The Great Fire of 1666 was devastating, destroying around four-fifths of the City of London. The main reason it was so destructive was the wind which was blowing from the south-east, and which was particularly fierce. The Dutch and English fleets vying for a fight in the Channel the night before the fire broke out had been unable to join the battle because the winds were so strong.
The direction of the wind was important as it helped usher the flames away from the river which might in other circumstances have acted as a fire-break. You can trace the course of fire in the modern in landscape of the City, as it was only the north-eastern corner that escaped from the path of the wind and so the flames, and it is only here that you can find pre-fire churches like St Andrew Undershaft, St Katharine Cree and St Helen’s Bishopsgate. The fire was also devastating because the summer had been hot and therefore the wooden buildings were particularly dry.
Contemporaries and more recent historians have also pointed to structural weaknesses, making the capital vulnerable to calamity. A major cause is thought to have been the largely wooden construction of London, and after it was all over building regulations were put in place to rebuild the city in stone. There were also plans, only implemented to a limited degree, for wider streets. The ‘primitive’ nature of fire-fighting equipment is also frequently highlighted. Parish churches were required to maintain equipment such as buckets, ladders and long hooks for pulling down timber-framed buildings to create fire-breaks. They also had ‘squirts’ which were like large syringes for throwing water at the flames. In addition, a couple of parishes maintained larger squirts mounted on carts. One of these can be seen in St Magnus Martyr.
Most of these methods probably did have only limited effect, and the larger cart-mounted squirts struggled in particular with London’s narrower streets. The hooks were an exception and might have been useful if they had been employed earlier on.
However, a good question to ask is not so much why the fire happened, but why it had not happened before if London was so vulnerable to disaster. The last big fire had been in 1212, suggesting that the wooden city was in general reasonably well prepared for the threat of fire. Small fires occurred all the time. Contemporaries in 1666 were quick to blame the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bloodworth. Pepys claims that he was woken up to be told about the outbreak and after issuing his famous judgement, ‘Pish, a woman might piss it out’ turned over and went back to sleep. He got it tragically wrong, but his response probably reflects a familiarity with the occurrence of localised fires. It was the unusual winds on top of a long dry spell that really did for London in 1666.
To find out more about the Great Fire, listen to our podcast Episode 20 The Great Fire of London: How it Began or book tickets for Ian McDiarmid’s Great Fire of London Walk now. Private tour also available here.