Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Great Fire of London 1666...

Published: July 10 2007 on Helium

The early 17th century was the worst of times for the English people. There was civil war in 1642 and King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. Oliver Cromwell's replacement republican government of 1653-1658 was puritanical and now, the new the monarchy of Charles II was not so popular. In 1665, England was "slapped" with the Great Plague. And then, in 1666, came the ultimate "punishment", the Great Fire of London. Medieval superstitions and belief in omens were rampant.
The possible significance of the numbers "666" did not go unnoticed.

Novelist, Daniel Defoe, commented, after the plague, "God had not sufficiently scourged the city" and so sent the fire.

The Great Fire of 2nd September 1666 sparked from Thomas Farryner's bakery in Pudding Lane, inner London, by the Thames River. It had plenty of "fuel" to quickly turn it into a firestorm, lasting five days. This fuel comprised both physical fuel and the "fuel" of poor resources to fight the fire. And the weather helped too.
"After two rainy summers in 1664 and 1665, London had lain under an exceptional drought since November 1665, and the wooden buildings were tinder-dry after the long hot summer of 1666."

The fire ravaged London's narrow, cobblestone, unguttered, undrained medieval streets. Buildings were made of flammable timber, wattle and daub, plaster and pitch; and they were close together. Many 6-7 storey buildings had "jetties" which were upper floors jutting out across narrow alleyways. Often, these jetties were almost touching the opposite building. Inside could be found flammable, everyday items such as straw for floor coverings, tallow and firewood for the hearth. Further, most buildings did not have chimneys to release smoke.

Of particular note, this area was a part of the port of London. Here were warehouses filled with gunpowder, (left over from the English Civil War), stored in wooden barrels. Imports of oil, fabrics, fats, turpentine, coal, alcohol and sugar were also stored here. And in between were the tenements of the poor; just tarred paper or rickety wooden buildings.

London had experienced a great fire in 1220, and had endured further outbreaks since that time. You would think, by now, there would be some worthwhile fire fighting equipment. Some "fire engines" had wheels, but many were mounted on sleds. And the fire engine itself was little more than an inflexible pump that could be connected to a series of elm pipes running from a high water tower at Cornhill. The tower was fed by the river at high tide. Amazingly, 30,000 homes in London were part of the elm pipe system. But connection was costly. There is no evidence, at such a critical time, that the network could be utilized. The water wheels under London Bridge were alight, so river water could not be pumped to the tower. (But surely there would have been some stored water?)

Instead, old-fashioned firehooks were used. (They were stored in every parish church along with long ladders, axes and leather buckets.) Firehooks were selected to pull down burning buildings or to create a firebreak by demolishing an area of buildings.

It is estimated there were only 5 to 17 deaths from the fire. This is incredible considering that London Bridge was the only way out to the south side of the Thames. Already, this was proven a deathtrap in the 1632 fire, for people lived on the bridge. The only escape was through one of the 8 gates in the 5.5m ancient Roman wall surrounding the city. The strength of the heat was horrific. It is recorded that the chains and locks on the gates melted.

And so, in despair, the likes of Samuel Pepys watched the fire burn from the safety of theTower of London, remembering every shocking detail and recording it in a diary for posterity. John Evelyn recorded that Londoners were simply "running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save their goods".

After 5 days, the fire finally burnt out at Temple Church near Holborn Bridge. Perhaps desperately blowing up fuel with gunpowder helped. Perhaps the fire simply burnt itself out. But the end result was that four fifths of London was destroyed and poor King Charles had lost his major source of revenue, the customs revenue of the port. He called upon Christopher Wren, the current great architect, to reconstruct London. Wren built 49 churches and St Paul's Cathedral. Future homes were required to be constructed of brick or white stone. Owners insured properties against fire and insurance companies employed people to put out fires. It was a "win-win" situation.

But there was one more twist to the story. Robert Hubert confessed to lighting the fire and was subsequently hanged. Yet he could not describe the bakery or show where it was. Superstition, it seemed, was still rife! Someone, anyone had to be blamed!

Indeed, it seems that the Great Fire of 1666 may not have been so great if there had been more control of many types of fuel. There was too much fuel lying around in enclosed places. There were too many buildings that could become fuel. There was no organized response to fire and little to no worthwhile equipment. And the final fuel, superstition, impelled many who thought this was a curse on the English, to simply run rather than fight. But perhaps, the Great Fire was a blessing. Perhaps it helped to diminish the spread of the plague. Unsanitary, medieval buildings sorely needed demolition.

Unlike the fire of 1212, when about 3,000 were killed, the Great Fire of 1666 claimed but a few lives. Unpopular King Charles took over operations from London's incompetent mayor. He directed firebreaks and used navy rations to feed those who fled from burning homes. Perhaps rather than take life, the fire gave life, even to Charles!


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