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The Great Fire

The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of the English city of London, from Sunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. It threatened, but did not reach, the aristocratic district of Westminster, Charles II’s Palace of Whitehall, and most of the suburban slums. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. The death toll is unknown but traditionally thought to have been small, as only six verified deaths were recorded. This reasoning has recently been challenged on the grounds that the deaths of poor and middle-class people were not recorded, while the heat of the fire may have cremated many victims leaving no recognisable remains. A melted piece of pottery on display at the Museum of London found by archaeologists in Pudding Lane, where the fire started, shows that the temperature reached 1700 °C.

The Great Fire started at the bakery of Thomas Farriner (or Farynor) on Pudding Lane, shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September, and spread rapidly west across the City of London. The use of the major firefighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition, was critically delayed owing to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm which defeated such measures. The fire pushed north on Monday into the heart of the City. Order in the streets broke down as rumours arose of suspicious foreigners setting fires.

The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England’s enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of lynchings and street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over most of the City, destroying St Paul’s Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II’s court at Whitehall, while coordinated firefighting efforts were simultaneously mobilising. The battle to quench the fire is considered to have been won by two factors: the strong east winds died down, and theTower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks to halt further spread eastward.

The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming. Evacuation from London and resettlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Despite numerous radical proposals, London was reconstructed on essentially the same street plan used before the fire.

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The personal experiences of many Londoners during the fire are glimpsed in letters and memoirs. The two best known diarists of the Restoration, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) and John Evelyn (1620–1706), recorded the events and their own reactions day by day, and made great efforts to keep themselves informed of what was happening all over the City and beyond. For example, they both travelled out to the Moorfields park area north of the City on the Wednesday—the fourth day—to view the mighty encampment of distressed refugees there, which shocked them. Their diaries are the most important sources for all modern retellings of the disaster. The most recent books on the fire, by Tinniswood (2003) and Hanson (2001), also rely on the brief memoirs of William Taswell (1651–82), who was a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at Westminster School in 1666.

Only a few deaths from the fire are officially recorded, and deaths are traditionally believed to have been few. Porter gives the figure as eight and Tinniswood as “in single figures”, although he adds that some deaths must have gone unrecorded and that, besides direct deaths from burning and smoke inhalation, refugees also perished in the impromptu camps.[51] Hanson takes issue with the idea that there were only a few deaths, enumerating known deaths from hunger and exposure among survivors of the holocaust, “huddled in shacks or living among the ruins that had once been their homes” in the cold winter that followed, including, for instance, the dramatist James Shirley and his wife. Hanson also maintains that “it stretches credulity to believe that the only papists or foreigners being beaten to death or lynched were the ones rescued by the Duke of York”, that official figures say very little about the fate of the undocumented poor, and that the heat at the heart of the firestorms, far hotter than an ordinary house fire, was enough to consume bodies fully, or leave only a few skull fragments. The fire, fed not merely by wood, fabrics, and thatch, but also by the oil, pitch, coal, tallow, fats, sugar, alcohol, turpentine, and gunpowder stored in the riverside district, melted the imported steel lying along the wharves (melting point between 1,250 °C (2,300 F) and 1,480 °C (2,700 F)) and the great iron chains and locks on the City gates (melting point between 1,100 °C (2,000 F) and 1,650 °C (3000 F)). Nor would anonymous bone fragments have been of much interest to the hungry people sifting through the tens of thousands of tons of rubble and debris after the fire, looking for valuables, or to the workmen clearing away the rubble later during the rebuilding. Appealing to common sense and “the experience of every other major urban fire down the centuries”, Hanson emphasises that the fire attacked the rotting tenements of the poor with furious speed, surely trapping at the very least “the old, the very young, the halt and the lame” and burying the dust and ashes of their bones under the rubble of cellars; making for a death toll not of four or eight, but of “several hundred and quite possibly several thousand.”