By Brad Dison
For hundreds of years, London has attracted more inhabitants than the city could adequately house. During Roman times, the city was enclosed by a wall on three sides and the Thames River on the fourth. When the limited space was filled, workers built on top of existing buildings as well as across the London Bridge, the city’s only bridge. These additions grew wider with each added level, which caused homes to almost touch across the street.
Fire was always a great concern to large cities. By the 1600s, it was illegal to build with wood and to roof with thatch in London, but those building materials were much cheaper than stone and slate. The public largely ignored the building codes and enforcement officers did little to enforce them. The city was full of blacksmiths, glaziers, foundries, bakeries and a host of other craftsmen who manufactured their products by using open flames in wooden buildings.
London had no fire department but relied on its local militia to watch for fires. Each church was required to house equipment for fighting fires including ladders, leather buckets, axes, and fire hooks. In the event of a fire, the militia doused the flames by throwing water from leather buckets. In order to keep the fire from spreading, the militia used the fire hooks to pull down flimsy houses. If those efforts failed to stop the spreading flames, the militia created firebreaks by demolishing homes with controlled gunpowder explosions.
Thomas Farringer owned a prominent bakery in the city. The bakery was on the first floor and Thomas’s family lived in an upper floor. Just after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, a fire broke out at Thomas’s bakery and quickly spread. Thomas and his family escaped from the fire by climbing through windows into an adjoining neighbor’s home. Thomas’s maid, however, was unable to escape and was the fire’s first victim.
Within a short time, the fire had spread to adjoining buildings. The militia was unable to extinguish the fire with their water buckets and it gained momentum. Militiamen wanted to pull down houses on the outer perimeter of the fire, but their tenants refused, and the Lord Mayor was slow to intervene. A strong west wind fanned the flames. All attempts to slow the spread of fire failed.
At first, Londoners who lived just a few streets away assumed the fire would not reach their homes. When they realized the fire would likely destroy their homes, Londoners began loading the bulk of their possessions onto carts and hauling them away. The streets of London were congested by hundreds of carts, full carts trying to get out of London and empty ones coming back in for another load. The carts bottlenecked at each of the eight gates in the Roman wall. Many people stored their possessions in stone buildings, mostly churches such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, because they were thought to be fireproof. However, the contents of most of these buildings caught fire and added to the destruction. Some wealthy Londoners hired boats on the Thames to transport their possessions away from the burning city. Tenants scurried to grab whatever they could up until they were repelled by the heat of the fire. Contemporary accounts claimed the fire created its own weather system and eyewitness accounts described what amounted to fiery tornadoes.
On the orders of King Charles II, the militia began using controlled gunpowder explosions to level buildings. As soon as a building was detonated, teams of people cleared the area of the debris. The fire spread to homes on the London Bridge and people feared the fire would spread to the opposite side of the river. Luckily, a firebreak on the bridge prevented its crossing.
On Wednesday, September 5, the wind which had fanned the flames died down. A slow and steady rain began to extinguish fires throughout the city. The last fire to be extinguished was at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane in central London. By the time it was extinguished, the fire had destroyed an estimated 13,500 houses, 87 churches, 44 trade associations and guild buildings, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, several prisons, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and numerous other buildings. The numbers vary depending on the source, but, surprisingly, only a few people died as a result of the fire.
During reconstruction efforts after the fire, Londoners created monuments to mark the starting and ending points of the fire. The Monument to the Great Fire of London, colloquially referred to as “the monument,” is a 202-feet-high Doric column which stands 202 feet from where the fire began. In an alcove at the corner of Giltspur Street and Cock Lane is a statue called “Golden Boy of Pye Corner”. Pye was old English for Pie. This statue marks the spot where the last of the fire was extinguished.
Following the fire, some citizens of London perceived the Great Fire of London as a sign from a higher power of the evils of overeating. An inscription on the “Golden Boy” statue states: “This Boy is in Memory put up for the late Fire of London, Occasion’s by the Sin of Gluttony.” You see, the fire began at a bakery on Pudding Lane and was finally extinguished at Pie Corner. The fire began on Pudding and ended at Pie.
- The London Gazette, September 10, 1666, p.1.
- The Monument. “The Monument.” Accessed April 19, 2021. https://www.themonument.info/.
- Historic UK. “The Golden Boy of Pye Corner.” Accessed April 19, 2021. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/The-Golden-Boy-of-Pye-Corner/.
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