Learn about the Great Fire of London
In 1666, a huge fire that started in a tiny bakery burned down most of London – because it was so big, it was called the Great Fire of London.
London was a busy city in 1666. It was very crowded. The streets were narrow and dusty. The houses were made of wood and very close together. Indeed, the streets were so narrow that it was possible for a person at a window on one side to shake hands with a neighbour on the other side. There was little light and air.
Inside their homes, people used candles for light and cooked on open fires. A fire could easily get out of control. In those days there were no fire engines or firemen to stop a fire from spreading.
The fire began on early Sunday morning on the 2nd of September. It started in Pudding Lane not far from London Bridge in the shop of the king’s baker, Thomas Farrinor. When Thomas went to bed, he did not put out the fire that heated his oven. Sparks from the oven fell onto some dry flour sacks and they caught fire. The flames spread through the house, down Pudding Lane and into the nearby streets.
Soon London was filled with smoke. The sky was red with huge flames from the fire. By Monday, 300 houses had burned down.
Everybody was in a panic. People loaded their things onto carts and tried to leave town. Others tried to get away on boats on the river. Some people buried their things in the garden, hoping to save them from the fire.
The fire still spread, helped by a strong wind from the east. London Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral were both burnt. On Tuesday, King Charles II ordered that houses and shops be pulled down to stop the fire from spreading. By Wednesday, they had the fire under control. But by then, 100,000 people were homeless.
Thomas Farrinor and his wife got out of their bakery in time, but their maid was too frightened to jump from the roof. She was the first to die. Surprisingly, only nine people died as a result of the fire.
Two people have left us eyewitness accounts of the fire. The first is Samuel Pepys, who worked for the Navy. He kept a diary from 1660-1669. The second is John Evelyn, who also kept a diary. Both men describe how dramatic and scary the fire was.
Not everyone at the time thought that the fire was an accident. Some said foreigners caused it. Others felt that the fire was started by those not free to follow their own religion. Some even saw the fire as a punishment from God.
A ten-year-old boy called Edward Taylor and his family were questioned for throwing fireballs at an open window in Pudding Lane and in the streets. Fireballs were made from animal fat (called tallow), set alight and used to start fires. However, the fire was most likely caused by chance rather than by a deliberate act.
Charles II ordered that 10 October 1666 be a day of fasting on account of the fire. He told the Lord Mayor of London to support collections for victims of the fire. Later, close to Pudding Lane, a monument was built so that people would not forget the fire. It was the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed many new buildings, including St Pauls Cathedral, when the city was rebuilt after the fire. Sir Christopher Wren lies buried under the roof of his own great work. These words are written on his grave: “Reader, if you want to see his monument, look around”.
- The Great Fire of London happened between 2-5 September in 1666.
- The fire began in a bakery in Pudding Lane.
- Before the fire began, there had been a drought in London that lasted for 10 months, so the city was very dry.
- In 1666, lots of people had houses made from wood and straw which burned easily. Houses were also built very close together.
- We know what happened during the fire because people wrote about it in letters and newspapers – for instance, Samuel Pepys wrote about it in his diary.
- Artists painted pictures of the fire afterwards, so we know what it would have looked like if we’d been there too.
- To fight fires during this time, people would have used leather buckets, metal hooks and water squirts.
- People whose homes had burned down lived in tents in the fields around London while buildings were rebuilt.
- When houses were rebuilt, a lot of them were made in bricks instead of wood, and they weren’t built so close together.
- Sir Christopher Wren designed a monument to remember the Great Fire of London, which still stands today.
The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666 is a permanent reminder of one of the most significant events in London’s history.
The Monument stands 202 feet (61 metres) in height and 202 feet (61 metres) to the west of the spot where the Great Fire started on Pudding Lane. 311 spiral steps lead up to the public viewing platform, where visitors can get breath-taking views of London from 160 feet (48.7 metres) above ground. The column was designed by Robert Hooke in consultation with Sir Christopher Wren. The Monument was built with a second purpose: to also be the site for scientific experiments. Hidden beneath The Monument is a tiny laboratory from where the column was once used as a giant zenith telescope. This plan was soon abandoned as the area surrounding The Monument was too busy.
Now, over 230,000 visitors climb The Monument’s 311 spiral steps each year, and are rewarded with one of the best views of London from the public viewing platform.