The Great Fire of London

About the Great Fire of London in 1666, the history of the disaster and destruction that followed.


The death toll from the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665 had hardly begun to taper off when a small bakeshop fire spread out of control to envelop all of London. In 4 days the great city was blackened and devastated.

When: At 1 A.M., Sunday, September 2, 1666.

Where: London, England.

The Loss: 87 churches and 13,000 homes destroyed; 100,000 left homeless.

The Cause: To pinpoint the specific cause of the London Fire in 1666 was impossible then, and even more unlikely over 300 years later. Perhaps the cleanup man, mistakenly thinking the oven coals were dead, left the firebox door open, allowing a spark to ignite an overlooked dab of baker's lard. The King's bakery, a tinderbox in Pudding Lane near the great London Bridge, was the perfect spot for the birth of a conflagration. In minutes the flames broke from the bakery to ignite adjoining buildings. By 3 A.M. the fire was out of control and raging along Fish Street by the London Bridge.

The Disaster: There was nothing to hinder the spread of the consuming flames. Firefighting equipment amounted to small pumps manned by from one to 3 men. At 7 A.M. on September 3, Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, climbed the steps to the top of the Tower of London. Flames from the buildings along the great bridge leaped hungrily into the air. All about were milling people trying to escape with no place to go but into the Thames. London's lord mayor told Pepys: "Lord! what can I do? I am spent. People will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it."

The fire ran its unchecked course over the city and when it subsided 4 days later, only 1/3 of London was left standing. A hundred thousand people were homeless and 2/3 of the city lay in ashes.

Aftermath: No records were kept of property damage or of the number of people who perished or were injured. Hospital facilities were no better than the fire-fighting equipment, so any damage estimate would have to be reckoned in the millions of pounds sterling while the death toll would run to thousands.

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