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Travel Talk

Local hosts share their insights

London City: the impact of the Great Fire of London

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

This is the extract from the tour ‘Highlights of the City of London’ which you can access on the GlobeTrott Travel mobile app.

You might have wondered at what point London became the sprawling metropolis that we know it to be today. It might surprise you, the devastating Fire of London was one event that greatly contributed to London developing into the city that we see today.

London before the Great Fire

In September 1666, London looked very different.It was overcrowded, an estimated 100,000 residents lived crammed into a city that was still gated by the Roman wall and was only one square mile in size. It was so narrow that neighbours were able to shake hands with each other from their windows!

Traders and merchants had their stores and workshops at the street level, with residents living upstairs. River Thames was a trading hub, so there were plenty of warehouses right around the London Bridge, as well as small stables around the city where the horses and other animals were kept.

The devastating fire

A little after midnight on 2nd September, baker Thomas Faryner made a small mistake that had enormous consequences. In his bakery on Pudding Lane, he failed to extinguish the fire in his oven.

Gusts of wind quickly spread the blaze from one house to the next. After an unusually dry and hot summer, the wooden houses caught fire in seconds. London was soon in flames and the fire was spreading uncontrollably. To make matters worse, the nearby river-side warehouses were filled with combustible goods and the small stables stacked with hay. Everything that was in the way of the fire kept on fueling it. What a disaster!

London was burning for 4 days and 4 nights. Churches bells rang to alert everyone of the emergency. Desperate to escape, people were cramming what they could into horse carriages, and digging holes to hide valuable belongings. It was a chaotic scene.

While some were fleeing from the burning city into the fields outside of it, others aimed to stop the fire. Lines of Londoners stood side by side next to each other passing leather buckets of water in an attempt to contain the fire. With no taps, fire hydrants, or trained fire brigades, this was the best method they had. Were they having much success? As you can probably guess, the answer was no…. The buckets were nearly empty by the time they reached the burning houses and the fire was just way too strong.

Fire to fight fire

How would you stop such a fire? Extreme situations require extreme measures. A rather unconventional method was chosen - more explosions. The Navy was instructed to blow up houses to create a break in the fire. It was a success! The firebreaks and a much-needed drop in the wind, have stopped the fire from spreading any further. Turns out you can fight fire with fire!

In those 4 days around 80% of London was destroyed. Wooden houses were turned into ashes and only a few unstable fragments of the City’s stone buildings remained.

London raising from the ashes

So, how did London bounce back?

For life and trade to get back to normal, the remains of burnt buildings were demolished and the city was rebuilt almost from scratch. The roads became wider and the new houses were built from stone and brick instead of wood. A wise decision!

Very few elements of medieval London survived to this day - to see how a medieval English city looked, you should travel to somewhere like York, Canterbury, or Chester.

Many people chose not to move back into the city, and instead headed outwards to the West and East - establishing completely new neighbourhoods. This gave way to the current expanded look of London. It also gave way to the first fire brigade and private insurance companies.

The Great Fire of London destroyed everything in its way, including the old gothic style St. Paul’s Cathedral. Explore London with GlobeTrott tours to learn about the other times when the Cathedral’s survival was at risk.

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