Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London has become one of the most well-known major incidents throughout time and is well placed on the school curriculum. But do we actually know all the facts, are we still discovering things relating to this incident and did we learn anything from the fire, were new laws and rules created to better protect our homes? Let's see...
At a glance we know that the fire engulfed central parts of London from Sunday, 2 September to Thursday, 6 September in 1666. The fire destroyed the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall and came very close to taking much more. The death toll is thought to have been a small number (under 10), although this is regularly challenged as at the time, not everyone was registered and documented like they would be today. Some families may have event been completely lost, leaving no one to state their loss of life.
Use the links below to discover more information about the great fire.
Looking for that extra wow factor when teaching this subject? NESM has a number of options that will fit well within this topic!
A visit to NESM itself is a great way to make use of real-life objects that can truly fire your imagination and assist with all learning styles. Along with the opportunity to explore the aftermath of the fire and the development of organised fire brigades to help prevent such a large-scale incident from happening again. A visit to us is from 10:00 – 14:00 and includes one workshop and one interactive discovery session with our learning team alongside discovering the museum itself.
Unable to visit us? Then make the most of our ‘Takeover Days’ and let our team come to your venue (anywhere in the country!) and as it says on the tin, we’ll take over your full day with a mix of hands-on sessions and controlled chaos!
Or why not hire one of our loan boxes and bring a mix of genuine and replica objects from our collection directly into your classroom along with a jam-packed activity book.
Firefighting before 1666
Despite the increased fire risk due to wooden structures and lack of health and safety, history shows little in the form of organised firefighting.
In ancient times (Rome, China, etc) the army would hold some responsibility to fight fires and keep watch over general public safety. It is known that a fire company was formed in Rome, which would attend a fire at the first calls for help but would negotiate the price with the homeowner for their services before getting to work! The Romans would create “vigiles” in 60AD, who were dedicated fire watchers with some form of policing powers and duties. They would have pumps and buckets to transport water onto the fire, as well as hooks and poles to pull down buildings to create fire breaks.
With the demise of the Roman Empire, the development of fire fighting stalled. There were no major new developments until the 17th century. Fire fighting was the consideration of individual communities with little input from major authorities of the royalty and nobility. This is despite major fires causing mass destruction, there were at least 4 in London prior to 1666.
The Great Fire of London
Debate is rife as to the accuracy of the facts about the Great Fire. We do know some things for certain though:
The fire started at Tom Farynor’s bakery on Pudding Lane in the early hours of Sunday 2nd September 1666.
The houses of London were predominantly made from wood, and after a long hot summer, they were the perfect kindling for a fire to spread. They were also built very close together and the small streets below were filled with rubbish and waste which further provided fuel for the fire.
As the fire began to spread, residents were concerned with escaping and the safety of their belongings. Not fighting the fire. This allowed the fire to take hold of more and more buildings ensuring that it would outstrip efforts to fight it.
The Lord Mayor of London was reluctant to pull down houses to make a ‘fire break’ as he would then have to foot the bill to rebuild them. It would take the orders of King Charles II on Monday/Tuesday to start the demolition of buildings to start. By Tuesday/Wednesday the use of gun powder had sped up the process. There are conflicting resources as to exact timings.
A strong easterly wind assisted the spread of the fire on Sunday and Monday. It had calmed down and directed north by Tuesday.
By Thursday morning, the majority of the fire was contained. However, it has been said that the ground was so hot it could not be walked on. Smoldering and smoke could still be seen in the weeks and months after the blaze.
As the King became involved with the firefighting efforts, he had to request the assistance of soldiers. This was the first-time efforts were organised and the delay in instigating organised efforts is another contributor to the spread of the fire.
Equipment included leather buckets, large fire hooks, ropes, gun powder, axes, and water squirts. Carts would be used to carry the equipment…if someone was generous enough to lend a cart. However, many rich people had hired carts to transport their goods. Manual fire pumps were inefficient and extremely rare. There is no solid evidence that one was certainly used, only circumstantial and historical guesswork. Hoses, as we know them, did not exist; wooden hoses made from hollowed tree trunks were also rare and inefficient.
Police and ambulance services did not exist. Looters were rife and those that were injured would need to rely on friends and family to help get them to the field hospitals on the untouched south side of the river. If you were lucky you could bribe someone with a boat to ferry you across the river.
Over 13,000 houses were burnt down. Over 80 churches (including St Paul's Cathedral) were destroyed and over 40 guild halls also perished.
Over 100,00 people were made homeless and the damage to the city would cost over £1 Billion in today’s money to correct!
After the Fire
The after-effects of the fire can be seen today! Houses were rebuilt in brick and stone without thatched roofs, except the new Globe Theatre which has had a specially treated thatched roof installed. Houses are made today with certain materials and in certain ways in order to stop the horrors of 1666 from ever happening again.
Also, the fire service was a repercussion of the Great Fire. Fire Insurance Companies began to provide a service but at a deep cost. Once a homeowner had paid the company the fee, the company's insurance badge would be placed on the front of the house. Should a fire break out, all companies would attend with the corresponding company being the only one that would fight the fire…unless the homeowner had the capacity to bribe other companies with money or beer tokens to redeem at the pub after work! These fire insurance companies would eventually inspire the creation of all insurances today! Also, we did not have telephones, so people would need to run to the church and ring the bells in order to sound the alarm for a fire. This was not very efficient or reliable!
By the early 1700’s, churches were required to keep firefighting equipment at all times in good working order. Helmets were available but were again rare and rudimentary. Fire pumps began soon after with developments being slow and their creation rare. Real advances did not occur until the progress of the industrial revolution. Metal helmets, hoses, steam engines, and wider spread organisation were introduced. The Auxiliary Fire service would begin with World War Two and would develop into the National Fire service.
Today, county authorities organise the fire service but are accountable on a nationwide platform. They not only provide firefighting services, but community engagement, and fire safety training, assist in other disasters and also provide rescue relief from floods and other life-threatening situations. They no longer rescue cats from trees due to the dramatic demand and stress the service is under.
A few other interesting facts:
It is rumored that around 6 people died in the fire…However, the real number is unknown! There are records to show that 6 people perished in the flames, however, record keeping was not an exact science in the 17th Century. Also, there would have been more deaths from smoke inhalation and injuries in the days after the fire that have gone undocumented.
Fire engines as we know them did not exist back then (despite what the rhyme says). A cart full of fire fighting equipment could be classed as a fire engine, but they would not have been recognised as fire engines at the time…people would not have even heard the term before!
The fire stopped the spread of the plague. There were still deaths in the city, but the fire put a stop to another major outbreak.
The fire was blamed on lots of different people (the Dutch, the French, and Catholics to name but a few) but it is now known to be an accident. The people of London at the time were so angry that mobs would attack people they blamed for the fire and even kill them! One man would falsely admit to starting the fire and would be hung for his false confession.
Sunday, early morning
A fire has started in the bakery on Pudding lane. It can be seen ¼ mile away.
Samuel Pepys’ maid reports that 300 houses have been destroyed by the fire.
Mayor refuses to demolish houses because of the cost of rebuilding.
News of the fire has spread, and the streets are filled with people trying to escape.
The fire has burned for ½ mile east and north of Pudding Lane. King Charles II is told, and orders houses to be pulled down to stop it spreading further.
People have to choose between helping to fight the fire and saving their things. Some make money by renting out boats and carts.
Carts are banned from going near the fire, and the king sets up fire posts around the city with soldiers to fight the blaze.
The fire has nearly reached the Tower of London. Many rich people have stored things here so extra engines are sent to protect it.
The fire shows no signs of stopping and the fire fighters are exhausted from failed attempts.
The fire spreads to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The wind finally stops, which slows down the spreading flames.
Houses destroyed in the north stop the fire from spreading further. This lets fire fighters put out the flames in this area.
All fires in the west of the city are put out.
All fires are completely out. 13,200 houses and 87 churches have been destroyed, but very few people died in the flames.
Below you'll find a selection of items from our collection that relate to the great fire and early firefighting