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London’s Royal Firefighters

On 2 September 1666 a fire started in Pudding Lane, London. Fires in London were a common hazard at the time; buildings in the city were built close together, and made of wood, thatch and pitch. There was also no official fire brigade like we have today. The only defences were ‘bucket brigades’ (leather buckets passed down a line of people), fire hooks which were used to pull down houses to make fire breaks, and water squirts; like large syringes that squirted water at the fire. They also had basic fire engines; carts with water tanks, pumps and a hose to direct the water. The pumps were man-powered and the tanks needed to be refilled constantly.

What made the fire different on 2 September was that London was experiencing a drought. It had been a dry, hot summer and that night there was a strong easterly wind. All these elements were a recipe for disaster.

As I am sure you can imagine, it was chaos when a fire broke out. The Great Fire was no different. People were coming from all around to see the fire even from the countryside. People in London were trying their best to save as much of their property as they could by transporting it to other areas of the city for safety. According to diarist Samuel Pepys, people were moving their property away from the fire to the houses of friends. This was not always the safest bet as the fire was so extensive and fast that it was a good possibility that a new safe place could soon be in danger as well. The wind was pushing the fire so that it spread fast and the sparks were able to jump buildings. This meant that the people fighting the fire weren't always able to create fire breaks by tearing down houses fast enough. By the early morning of the 2nd, the fire had destroyed around 300 homes and reached the warehouses on the River Thames. The warehouses were full of oils and alcohol. It was chaos, so someone had to take charge. The lord mayor of London was slow to respond to the threat believing it was like any other fire.

Now a little background on the star of this blog; The King. Charles II was restored to power in 1660. His father had been executed by the Puritans and there was a lot of pressure on Charles not to repeat his father's mistakes. Many people were delighted about the fall of the Puritans and the return of the monarchy. They had banned a lot of entertainments and festivities which the King had restored. However there were others that were not too happy about Charles coming back. Charles II was what you would call a fun-loving king. He had quite a lot of mistresses, illegitimate children and also had a Catholic wife. Some felt that the plagues, wars and political uncertainties that were falling on Great Britain were his fault. The King's brother James, Duke of York (who would later become James II of England and VII of Scotland) was also causing issues. James had had an affair with the daughter of Charles's chief minister. She became pregnant and the couple married in secret. This was a scandal due to the fact that his wife was a commoner and most people felt the prince should have married a high-ranking woman who could bring political benefits and money to the country. So the royal family at the time was seen to be quite scandalous with their parties, mistresses, illegitimate children and unorthodox marriages. So what did these scandalous royal brothers do when disaster hit the capital?

Sunday 2 September 1666

When the Great Fire broke out in the early hours of the morning, the King was unaware due to the bends in the River Thames that obscured his view. By 11am he was informed that little was being done to fight the fire. He commanded the Lord Mayor to start pulling houses down to cause fire breaks to contain the fire. He and his brother, James, even volunteered troops to help with the effort. Later on the first day of the fire, the two men heard that the Lord Mayor wasn't being effective in his role, so they sailed down to see the disaster for themselves. (The Mayor wasn't seen after this day until after the fire). The King landed and was seen talking with the refugees that were fleeing the fire. He was urging everyone about the need to create fire breaks. He was very close to the fire at this time. After seeing the fire, the king summoned a meeting where he set up a base of operation and an action plan to fight the fire. The base was at Ely house. From here, troops and volunteers were dispatched to where they were needed.

Monday 3 September 1666

On the second day the fire was a looming disaster. The strong easterly wind was pushing the fire and sparks towards Westminster, the seat of government. Charles spent the day trying to prevent this disaster from happening, setting up fire breaks at Charing Cross to prevent the fire spreading. Charles' brother James was also busy that Monday. The King had put him in charge of the firefighting effort. James set up eight command posts that had the authority to press-gang men into helping fight the fire. They were also able to tear down any building they thought necessary to create fire breaks. Each post had 133 people. There were three high ranking men in charge, 30 foot soldiers and 100 civilians. My the end of Monday around 50 per cent of the City of London was destroyed

Tuesday 4 September 1666

On Tuesday, the 3rd day of the fire, the King and his brother returned to the city to carry on their efforts. Charles was seen riding around the city encouraging the people fighting the fire, carrying money to reward people that were going above and beyond. He and his brother were seen joining the bucket lines and fighting the fire themselves. Charles sent for bread to be brought up from a navy base to feed the destitute and ordered relief to be given to the refugees that were camping outside the city. About midday the Duke of York was almost killed while fighting the fire when the building behind him and his men ignited and they had to flee for their lives. The Duke was out for 18 hours fighting fires and organising the effort. That night the strong easterly wind that had been pushing the fire onwards finally started to abate. Though the strength of the wind had calmed, it was still causing problems as it was now turning in a southerly direction and was causing the fire to head towards the Tower of London.

Wednesday 5th September 1666

Wednesday was another early start for the King and his brother, although the fire was easing down thanks to the calmer wind. Charles evacuated Whitehall and moved to Hampton Court. The Duke of York organised for the collection of important paper records that were stored in the rolls chapel. The Duke continued with his firefighting duties, not leaving until after midnight. The King’s orders were given to use gunpowder to blow up buildings to quickly create larger fire breaks. This helped prevent the fire spreading close to the Tower. The fear was that if the fire reached the Tower it would explode the stores of gunpowder. The explosion would have been massive. The King went to the tower to oversee the pulling down of wooden buildings within the tower walls in case they ignited from sparks.

Thursday 6th September 1666

By Thursday all of the major fires had been extinguished. There were still small pockets of fire but these were controllable and would continue to pop up for weeks after. The King could now focus on the rebuilding of London. To help prevent a disaster like this from happening again Charles wanted the new London to be rebuilt mainly with stone and brick, with wider streets in a grid form. Sadly for the King his vision for a new London never happened. Cost and the traditionalism of those in charge and the legal ramification of privately owned plots of land meant that the city kept its medieval layout. The citizens of London would later award the first honorary freedom of the City of London to the King. He is the only monarch to have received this high honour.


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