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The "other" Great Fires of history

We’ve all heard of the Great Fire of London, about the bakery on Pudding Lane, and the blaze that spread from there to engulf much of the city in 1666. (If you visit us here at NESM, you’ll learn lots more about that famous fire which you might not know, like how it led to the first properly organised firefighting teams being established in the city). But while the Fire of London is a part of our shared heritage, few of us know much about the other “Great Fires” that raged through history, and there have been plenty of them! Ever since humans began to settle in cities, fires ferocious enough to destroy them have been an ever-present danger. Such fires have acted as the stimulus to create, or improve, services to fight them, leading eventually to the professional fire brigades we know today. So here is a quick look at just a few of those “other” Great Fires of the past.

Great Fire of Rome (64 AD)

Two-thirds of Rome is thought to have been destroyed by a huge fire during the reign of the infamous Emperor Nero in July 64 AD. It broke out close to the Circus Maximus (the famous chariot racing stadium portrayed so often in historical epics like Ben-Hur). The fire burned out of control for six days before a lull, whereupon it reignited and threatened what was left of the city for another three days. It was rumoured that the despised emperor had started the fire on purpose ("fiddling while Rome burned"); Nero was conveniently absent from Rome and soon began building a lavish new palace in the ruined city. Nero himself blamed the Christians, using the fire as an excuse to persecute them further.

Fire of Hangzhou (1237)

Devastating city fires often led to the development of new firefighting provisions. The Chinese city of Hangzhou suffered several fires in the Middle Ages due to its dense population and wooden dwellings. But the one that took place in 1237 was particularly severe, destroying 30,000 homes. It led to the most sophisticated firefighting operation yet known, with the city erecting watchtowers, developing a “flag and lantern” signalling system to report outbreaks, and charging 3,000 soldiers with responsibility for fighting fires at their source (a very early example of a proto-fire brigade). This could not stop its invasion by the armies of Kublai Khan- grandson of Genghis- in 1276, as Song China fell to the Mongols.

Great Fire of Moscow (1547)

Just a few months after coming to the throne, Tsar Ivan IV of Russia (later known as Ivan the Terrible), had to contend with a city-wide blaze in his capital, Moscow, one that very nearly toppled the young Tsar’s regime before it had even started. The fire destroyed swathes of the Kremlin fortress itself, igniting powder stores inside. However, it was the effect the fire had on the rest of the city that nearly led to an early “Russian Revolution”. It killed many thousands, and displaced around 80,000 people, whose wooden homes were destroyed. A rebellion began in the aftermath. Luckily for Ivan, the citizens placed the blame for the fire, not on him, but on his mother’s powerful family; the Tsar’s grandmother was accused of causing the disaster through witchcraft!

Great Fire of Meireki (Tokyo, 1657)

Nine years before London burnt in view of King Charles II, the Japanese capital, Tokyo (then known as Edo) was devastated by a fire that raged for three days and killed over 100,000 people during the reign of the Meireki Emperor, Go-Sai. Legend has it the fire began when a priest attempted to burn a kimono believed to be cursed (it had apparently been owned in turn by three girls who had each died before being able to wear it). Edo actually had its own proto-fire brigade, the Hikeshi, or “fire extinguishers”. But being barely two decades old, ill-prepared and ill-equipped, they were unable to face the massive blaze that tore through the city. The Great Fire was among the worst disasters in Japanese history. Samurai and commoners alike were granted funds from the government for reconstruction.

The “other” Fires of London

Nowadays the “Great Fire of London” is remembered as that which destroyed the city in 1666. But there have in fact been many city-wide fires in the capital. The earliest recorded happened in Roman “Londinium”, a ferocious blaze started by the famed Celtic warrior-queen Boudica, whose tribe rebelled against Roman rule in 60 AD. Perhaps the most significant fire however, was that which swept through Southwark in 1212 during the reign of King John. Somehow, it crossed London Bridge into the City of London, either burning through the buildings then stretching along the bridge, or via embers floating across the River Thames. Thousands died, but lessons were apparently not learnt. It would take the Great Fire of 1666 to start the slow journey towards modern fire brigades, with the establishment of private firefighting units by several London insurance companies. And even after the first city-wide service was founded in 1833, London would face major conflagrations. In 1861 the "Great Fire of Tooley Street" killed the founder of the service himself, London Fire Engine Establishment Superintendent, James Braidwood.

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