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London's Burning: The Great Fire

By Bruce Robinson
London's burning

Black and white illustration showing the North side of Long Lane, Smithfield
Long Lane, Smithfield. Drawing of a house made from combustible materials, built before the Great Fire 
Thus by September 1666, all that was required was a spark. This was provided at the house of Thomas Farynor, the king's baker in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. At 2.00am on Sunday 2nd September his workman smelled smoke and woke the household. The family fled across the nearby roofs, leaving only a maid, too scared to run, who soon became the first of the four listed casualties of the fire.

With only narrow streets dividing wooden buildings, the fire took hold rapidly, and within an hour the Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, had been woken with the news. He was unimpressed, declaring that 'A woman might piss it out'. Yet by dawn London Bridge was burning: an open space on the bridge, separating two groups of buildings, had acted as a firebreak in 1632. It did so again: only a third of the bridge was burned, saving Southwark from destruction and confining the fire to the City of London, on the north bank.

'...the smoke could be seen from Oxford, and Londoners had begun to flee to the open spaces of Moorfields and Finsbury Hill.'

Samuel Pepys lived nearby and on Sunday morning walked to the Tower of London. There he saw the fire heading west, fanned by the wind, and described 'pigeons... hovering about the windows and balconies till they burned their wings and fell down'. With Bloodworth dithering, Pepys went to Whitehall, informing the King and his brother James, Duke of York, of the situation. Although Charles II immediately ordered Bloodworth to destroy as many houses as necessary to contain the fire, early efforts to create firebreaks were overcome by the strength of the wind, which enabled the fire to jump gaps of even twenty houses. By the end of Sunday the fire had begun to travel against the wind, towards the Tower, and Pepys had begun to pack.

By the following dawn, the fire was raging north and west, and panic reigned. The Duke of York took control of efforts to stop the fire, with militias summoned from neighbouring counties to help the fight, and stop looting. But the flames continued relentlessly, devouring Gracechurch Street, Lombard Street, the Royal Exchange, and heading towards the wealthy area of Cheapside. By mid afternoon the smoke could be seen from Oxford, and Londoners had begun to flee to the open spaces of Moorfields and Finsbury Hill.

Published: 2004-04-01

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