In the early hours of Sunday 2nd Setember 1666 in Thomas Farrinor’s Royal bakery on pudding lane, a deadly fire broke out from the remains of the days fire. Few people would have known that the fire would rage for four days until Thursday 6th September. The growth of the fires path of destruction from one street to 350 acres of land was caused, aided and not prevented because of many factors.
Weather was in my opinion the most clinical factor in the decline of the wooden structure that was 17th century London. The previous two years had seen significant droughts and so in September 1666, London was a vulnerable place in the event of a fire. However, the reason the fire lasted so long was because of the wind. The spread of the fire from one easily flammable wooden roof to another was made effortless and uncontrollable by the East wind which also added Oxygen to the fire. This deadly wind lasted for the first three days of the fire and as soon as the wind subsided on the fourth day the fire was brought under control.
The other major reason for the fire spreading so much is the slow reaction and attitudes of the people, Mayor and King. In the early hours of the fire many of the locals tried to control the fire. They were soon joined by local parish constables (local men who worked as law enforcement officers, usually unpaid and part-time, serving a parish). The parish constable judged that the houses should be razed to prevent the fire spreading by creating a “fire break”. This was protested by the local residents and the Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth was summoned for his authoritative orders. Bloodworth had, in fact assured the King that he would command the destruction of houses.
Despite advice from experienced firefighters, the Mayor refused for fear of reparation costs. At this stage, even the King, Charles II sailed down from Whitehall in his Royal barge to inspect the fire. He was horrified to find that Bloodworth had defied his orders to pull houses down. In my opinion, this was a painfully stupid decision which if taken correctly, could have prevented a disaster of such a magnitude as was seen by the end of the week. He expressed a lack of concern that the fire would become dangerous, and was famously quoted as saying “pish, a woman might piss it out” before returning to his home and going back to sleep.
Over the next three days, the fire would destroy more than 75 percent of the city. After realising his mistake he left London and the King’s brother, the Duke of York (James II) was put in charge of putting out the fire. James set up command posts around the perimeter of the fire and gathered men from the lower classes and organised thems Into teams of well-paid and well-fed firefighters. He kept order in the streets as well as authorising demolitions. A witness account read, “The Duke of York hath won the hearts of the people with his continual and indefatigable pains day and night in helping to quench the Fire”. He is often credited for orgnising an effort to stop the fire.
The negligent and selfish attitudes of the people towards the fire were another reason it spread so quickly. Most people spent their time desperately salvaging personal possessions and getting them out of danger by boat or cart. Many people profited by renting out carts and boats and paying poorer people to move their goods. Renting a cart would have cost a modern equivalent of £8000.
The city gates were so congested that on Monday afternoon they were ordered shut. Many people thought that fighting the fire was pointless as it was too widespread, Others however, simply refused to fight the fire as they believed it was a “punishment from God” and was too powerful and that fighting it was pointless and immoral. The general public weren’t the only ones not working to put the fire out, as by Monday the authorities had already launched an investigation into the causes of the fire and were already rounding up foreigners (who they believed to be behind a plot to burn London, due to the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War.)
Another reason that the fire wasn’t stopped sooner was the lack of resources in tackling the fire. At the time, there was no fire brigade as such, but there were Trained Bands; local militia regiments that would help with emergencies. Much of the fire equipment was kept in local parishes and was fairly basic, but much of their equipment is the root of modern equipment. The big problem in fighting fire was the transportation of water. If the source of the fire was not wihtin reachng distance of a river or well, it would be very difficult to put out.
A method that was commonly used in communities was simply passing a bucket of water down a long line of people from a water source to the scene of a fire. Although very early fire engines existed, they were unreliable, slow and the wheels often broke due to the weight of the water. Water squirts were another form of firefighting that were used then and are still used today in the form of pressurised hoses. Pick axes were often used to burst water pipes so that water could be collected. Finally, a method which was often only used as a last precaution was the use of fire hooks to pull down houses and create a fire break, preventing the spread of fire.
Another reason for the continued spread of the fire was the fact that London was a flammable haven. Houses of the age were predominantly wooden and in London were either terraced or semi – detached. Therefore, fire would spread very quickly from one house to another. Adjoining houses would often have balconies that were so close you could shake your neighbours hand. This led to the fire spreading effortlessly from house to house. Flamable material such as tar, coal, oil and alcohol was commonly stored in ordinary houses, often in basements or cellars, while warehouses often stored masses of gunpowder left over from the English Civil War.
The damage the fire caused was massive. Some of the city’s most iconic buildings such as St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Exchange. Around 13,500 houses were destroyed along with 87 churches, 44 company halls and three city gates. Many people, especially the poor, lost all their possessions and savings. The damages from the fire were estimated to be £10,000,000 (over £1,000,000,000 in 2005 pounds). The immediate death toll is reported to be in single figures, but this is considering that the deaths of working and middle class people were not seen as important and the amount of people who froze or starved to death living homeless on the streets in the following months and years is unknown.
I feel that there are many combined factors as to why it took to long to control the Great Fire of London. Thomas Bloodworth’s disobeyal of the King and reluctence to sacrifice a few houses cost the city much more than a few house reparation would have. Bloodworth however, wasn’t the only person to neglect the issue and not act upon it seriously as this was the general attitude of the public and I think if the fire had been looked at more seriously, it wouldn’t have caused such widespread damage. Once the fire had passed a certain stage without being dealt with, it was an impossible task considering the resourses availible and the detering factors such as the wind.