The Effects of the 1666 London Fire
Background: In 1660, Charles Stuart, protestant son of the executed King Charles I, was crowned King Charles II in the Restoration of the monarchy after the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell, The Lord Protector. This led to widespread suspicion, as well as a tense environment for Catholics and republicans (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). Britain in general had been subjected to several decades of religious and political upheaval. The fact that she was also at war with both the Dutch and the French did not make things any better (Reddaway, 1940). In late summer 1666, London was consumed by a serious fire disaster that changed the nature and future of the city of London. At the time, fires were common in London: most of the buildings in the city were constructed from timber (Pepys, 1995). That notwithstanding, there had been serious warnings that the city could be destroyed by fire. The first warning was issued by Daniel Baker in 1559 and the second came from Charles II in April 1665, just a year before the disaster (Pepys, 1995).
Charles had warned the Mayor of London that the city was exposed to the risk of being destroyed by fire as a result of the narrowness of the London streets and overhanging timber buildings (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). The disaster of the Great Fire had been made all the more likely by a long not summer which led to a drought as the city had used up its water reserves. All that was needed was just a spark to set the city ablaze (Reddaway, 1940). Meanwhile, there had been a number of fire warnings; but there was a bigger health concern at the time which some experts suspected could lead to a major disaster. The city was infested by rats which had caused a plague that killed nearly 70,000 people in the couple of years prior to the fire (Pepys, 1995). The fire arguably cleaned London of this pestilence. On September 2nd 1666, fire is thought to have been ignited at Thomas Farynor’s home at Pudding Lane. Farynor was the king’s baker. His worker smelled smoke at 2am and raised an alarm after which they all fled through rooftops to safety (Pepys, 1995). A maid who was not courageous enough to flee through the roof tops was named the first victim of the fire disaster (Pepys, 1995), though there were very few reported deaths as a result of the fire. We know about the Great Fire today largely due to the eye witness account of Samuel Pepys and his famous encrypted diary; he lived nearby and saw the disaster unfold with the winds fanning the flames to the West (Sheppard, 1998). The smoke was visible as far as Oxford (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). It is through reading Pepys that the Great Fire of 1666 really comes to life.
The Effects of the Great Fire
One of the most visible effects of the London fire is that it brought about changes in the architectural structure of London (Reddaway, 1940). Not only did builders understand that they had to ensure that houses were separated from each other by a safe distance, they also got to know that construction material was all important (Tinniswood, 2003). Instead of building with timber, which most buildings were made of, builders began considering alternative building materials such as stone, sand and cement in order to raise walls that would not propagate flames in the case of a disaster (Reddaway, 1940). In addition to keeping a safe distance between houses, city planners also came to learn that it was important to ensure that the narrow roads that separated the two sides of streets had to be widened, so flames could not lick and leap over that distance between houses. This set the foundation for the modern London as we know today, built largely of bricks and stone buildings (Tinniswood, 2003). As well as to the changes brought about by construction, home owners also learnt a lesson when it came to insurance. Prior to the great fire, the practice of insuring buildings was not common (Evelyn, 1854). This developed a new market as most home owners found the need to insure their homes so as to make sure that they would not lose their homes in the case of a similar disaster in the future (Tinniswood, 2003). Moreover, insurance companies soon found out that they could also hire men to put out flames in the case of a fire disaster so as to minimise the level of casualties in a bid to eliminate costs (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983).
With regards to health, the great fire helped to tackle the problem of the plague; though it did so in a cruel manner (Pepys, 1995). In 1665, the great plague had struck the city of London after the city witnessed an uncontrollable increase in the rats and flea population (Tinniswood, 2003); the rats had come from ships which had travelled to and from Asia. After the London fire, the rat population was checked and the plague which had killed more than 70,000 people at the time did not recur (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). In this respect, the great fire saved lives in the long run by destroying the rats and substandard housing which created safe havens for both rats and flea populations to thrive in. It is important to note that these rats and fleas were responsible for the transmission of the plague (Pepys, 1995), but many did not realise this at the time. Also, it would have probably taken much time and resources for the authorities to tackle the plague. This is because medical services were not as advanced back then as we have today (Tinniswood, 2003). All warnings with regards to a possible fire disaster fell on deaf ears. If the great fire did not strike back then, there it is clear that nothing would have been done in terms of handling the plagues and improving the nature of buildings at the time (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). Considering the above, it is right to state that the London fire helped to eliminate the plague and improve sanitary conditions across the city. This is because after the fire, no other plague was reported in the city of London. The effects of the fire were thus more positive than negative, and it could be said that the Great Fire did London a service.
Another effect of the London fire was that it made it possible for authorities to rebuild the city of London using sophisticated means, rather than correcting all the errors made in the previous buildings (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). This created a golden opportunity for architects to show of their knowledge and build a new London that serve as a source of bride for the British people. During the reconstruction programme, architects built small tough houses out of material that could resist flames. This is because at the time, it was common to report fires in different areas of the city (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). In addition to building safe houses, British authorities thought it wise to erect iconic buildings such as the St Paul’s Cathedral that was constructed in 1710 by Sir Christopher Wren (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983), though the full plans for rebuilding were not followed, largely for cost reasons. The building has stood the test of time and remains one of the structures that quickly come to mind when the city of London is mentioned. In this respect, it is accurate to state that the London fire helped to revisit the design and construction of the city.
After the Great Fire, the city set up an organised fire brigade (Tinniswood, 2003). Prior to the 1666 fire outbreak, London did not have formal fire fighters as exist today. Instead, most parishes had buckets, ladders, axes and fire hooks that were stored in churches and used to extinguish unwanted fires (Porter, 1994). Local untrained individuals were invited and handed out these tools to extinguish fires each time there was an outbreak (Porter, 1994). Fire knowledge was at its most basic level at the time; the London fire set the framework for modern fire brigades. This is because after the fire disaster, insurance companies paid men to put out flames in order to minimise losses and subsequently the payment of claims (Hanson, 2002). Several years later, the government found the need to establish fire brigades. This implies that the great fire marked the beginning of what developed to become modern fire fighting as we know it today (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). In this light, it accurate to state that the London fire of 1666 helped to speed up human knowledge when it comes to fire fighting, although society was already becoming more recognisably modern due to scientific, cultural and political factors.
In conclusion, the Great Fire of 1666 marked a turning point in the history of London, and contributed enormously to the development of London as we know it today (Pepys, 1995). Meanwhile it is difficult to outline every detail when it comes to the effects of this fire given that not everything was well documented; archives in the museum suggest that the fire helped to improve the quality of buildings in London. It brought about an improvement in safety standards when it comes to construction of homes and other buildings (Hibbert & Weinreb, 1983). It also helped to lay down a framework for modern fire fighting. This is because residents saw firsthand the damage that fire could cause to an entire city plans were not in place to prepare for the possibility of a fire starting and spreading. Another visible effect of the London fire is the development of fire insurance – the 17th century marks the beginning of the City as the financial powerhouse we know today. Moreover, the fact it can only be seen as a good thing that the disaster brought an end to the plague that had brought about suffering and misery (Hanson, 2002). After the disaster, general sanitation standards in the city of London improved remarkably, so the Great Fire was perhaps not the disaster that it was first seen as but an opportunity to improve London in multifarious ways beneficial to all who lived there then as well as future generations.
Evelyn, J. (1854) Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, F.R.S. London: Hurst and Blackett
Hanson, N. (2002) The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons
Hibbert, C. & Weinreb, B. (eds)( 1983) The London Encyclopaedia, London: Macmillan
Pepys, S. (1995) Robert Latham and William Matthews (eds.). ed. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. 7, London: Harper Collins.
Porter, R. (1994) London: A Social History, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
Reddaway, T. F. (1940) The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, London: Jonathan Cape
Sheppard, F. (1998) London: A History, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Tinniswood, A. (2003) By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London. London: Jonathan Cape