The Great Fire of London began in the early hours of a Sunday morning. By Tuesday you’d expect the fire would have been extinguished or simply died down. You’d be wrong.
In fact dawn on Tuesday heralds the day of greatest destruction. The fire spreads faster. More houses than ever are consumed. And buildings burn to the ground which no-one thought could even go on fire.
Primarily because a major fire in the 17th century was very different from a major fire now.
Our modern assumption is that, with time, a fire will be beaten. We have fire brigades staffed by fully trained firefighters. They have excellent equipment, such as high pressure hoses, extending ladders, protective suits, breathing apparatus, and even drones. And fire hydrants provide near-endless water supplies. Also, many buildings don’t burn easily because they’re constructed with fire-retardant materials, fitted with early warning smoke alarms, and sprinkler systems are installed in their ceilings.
The realities of September 1666 were nothing like those. Citizen firefighters threw buckets of water on fires, and used hooks to tear down walls. At the height of the Great Fire neither of those methods were possible because the heat was so intense no-one could get nearer than 100 yards (91 metres). London’s houses were the exact opposite of fire-retardant – after a warm, dry summer the thatch-covered wooden homes were perfect fuel; they caught fire easily and burned quickly. What made every challenge much worse was the exceptionally powerful east to west wind, fanning the flames and spreading embers to neighbouring streets.
So, in 1666, as long as there were houses not yet ablaze, the fire could spread. And on that Tuesday the fire did.
Here’s one example. One of the rivers flowing through London is the Fleet. The river is how Fleet Street – the one time centre of the newspaper industry – gets its name, but today the river is almost entirely underground. In the 17th century, the Fleet was a sizeable river, and therefore a natural firebreak. It flowed about a mile west of Pudding Lane where the fire started.
Early that Tuesday morning, the Duke of York (James, the brother of King Charles II) stations his ‘firemen’ beside the river, determined to stop the fire’s progress. It will not pass this point. But the fire has a different plan. Driven by the gale, sparks fly high in the air, cross the river, and start new fires to the side and behind the soldiers. Now their lives are in great danger. All hope of halting the fire is abandoned and the Duke and his troops run to save their lives.
The soldiers are not the only ones trying frantically to escape the fire. The mass of London’s ordinary citizens, and the wealthy, upper classes, become very aware a fast-moving inferno is raging while they are imprisoned with it behind solid stone walls. Those ancient Roman-built city walls surround them on three sides with the River Thames on the fourth. The fire is spreading fast. It is clearly beyond anyone’s control. They must get outside the city walls. Citizens pack whatever they can carry on their backs and head for the city gates. The affluent are desperate not only for their lives but also for their valuable possessions. For those they need carts or wagons, and that generates opportunistic commerce. Prices for hiring a cart soar. A charge of a couple of shillings before the fire now becomes £40, equal to more than £133,000/$161,000 in today’s money. And the desperate demand to transport possessions creates new employment as the poor of the city hire out their labour as porters. Some load themselves with wealthy goods and are never seen again.
The mood now is panic. Throngs of people along with many horses and carts push towards each of the city gates. Those gates are narrow since part of their purpose is to protect the city from invading armies. Narrow gates cause no problem for casual traffic in and out, but they soon block when huge numbers try to flee at once.
Then a difficult, dangerous situation gets worse. The crowds at the gates are frightened, and their fear quickly turns to anger. Some push even harder. There is a serious danger that people will be trampled under feet, hooves or cart wheels. That concerns the city magistrates. But those officials are also worried about something else. They need people to stay and fight the fire, not flee to safety in nearby fields. So they take the remarkable step of ordering the city gates shut. No-one is to leave. They must turn back and tackle the flames, “that, (with) no hopes of saving any things left, they might have more desperately endeavoured the quenching of the fire”.
The magistrates’ reasoning is delusional. The hordes at the city gates will never go back. The city is an inferno. They have nothing with which to fight the fire. They cannot save a single building, but could lose their lives, their children’s lives, and what remains of their possessions. No-one turns back. There is near rioting at every gate. Before long the magistrates see sense, and order the gates reopened so people can escape the burning city.
As the Great Fire rages on two major buildings are threatened: the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral. One is successfully defended; the other burns to the ground.
Fires burn strongly through Tuesday morning. The Duke of York’s firefighters are ruthless in tearing down properties to create firebreaks. With the King’s authority, they’re permitted to destroy private property, and now they do it on a larger scale. On the north edge of the fire, they create a massive firebreak, one they know the fire cannot jump. But they’re wrong. Still fed by strong winds, burning embers fly across the gaps, and the Great Fire continues its relentless march.
Then the fire does something wholly unexpected, something seemingly impossible, something deadly dangerous – it moves east. The gale has blown for more than two days east to west, and therefore pushed the fire westward across the heart of the old city. But now, with no change in the wind, from the fire’s origins in Pudding Lane flames spread in the other direction from one house to another.
That is critically dangerous for one of London’s most prominent buildings, the Tower of London. The Tower is a military establishment, part of the city’s defences against invaders. Inside are barrels of gunpowder weighing some 600,000 lbs (272,155 kg). It’s the largest stockpile of gunpowder anywhere in the country. Massive heat alone could cause that gunpowder to ignite without the fire even getting close. The blast will destroy the Tower and nearby London Bridge. And, writes John Evelyn later, the detonation would have “sunk and torn all the vessels in the river and rendered the demolition beyond all expression for several miles about the country”.
Until now no-one at the Tower of London has been alarmed. Many times fires have started but quickly died down. Besides, the Tower is a major stone stronghold. No fire could harm the buildings or its occupants. But, as the fire raged through the city during Sunday and Monday, and now into Tuesday, the Tower’s garrison recognises this fire is very different. Despite the wind, the flames are coming their way. And they are very afraid.
The Tower of London is in fact a castle. The word ‘tower’ in the name comes from the White Tower, one of its oldest and most prominent buildings. (There are more details on the Tower of London in the footnote below.)
In the 13th century the initial castle walls were supplemented by outer walls, known as curtain walls. They were built behind a wide moat and a short distance further out than the walls around main buildings. Together the moat and curtain walls would be a near insurmountable barrier halting invaders getting near to the castle. So surely they would stop any fire threatening the Tower of London.
Except perhaps not this fire. Steadily it moves east, ever nearer to the Tower. The garrison inside know that other stone buildings – even the massive Baynard’s Castle – have been ruined by the fire. And their situation is much more perilous because of those massive stocks of gunpowder. They are almost literally sitting on a massive explosion.
Desperate requests for help are sent to James II. His men are needed today – right now – to save the Tower of London. But the firefighters never come. Every one of them has been sent west. All the assumptions are that new blazes will start where the wind blows the flames. No-one thought the flames could move east. But they do. And a catastrophe at the Tower of London is imminent.
The commanders wait and wait for firefighters until they dare wait no longer. Finally orders are given for gunpowder to be taken from the stores, planted in houses between the castle and the fire, and ignited. Those homes are privately owned, and the Tower’s soldiers have no authority to demolish them, but this is an extreme emergency.
With gunpowder placed inside dozens of houses, the order is given to detonate. The explosion is massive. Homes are blown apart, debris scattered over long distances. Above the noise of the fire, London’s citizens hear the blasts, many thinking the Tower itself is now in smithereens. But it’s safe. In fact a massive firebreak has been created, a gap so wide the fire cannot cross it. The London Gazette later reports that the fire came almost to the very gates of the Tower, by which they likely mean close to the curtain walls. But it came no further. The magazines of gunpowder inside are saved. The spread of the fire to the east is stopped.
But it’s not stopped on the west, not where St Paul’s Cathedral sits on Ludgate Hill. The location is not close to Pudding Lane, where the fire began, but distances are not large in the city, and the wind is still driving the blaze steadily westward. Now it’s near to the cathedral.
The cathedral is the fourth church dedicated to St Paul to sit on that hill. Like many cathedrals in medieval times, it was constructed over a long period of time (from 1087 to 1314) and frequently altered later. The old cathedral was a very impressive structure, close to being the longest church in the world, and with one of the tallest spires. The beauty of its stained glass windows earned them a mention in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The length and beauty of its nave was particularly remarkable. It soon became known as ‘Paul’s walk’.
Pilgrims came from far and near to visit a shrine inside the cathedral, admiring its decoration with gold, silver and precious stones. Monarchs held occasional court sessions in the cathedral. There was at least one riot, but also royal weddings. Kings lay in state before their funerals. Bishops and nobles were entombed there.
Old St Paul’s, however, seemed to lose its spiritual focus. Paul’s Walk became a gathering place and even a marketplace in the late 1300s. The bishop had to circulate an open letter denouncing the selling of goods, firing stones and arrows at nesting birds, and those guilty of ‘playing at ball’ and breaking expensive painted windows. From then on, such perpetrators would be excommunicated.
But many London citizens did nothing more stirring than use the ‘Walk’ as a gossip centre. In the pre-printing press age, news was shared verbally and ‘Paul’s walkers’ visited simply to stay up to date with what was happening, mostly sharing information related to commerce and state business. Some historians say that by the 1600s: ‘Infested with beggars and thieves, Paul’s walk was also a place to pick up gossip, topical jokes, and even prostitutes’.
But spiritual fervour was not the only thing to deteriorate at the cathedral. By the 16th century the building’s structure was in a seriously poor condition. Partly that was due to post-Reformation action against religious centres. Partly it was simply because St Paul’s was poorly constructed in the first place.
In 1561 the near record-setting tall spire was gone. It caught fire and crashed right through the roof of the nave, the main central area of the cathedral. Blame was quickly attributed to a lightning strike which set the spire on fire, melting the bells and the spire’s lead covering, which then flowed like lava on to the roof, destroying it. Catholics and Protestants blamed each other for displeasing God.
The spire was not rebuilt, and repair work on the roof was of a very poor standard. Within a few decades the roof was in danger of another collapse. When Charles II became King, he determined to restore the condition of St Paul’s. He had the very man for the job, Sir Christopher Wren. Wren surveyed the building, and, finding its whole structure unsatisfactory, recommended that the building should be completely demolished. That solution was opposed by both clergy and citizens. Wren relented, and instead proposed restructuring walls and creating a dome to replace the existing central tower.
Though debates about repairs still raged, a beginning is made in the early 1660s, and St Paul’s is covered with wooden scaffolding. And now, in 1666 with the Great Fire raging, the stone cathedral which would never burn is packed with the goods of local businesses, including the stocks of printers and booksellers from Paternoster Row. Wealthy citizens have brought in their money, paintings, valuable furniture, fine wines, gold coins. And a miscellany of ordinary, nearby residents have carried inside whatever they consider important. But what they’ve all done is put their possessions inside a building wrapped in highly flammable wood.
The sun sets, but there’s no darkness because the Great Fire has arrived.
People hope St Paul’s will be spared because it’s a house of God, and because a wide plaza separates it from nearby homes. Their hopes are dashed. Nothing stops this fire. Around 8.00 pm burning embers settle on the scaffolding. It’s dry, and the heat as the fire approached has made it easily combustible. The wood bursts into flame, first here and then there, fire spreading from spar to spar. Soon the whole exterior of the cathedral is alight. The intensity of the blaze melts the lead remaining on the roof. Thick stones crack and break apart with loud bangs that many think are gunfire. The building is collapsing. If those sheltering inside stay they’ll die. Wisely they abandon their goods and run to save their lives. Within a few hours St Paul’s is no more.
The contemporary writer John Evelyn said that what remained was no more than a ‘sad ruine’ with very little still intact, He adds: ‘It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heate had in a manner calcin’d’ That included the stationers’ books which are still burning a week later.
St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed. Wren’s dome will have to wait.
The end is nigh
Crowds watch St Paul’s burn to the ground. What they don’t know is that St Paul’s is the last major building to become a victim of the Great Fire. During the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, the easterly wind which has driven the flames finally eases.
It is the change everyone has longed for. If the fire is no longer driven from one building to the next, there is a chance it can be beaten, or even that it’ll just burn out. In fact, both those things happen during Wednesday.
No longer do embers soar over gaps and no longer is there fresh fuel for the fire to burn. Certainly, the close proximity of houses might still have allowed a slow spread of the flames, but now, without the strong wind, the creation of firebreaks actually works.
The Duke of York’s exhausted and demoralised teams of firefighters rally. They have a real chance of stopping the fire from spreading. Furiously they tear down houses. Some they blow up. There is a new ruthlessness in creating very wide firebreaks, gaps which would not be bridged by the flames. And it succeeds.
The spread of the Great Fire ends, and on that Wednesday – the fourth day – burning diminishes and by dawn the next morning the fire is practically out. Small fires continue for a while – coal still burns in cellars for two months – but the battle is won.
Probably some celebrate, but most mourn. The diarist, Samuel Pepys, climbs a church steeple to assess the destruction, and records that it was “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw”. Tens of thousands have lost their homes. Some camp in any area of the city the fire has not burned, and many more settle in the fields outside the walls. Their next phase of suffering is just beginning. John Evelyn sees people huddling under makeshift tents, and writes: “Many were without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board … reduced to extremest misery and poverty”.
In the final part of the story of the Great Fire, we’ll learn much more about the aftermath of the fire, including the number of casualties, plans to build a new-look London, and what happened to the man convicted of starting the fire even though authorities knew he hadn’t.
My major online resources for this series on the Great Fire are listed at the foot of the first episode. See https://occasionallywise.com/2023/01/28/great-fire-of-london-1/
 Here and in various other places there are details drawn from History in Numbers, https://historyinnumbers.com/events/fire-of-london/
 Burnt paper was later found 20 miles away, and scorched silk 30 miles away.
 I described the city gates in the previous episode of this series: https://occasionallywise.com/2023/02/10/the-fire-that-changed-the-weather/
 Some of the information in this section from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Fire_of_London
 Work on building the White Tower is thought to have begun in 1078, but the origins of the overall Tower of London are earlier. William the Conqueror was victorious in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and then pressed further into England, that is into ‘enemy territory’. He ordered many castles to be built, and he particularly wanted to overawe citizens of its largest city, London. Hence he would have a large fortification there, predominantly of stone, on the south-east corner of the ancient Roman walls. The old walls would be part of its defences, and the River Thames immediately to the south would give further protection.
 Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_St_Paul%27s_Cathedral
 He’s referring to ‘calcination’ which, in his day, referred to reducing an object to its base elements.