Above: Model of some of the buildings in the City of London set on fire in two barges moored on the Thames. The flames are seen reflected in the water of the Thames. To the right is the model of St Paul’s Cathedral, with its truncated tower.
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. The fire began in the house of a baker who lived in Pudding Lane, not far from London Bridge. The date was Sunday 2 September 1666 and fire broke out in the very early hours of the morning. Nearly everyone lived in a timber-framed house in those days and fire was a constant risk. Fire was so common that it was almost a way of life. When this one started it is easy to see why so few people bothered to help put it out. Being a Sunday, many people nearby were probably looking forward to a day’s rest from their arduous lives and the fire spread while many of them were sound asleep.
What made this fire so disastrous was that it was early September and there was a strong east wind blowing. Prevailing winds in England normally blow from the SW and September is not a month renowned for strong winds in any case. Having started on the east side of the City, with an easterly wind blowing, the fire soon spread towards the west. Within the space of 24 hours the fire had spread across most of the City beside the river. Over the next few days it spread further west and NW, consuming more than 13,200 homes, businesses and structures. The fire destroyed or damaged 87 of the City churches, including the old St Paul’s Cathedral. There were also 44 livery halls badly damaged or destroyed. Around four-fifths of the City was destroyed (an area of 373 acres), leaving the north-eastern and some eastern parts (including the Tower of London) unaffected thanks to the gusty east wind. In a few cases the fire even broke through the gates in the old Roman Wall. People fled for their lives and the records show that only half-a-dozen people actually were harmed in the blaze.
The fire spread almost unchecked for four days and those living in nearby Strand and other parts of Westminster feared that the fire might eventually reach them. If the wind had continued it is very likely that it would but on Wednesday evening the wind died down and it did not burn so fiercely. People set about preventing its further spread but the land that had been set ablaze burned for about two weeks.
Of course, after the fire, the whole area of devastation had to be rebuilt. This time the City issued regulations that streets and lanes had to be widened and that all buildings had to be constructed in brick. All the City churches were rebuilt by 1686 but most of the church towers were added later.
Above: As part of the the events marking the anniversary of the Great Fire, the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral was specially lit to give the impression of being on fire. This view was from the Millennium Bridge.
There is plenty to add to this account but many other sources have the information. On Sunday night this year – which happened to be the 4 September – a model of a large part of the City of London, which had been constructed on two large barges, was towed to the middle of the Thames and set on fire to mark the occasion of the Great Fire. The model had not only been made to scale but it had also been so constructed that its burn would be gradual – so as to replicate the spread of the fire on that fateful night in 1666. The results, needless to say, were spectacular.