned, but the law was not enforced by local officials, so oversized wooden homes continued to be built.
Third, fire-fighting methods were primitive by modern standards. There were essentially two techniques.
- The first was water. There was plenty of water since the River Thames was close to Pudding Lane, but the ordinary citizens had only leather buckets which held little water and took time to get to a fire. There was no modern-style fire brigade, but London had ‘fire engines’. However, they were little more than large barrels mounted on sleds with a spout to spray water towards flames – that is, if the heat even allowed you to get close. Only some sleds had wheels, and, being immensely heavy, they were hard to haul through the streets, and doubly difficult among panicking crowds. During the Great Fire several toppled into the Thames while refilling and were lost.
- The second technique involved partial or total demolition of homes to create firebreaks. Firehooks could pull burning thatch off a roof, and even tear down a wall. They were relatively effective. More extreme but also useful was gunpowder. Blowing up houses completely could create a larger firebreak, successful unless the fire found some way to jump across.
Buckets of water, axes, ladders, water squirts and firehooks were stored in local churches. But access to them was difficult in the early hours of the morning, and these tools were inadequate once the fire had spread.
Fourth, the Great Fire spread rapidly because of a persistent strong wind blowing east to west. Those who fought the fire couldn’t keep pace with the rapid progress caused by that wind. It also explains why burning embers drifted across firebreaks.
Fifth, the governance of London failed its people when the fire erupted. London, like most English cities and towns, was managed by aldermen and a Lord Mayor. London, though, was also the location of Parliament and of the king, and that complicated matters. Here’s the super-short background. The English King Charles I was beheaded in 1649 during a period of civil wars between monarchists and parliamentarians (republicans). Under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, reforms had taken place, but he died in 1658 and his son Richard who followed was significantly less able. Another king was needed, and Charles II came to the throne in 1660. Thus began what was called the ‘Restoration’, a period of social change which included reopening theatres (closed under the puritanism of Cromwell) and flourishing of literature. Charles II was relatively popular, and was nicknamed the ‘Merry Monarch’. However, not all welcomed the restoration of the monarchy. That was particularly true in predominantly parliamentarian London, and resistance to rulership or interference by the king played its part in mismanagement of the Great Fire.
Sixth, England and the Dutch Republic were in conflict over extracting precious minerals and gold from West Africa, and that had worsened into a mainly naval war. Foreigners in London from European countries were increasingly distrusted. As we shall see, they became prime suspects for starting and spreading the fire.
But it’s in Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane that the fire starts in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September, 1666. Farriner is sometimes described as the king’s baker, but that’s correct only because he supplied baked biscuits to the Royal Navy. The street name Pudding Lane sounds odd in modern ears, especially for those who use the word ‘pudding’ as a near-equivalent to ‘dessert’. But pudding in those times was offal, the entrails and internal organs of an animal, material often discarded and eaten by birds or dumped into rivers like the Thames. Pudding Lane acquired its name because a great number of butchers’ shops were located there. In fact many trades were in Pudding Lane, so it was a street in which people stored tar, rope, oil, brandy and other goods that burned easily. It was the worst place for a fire to start.
With the word ‘Fire!’ shouted loudly, parish constables arrive. In the first hour, the flames consume only a few shops and houses. But it must not be allowed to spread further, especially to warehouses alongside the nearby River Thames because they store highly dangerous materials, including lamp oil, tallow, spirits, and gunpowder.
The constables decide that homes on either side of those burning must be torn down to create a firebreak. But they lack the authority to demolish private property. The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, does have that authority and he is soon on the scene. But he makes two fateful decisions. First, he will not allow soldiers to help. The aldermen to whom he answers were parliamentarians in the civil war, and he knows they will not tolerate the king’s army acting within city walls. Second, Bloodworth massively underestimates the danger. He thinks the fire insignificant, that it’ll die out soon. In his diary Samuel Pepys records Bloodworth’s rude and inappropriate comment that the fire is so small a woman’s piss could put it out. With that judgment, Bloodworth returns home and goes back to his bed.
The fire does not die out. More and more buildings are added to the blaze. The thatch and dry wood are perfect fuel for the fire. Locals form lines to pass buckets of water taken from the Thames, but their efforts cannot keep pace with the spread of this fire. They do tear down some buildings, but the strong wind carries embers across firebreaks and the fire spreads to adjoining streets. Soon, many are no longer thinking about fighting the fire. Instead they’re gathering their families and whatever possessions they can carry, and trying to find a place of safety.
Not far away Samuel Pepys is wakened by a servant. Pepys is a remarkable man. He’s described as a diarist and naval administrator, but that underplays his significance. Under Charles II (and his successor James II) he became Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. He had no sea-going experience, but implemented essential reforms which organised and professionalised the navy. Additionally, he wrote down all that was happening around him during the years 1660 to 1669. His diary writings – more than a million words – were published much later and not only give invaluable insights into that decade, but especially its great events which include the Great Fire of London.
It is still the middle of the night, and 33-year-old Pepys is as reluctant as anyone to leave his bed. But the maid insists. He steps over to his bedroom window, and sees fire and smoke rising only one-third of a mile away. But he’s not especially perturbed. It’s just another London fire, and he’s suffering constant pain from bladder stones, so he returns to his bed.
He wakens again at 7.00 am. He looks out his window. The fire is now much larger. Pepys has access to the king, and thinks the monarch should be informed. First he goes to the Tower of London from where he can get a better view of the fire. He sees how fast the strong wind is pushing the flames. At the Thames he clambers onto a boat from where he has a view towards Pudding Lane. People are running from the fire with their possessions, some throwing themselves and their property into the river, and others stacking their goods on boats.
He uses his boat to reach Whitehall where the royal palace is located. King Charles is alarmed, and instructs Pepys to return to the old city, find the Lord Mayor, instruct Bloodworth to tear down houses, and tell him that the king will send soldiers to help. These are sensible measures, but the mayor will not care to be instructed by the king nor want his soldiers.
By mid-morning Pepys is touring streets by coach but has yet to find Bloodworth. The fire is widening its reach minute by minute, pushed along by an ever-stronger wind. The lanes are crammed with an odd mix of citizens. Some are dressed smartly and on their way to church. Others are covered in soot, and hurrying away from the fire carrying children and possessions. Flames reach into the sky. Dark clouds billow up over the city.
Pepys continues to search, by now on foot. The crowds have made coach travel slower than walking. At St Paul’s Cathedral he watches people pushing to gain entry, not for Sunday worship but bringing their clothes, furniture, and other goods inside. Many take them down to the crypt. St Paul’s is large and made of stone. It will not burn. It is a safe place. Or so they think.
Where is Bloodworth? Pepys heads towards the fire. People rush past him, some trying to stem the flames and others getting as far as possible from the flames. One man tells Pepys the mayor might be anywhere, and that 300 homes are burning now. He presses on, forcing his way through the throngs. He rounds a corner and for the first time feels the heat from the fire on his face. In front of him are not homes, but what looks like a giant bonfire. ‘It made me weep to see it’, writes Pepys. One writer describes his reaction: ‘This is no longer the few burning streets he’d told the king about. This is a vision of hell.’
As well as what Pepys sees and feels, what he hears is terrifying. Burning wood is not silent. It breaks apart with loud bangs, like the firing of pistol shots. Everywhere fires roar. Pepys steps away, moves down alleys not yet ablaze, and finally finds Lord Mayor Bloodworth in Cannon Street surrounded by constables and locals. To Pepys he looks defeated and near to collapse. He had a chance to extinguish this fire, but now it’s too late.
Pepys tells Bloodworth he brings orders from the king. Houses in the path of the fire must be demolished. Despite the awful reality of a fire out of control, the mayor stubbornly refuses. The two men argue. For Pepys whatever can be done to save the city must be done. Bloodworth, though, will not give up his control and take commands from the king. Though the mayor has no idea what to do he will not let King Charles tell him what to do. He protests that he has been up all night, he now needs to go. And he does go, leaving his city to burn. Lord Mayor Bloodworth is never seen again while the Great Fire rages.
It’s now not even midday on Sunday, only the first day of the fire, and already hope of saving much of London is gone. And here we will pause our narrative. This has been only the introduction to our story. The worst of the Great Fire is yet to come. Details to follow in the next blog posts.
In closing, though, is there any wisdom to be gleaned from the beginning of the Great Fire of 1666? There is. Very briefly, I’ve noted four lessons.
- There was clearly a failure to imagine the unimaginable. London often had fires, but they were small, and their primitive fire-fighting measures were adequate. Those in authority had never imagined a fire which quickly became an inferno and then spread further and further across the city driven by a near gale force wind. But, actually, that was not ‘unimaginable’. It was simply not imagined. Very strong winds happened, often in early autumn. If only they’d planned and prepared for a fire breaking out at such a time.
- Laws were not enforced and that had consequences. Foolish practices, while not illegal, were allowed. There were laws about the size and overhang of houses which no-one enforced. Highly inflammable and even explosive materials were stored in wooden houses and sheds and no-one intervened. This was madness, a classic case of nothing being done until there’s a disaster. There was indeed a disaster, one that claimed lives and destroyed a large part of London.
- Dogma took priority over effective action. As we will see, once soldiers were organised and deployed, more effective firefighting took place. But for crucial hours the king’s men were refused. Many of London’s leaders had not wanted another king, so they certainly didn’t want his soldiers. That decision had devastating consequences.
- Those who should have taken decisive action failed. Most historians condemn Lord Mayor Bloodworth for his inaction. But some believe he faced impossible pressures politically, and was simply out of his depth when faced with a massive fire. Both hard judgments and soft judgments can reasonably be made about Bloodworth. But the bottom line is that he did little in the early hours, and removed himself when firm and effective action was most needed. He was the city’s leader, but he wasn’t a leader in a major crisis.
The Great Fire of London lasted four days. So far we have seen only its beginning. There is much more to come.
I have used several sources for the information in this series on the Great Fire. A special thanks is due to the podcast, Short History of the Great Fire of London. It not only gives more information than most web sources, it tells the story. I have used my own words, but, with gratitude, I’ve followed the podcast’s story line to unfold information and events on a day by day basis. I also want to warmly commend all the episodes of the ‘Short History of…’ podcast. The team cover a wide range of subjects. It is one of my most favourite podcasts – important subjects, brilliantly told, easily followed, fair interpretations. The link to its website is just below.
Here are my major web sources:
Short History of the Great Fire of London podcast. It can be found in two places:
- On the ‘Short History of…’ website: https://www.noiser.com/short-history-of
- Or by this link: https://podcasts.apple.com/lk/podcast/the-great-fire-of-london/id1579040306?i=1000568418045
The Monument, erected between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the fire, and still accessible today, has a website which describes the fire at: https://www.themonument.org.uk/history
Of course Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the Great Fire and, via other pages, on many of the main characters mentioned in its story. The Great Fire entry is at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_London
London Fire Brigade can trace the inspiration for its founding back to the Great Fire. It gives its account of the fire at: https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/museum/history-and-stories/the-great-fire-of-london/#:~:text=In%201666%2C%20a%20devastating%20fire,Paul’s%20Cathedral
Inside History tells the Great Fire story in two parts.
- The first, on its beginnings, can be found here: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/great-fire-of-london-begins#:~:text=In%201986%2C%20London’s%20bakers%20finally,the%20Great%20Fire%20of%201666
- The second part is here: https://www.history.com/news/when-london-burned-1666s-great-fire
The Museum of London has many resources related to the Great Fire. Its web pages are here: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/great-fire-london-1666
 Now the location of the UK Parliament.
 His merriness included fathering at least 12 illegitimate children with mistresses, but he left no legitimate heir. He was succeeded on the throne by his brother James.
 Tallow is rendered animal fat, more commonly called ‘dripping’ in the UK. In the 17th century, one of its uses was for candles.
 His last name also appears as Bludwoth.
 Bloodworth is blamed for allowing the fire to spread in its early stages. But tearing down private property, if later deemed unnecessary, could have left him personally liable for damages unless the king had authorized his actions. But his aldermen – parliamentarians – would not have allowed the king to decide on firefighting measures in the city.
 The pronunciation of his last name sounds like ‘peeps’.
 John Hopkins & Danny Marshall, ‘Short History of the Great Fire of London’ podcast, 22’18”.