The Great Fire of London in 1666 was a devastating and monumental event that swept through the city, causing widespread destruction and reshaping the landscape of London. The fire started on 2nd September 1666 in a bakery on Pudding Lane and quickly spread due to strong winds and the predominantly wooden structures in the city.
The fire raged for four days, consuming approximately 87 churches, including the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, as well as 13,200 houses and numerous other buildings. It left an estimated 70,000 people homeless and had a profound impact on the city’s infrastructure and architecture.
St. Paul’s Cathedral was rebuilt over a span of 35 years, from 1675 to 1710. It was designed by the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren after the previous cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. However, St. Paul’s Cathedral has a history that extends well before the current building; there have been several different buildings on the same site since 604 AD. The one we know today is the most recent in that long line of churches and cathedrals.
Caption: Ludgate in flames, with St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance (square tower without the spire) now catching fire. Oil painting by an anonymous artist, ca. 1670.
Attribution: Yale Center for British Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Great_Fire_of_London,_with_Ludgate_and_Old_St._Paul%27s.JPG
During the Great Fire, firefighting efforts were hindered by several factors. The firefighters faced several challenges in their efforts to combat the blaze, such as:
- Inadequate Equipment: Firefighting equipment during that era was rudimentary. Manual water pumps and leather buckets were the primary tools available to extinguish fires. These tools had limited reach and capacity, making controlling the rapidly spreading flames difficult.
- Narrow Streets and Crowded Buildings: The layout of London’s streets was narrow and winding, with closely situated buildings. It made it challenging for fire engines to access the affected areas quickly. The crowded structures also allowed the fire to easily leap from building to building, causing the flames to spread rapidly.
- Lack of a Centralised Firefighting Authority: No centralised fire department or organised firefighting system existed in 1666. Firefighting efforts were mainly undertaken by volunteers, including citizens and local tradesmen, who formed bucket brigades to pass water from water sources to the fire site.
- Water Supply Issues: Despite the proximity of the River Thames, which could have been a vital water source, the available water supply was often insufficient. During the dry summer of 1666, the river water level was low, and there were challenges in effectively using it for firefighting purposes.
- Firebreaks and Gunpowder: In an attempt to create firebreaks and halt the spread of the flames, gunpowder was used to demolish buildings in the path of the fire. However, this strategy proved ineffective due to insufficient planning and coordination.
The number of firefighters trying to quell the fire is difficult to provide, partly due to reliance on volunteers and limited records from that time. It is estimated that thousands of individuals, including citizens, tradesmen, and members of the trained bands (local militia), participated in firefighting activities. These volunteers worked together to form bucket brigades and assist in various fire suppression efforts. While their efforts were commendable, the challenges they faced, combined with the rapid spread of the fire and their inadequate equipment, made it challenging to effectively control and extinguish the blaze.
The firefighting equipment of the time, such as manual water pumps and leather buckets, was insufficient to contain the rapidly spreading flames. Additionally, narrow streets and crowded buildings made access challenging for fire engines. Using gunpowder to create firebreaks by intentionally demolishing buildings in the fire’s path, proved ineffective.
The Great Fire of London prompted a greater emphasis on fire safety. Building regulations were strengthened, and fire insurance companies emerged, offering policies to protect against fire damage. Fire marks and metal plaques indicating insurance coverage were placed on buildings as a visible sign of protection.
Plans to Rebuild London
Following the fire, there were various proposals for rebuilding the city, including ambitious plans put forward by Sir Christopher Wren. His plans aimed to create a new layout for the city, with wider streets, grand boulevards, and well-designed buildings. His vision included monumental public structures, such as a magnificent cathedral, a city hall, and a central square.
However, despite Wren’s expertise and innovative ideas, his plans faced significant opposition from property owners, merchants, and government officials. Many Londoners were keen to rebuild their homes and businesses as quickly as possible and were reluctant to adopt a new urban design that would disrupt their lives and potentially be costly.
Also, the practicalities of Wren’s proposals, such as acquiring the necessary land and funding for the grand public structures, proved challenging.
The economic repercussions of the fire were immense, and there was a sense of urgency to restore the city’s commercial activities without delay. As a result, most of London’s inhabitants favoured a more pragmatic approach to rebuilding. The new structures closely resembled the pre-fire layout, with narrow streets and timber-framed buildings. The primary concern was to rebuild quickly, using familiar construction techniques and materials.
To expedite the rebuilding process, the government passed the Rebuilding of London Act in 1667. This legislation established guidelines for reconstruction and aimed to ensure consistency in building materials and design. It specified that buildings should be constructed with brick or stone rather than timber to reduce the risk of future fires.
Caption: View of the Monument, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Attribution: Eluveitie, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Monument_to_the_Great_Fire_of_London.JPG
Although Wren’s grand plans were largely rejected, he did play a crucial role in the reconstruction efforts. He was appointed as the surveyor-general and oversaw the design and construction of over 50 new churches, including the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral, which remains one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. Wren’s architectural contributions, albeit on a smaller scale than he had initially envisioned, and hoped for, helped shape the city’s skyline and influenced subsequent architectural styles. His work reflected a shift towards more classical and baroque designs, departing from the medieval and Tudor styles that had characterised London’s architecture before the fire.
The Great Fire of London and its aftermath led to significant changes in the city’s physical appearance and urban planning. While Wren’s ambitious plans for a new layout were largely rejected, the rebuilding efforts resulted in a more fire-resistant and resilient city, setting the stage for London’s future growth and development.
The Rebuilding Process
After the fire, the rebuilding process commenced rapidly. Property owners and tenants began reconstructing their properties using brick and stone instead of timber. The narrow streets were reinstated to maintain familiarity and expedite the process. The scale of the rebuilding effort was immense, with thousands of workers involved in the construction.
The Rebuilding of London Act, mentioned earlier, established guidelines for the reconstruction process. It addressed various aspects, including street widths, building materials, and fire prevention measures. The act mandated wider streets, where possible, and specified that buildings should have party walls, use brick or stone, and have tile or slate roofs.
The Impact on London’s Economy
The fire had both short-term and long-term economic consequences. In the immediate aftermath, there was a significant loss of commercial activity and livelihoods. However, the rebuilding process led to a surge in employment opportunities and stimulated the economy. Many artesans, craftsmen, and architects found work in the reconstruction efforts.
There have been various theories and speculations regarding the cause of the Great Fire of London, including the suggestion that it was started intentionally to eradicate the lingering effects of the Great Plague. However, it is important to note that such theories lack substantial evidence and are largely regarded as speculative or fictional in nature. The idea that the fire was deliberately set to eliminate the Black Death has been proposed in some works of fiction and conspiracy theories but is not supported by historical evidence. The fire was widely believed to have started accidentally in a bakery on Pudding Lane, when a spark ignited flammable materials. The rapid spread of the fire was primarily due to the prevalent use of wooden structures and the strong winds that fanned the flames.
Historical accounts, including eyewitness testimonies and official investigations conducted at the time, overwhelmingly point to the accidental nature of the fire. There is no credible evidence to suggest a deliberate act aimed at eradicating the effects of the Great Plague.
Was the Fire an Insurance Fraud?
There have been claims and speculations suggesting that the Great Fire of London was an act of insurance fraud. According to these theories, some property owners allegedly set fire to their buildings intentionally to collect insurance payouts or to escape financial difficulties. However, it is important to note that these claims are largely speculative and lack concrete evidence.
While it is true that insurance existed in some form during that time, it was not as widespread or structured as modern insurance systems, nor was it usual for private dwellings. Policies varied, and coverage for fire damage was not as prevalent or comprehensive as it is today. Additionally, the Great Fire caused significant destruction and displacement, affecting a vast number of people beyond individual property owners. The scale and intensity of the fire make it highly unlikely that it was a coordinated act of insurance fraud.
Perhaps the first fire insurance company that insured homes was established in 1680 as the “Insurance Office for Houses,” founded by Nicholas Barbon. It is considered the first fire insurance company to offer a widespread, systematic insurance for homes against fire. Barbon started his company in response to the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666, which destroyed much of the city. Forms of fire insurance for trade goods and ships have been recorded as far back as ancient times. In the Middle Ages and early modern period, guilds often provided a form of insurance for their members, including fire insurance. But these were typically not available or affordable for the average homeowner.
It’s also worth noting that after the Great Fire, methods for preventing and fighting fires improved, partly due to the efforts of insurance companies. The “Insurance Office for Houses,” for example, created its own private fire fighting force to protect the properties it insured. This eventually led to the creation of the modern fire insurance industry and public fire departments.
Historical accounts and investigations conducted at the time pointed to the accidental ignition of the 1666 fire in the Pudding Lane bakery as the initial cause. The rapid spread of the fire was primarily due to the prevailing factors of wooden structures, strong winds, and narrow streets. The absence of substantial evidence linking the fire to deliberate insurance fraud supports the widely accepted understanding that the Great Fire of London was an accidental and catastrophic event.
Public Health Improvements
The Great Plague, also known as the Black Death, was a devastating epidemic that struck London in the years leading up to the Great Fire of London. The epidemic was caused by the spread of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was primarily transmitted through fleas that infested black rats. The Great Plague hit London in 1665 and claimed the lives of an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people, almost a quarter of London’s population at the time, although the exact number of casualties is uncertain. In comparison, the number of lives lost in the Great Fire of 1666 was much lower.
The plague had a profound impact on the city, causing widespread panic, social upheaval, and economic disruption. The cramped and unsanitary living conditions in London at the time contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. The infected areas were marked with red crosses and the words “Lord Have Mercy Upon Us” as a warning.
This epidemic caused great social and economic disruption, laying bare the city’s deficiencies in public health infrastructure and emergency preparedness. In the wake of such a significant public health crisis, the city’s built environment, already strained and inadequate, became the focus of concern. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and the close quarters of the city’s housing were all identified as factors contributing to the rapid spread of the plague.
The Great Plague peaked in the summer of 1665 and gradually subsided in the winter. However, the fear and trauma caused by the epidemic lingered in the minds of Londoners. However, even as plans were being made to address these issues, another disaster struck in the form of the Great Fire in 1666.
It is believed that the fire played a role in eradicating the remaining plague-infested areas. The fire destroyed many of the plague’s breeding grounds, such as the unsanitary and densely populated areas of the city. The subsequent rebuilding efforts also included improvements in sanitation infrastructure, which contributed to preventing future outbreaks of disease.
The combination of the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London brought about significant changes in urban planning, public health measures, and architectural styles. The events of the plague and the fire marked a turning point in London’s history and influenced the city’s development in subsequent years.
The Great Fire, which razed much of the city to the ground, was devastating in its own right, but it also presented an opportunity. In the aftermath of the fire, the city embarked on a major rebuilding effort that addressed many of the problems highlighted by the plague. Notably, the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Cathedral represented a symbol of resilience and recovery.
The fire led to a greater awareness of sanitation and public health issues. Efforts were made to improve sanitation infrastructure, including constructing new sewers and better waste management systems. These initiatives aimed to prevent the spread of diseases and improve overall living conditions in the city.
Sir Christopher Wren, who was, with others, tasked with the reconstruction, designed a new city layout with wider streets, brick and stone buildings to replace the wooden ones, and improved sanitation facilities. Although not all his plans were realised, the rebuilding period transformed London into a more modern city.
The Act was passed in February 1667 in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London and drawn up by Sir Matthew Hale. An earlier Act, the Fire of London Disputes Act 1666, had set up a court to settle disputes arising from buildings destroyed by the Fire. The ‘rebuilding’ Act regulated the rebuilding, authorised the City of London Corporation to reopen and widen roads, designated the anniversary of the Fire a feast day, and authorised the building of the Monument.
Chroniclers of the 1666 Great Fire of London, such as the diarist Samuel Pepys, praised King Charles II and his brother James the Duke of York, for their tireless and persistent firefighting assistance. Statistically, 13,200 houses, 87 churches and 52 livery company halls were destroyed, as were courts, prisons and civil administration buildings, effectively obliterating the city infrastructure. The Act for the Rebuilding of the City proposed that all new buildings had to be constructed of brick or stone against the future perils of fire. It also imposed a maximum number of storeys per house for a fixed number of abodes to eliminate overcrowding. The medieval ancient system of Guilds was reformed, and there would be a clarion call to ‘all carpenters, bricklayers, masons, plasterers & joiners’ to help with reconstruction.
Within a few days of the fire, several proposals for restructuring the city had been put forward by various leading citizens, including Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and John Evelyn. Most of the suggested plans involved restructuring the medieval city’s roads into a grid pattern and were rejected because re-parcelling all the land would have been too difficult, time-consuming, and costly.
Keeping Londoners in the city and salvaging its economy were top priorities, and thus the Act focused on putting straightforward, common-sense building regulations into place as soon as possible. To prevent improper construction by over-eager Londoners, the Act included a provision to demolish any new buildings that had been erected without adhering to the Act’s regulations. Measures were included to attract workers to the city and to prevent price gouging of materials or labour.
Among other things, the Act added or modified regulations to:
- Architectural styles of buildings on designated High Streets
- Heights of private homes
- Building materials (brick and stone preferred)
- Wall thicknesses
- Street widths
- Buildings within 40 feet of the Thames
- Jetties and similar overhangs (banned)
The overall effect was meant to be “harmonious and orderly, [but] without excessive standardisation.”
Between 1667 and 1670, the coal tax only raised £23,000 of the expected £100,000; the duty was later increased to three shillings in the Rebuilding of London Act of 1670 to raise enough money to fund the rebuilding of the city’s churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Facts about Sir Christopher Wren
- Born: 20th October 1632, at East Knoyle in Wiltshire, England
- Died: 25th February 1723, in London (age 91)
- Tombstone Epitaph (translated from Latin) in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London:
“Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city; who lived beyond the age of ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good. If you seek his memorial, look about you.”
The Lost Tomb of Sir Francis Walsingham (and others)
Sir Francis Walsingham was an important figure in Elizabethan England, known primarily for his role as Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. He played a crucial role in protecting the Queen and the realm from both domestic and foreign threats. Walsingham died on 6th April 1590 and was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was a common burial site for important figures at the time.
The loss of his tomb and many others in the Great Fire of London in 1666 was a significant cultural and historical loss.
The modern plaque in the crypt of the current St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his name is among those listed, is a way of acknowledging and remembering the important figures interred in the old cathedral and whose tombs were lost to the Great Fire. It is a tribute to the historical legacy of those individuals and a way of keeping their memories alive, even though their physical memorials were lost.
Caption: The Dome, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Attribution: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Paul%27s_Cathedral_Dome_from_One_New_Change_-_Square_Crop.jpg
The history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, encompassing the devastation of the Great Fire of London and its subsequent resurrection, presents a fascinating case study of resilience in the face of adversity. The cathedral’s reconstruction symbolises the city’s recovery and transformation after the double tragedies of the Great Plague and the Great Fire.
In the broader historical context, the Great Plague and the subsequent Great Fire marked a turning point for London. The twin tragedies catalysed significant changes in urban planning, public health policies, and fire safety measures that shaped the city’s development in the following centuries.
The story of St. Paul’s Cathedral serves as a poignant reminder of our ability to learn, adapt, and grow in the face of crisis. It also speaks to the importance of preserving history, even in its loss, as represented by the modern monument in the crypt that acknowledges the important graves destroyed in the fire.
In understanding and appreciating the history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, we are not merely recalling the events of the past but are also gaining insights into the development of modern cities and societies. It is a testament to human resilience, ingenuity, and the continuous pursuit of progress, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Caption: Christopher Wren‘s rejected plan for the rebuilding of London.
Attribution: Christopher Wren, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1744_Wren_Map_of_London,_England_-_Geographicus_-_London-wren-1744.jpg
Sources and Further Reading
CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.
- Journal article: The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire by T. F. Reddaway, Review by: A. H. Thomas, History, NEW SERIES, Vol. 25, No. 98 (SEPTEMBER, 1940), pp. 97-112 (16 pages), published by Wiley, at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24404140
- Sir Christopher Wren, Paperback, by Paul Rabbitts (Author) 21 Feb. 2019, published by Shire Publications, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sir-Christopher-Wren-Shire-Library/dp/1784423254/
- On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, Paperback, by Lisa Jardine (Author) 1 Feb. 2004, published by Perennial, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grander-Scale-Outstanding-Tumultuous-Christopher/dp/006095910X/
- The Great Fire of London: An Illustrated History of the Great Fire of 1666, Hardcover – Picture Book, by Emma Adams (Author), James Weston Lewis (Illustrator) 26 May 2016, published by Wren & Rook; Illustrated edition, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Fire-London-Anniversary-1666/dp/0750298200/
- The Great Fire of London: 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1666, by Emma Adams (2016-05-26) Hardcover – 1 Jan. 1820, published by Wayland, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Fire-London-Anniversary-2016-05-26/
- Great Fire of London (Great Events), Paperback, by Gillian Clements (Author) 13 Jun. 2002, published by Franklin Watts, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Fire-London-Events/dp/0749642513/
- The Great Fire of London: An Eyewitness Account, Hardcover, by David Lassman (Author) 30 Jun. 2023, publisher Pen and Sword History, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Fire-London-Eyewitness-Account/dp/1526793423/
- Evelyn’s City of London rebuilding Plan After The 1666 fire, Harrison – 1776 – Old Antique Vintage map – Printed maps of London, Brand: Antiqua Print Gallery, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Evelyns-London-rebuilding-after-HARRISON/dp/B06X97Z412/
- LONDON 1666: FIRE AND REBUILDING, Paperback, by T.F. Reddaway (Author) 1 Jan. 1965, published by Bedford College, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/LONDON-1666-REBUILDING-T-F-Reddaway/dp/B007R7IQLY/
- Robert Hooke and the Rebuilding of London, Paperback, by Michael Cooper (Author) 17 Mar. 2005, published by The History Press Limited, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Robert-Rebuilding-London-Michael-Cooper/dp/075092960X/
End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Explanation: The Great Fire of London in 1666 result in some fatalities. However, the exact number of deaths directly caused by the fire is difficult to determine with precision due to the chaotic nature of the event and the limitations of record-keeping at the time. Contemporary reports suggest that the number of deaths directly attributed to the fire was relatively low. The official death toll recorded by the authorities at the time was only six, but it is widely believed to have been an underestimate. Some historians estimate that the actual number of fatalities could have been higher, possibly in the range of several dozen. The relatively low number of recorded deaths can be attributed to several factors. The fire spread during the day, allowing many people to evacuate their homes and escape the immediate danger. Additionally, some sources suggest that there may have been unrecorded deaths, such as those of individuals who were unable to escape the fire or whose remains were incinerated and therefore not accounted for. It should be noted that the fire caused significant displacement and hardship for the residents of London. An estimated 70,000 people were left homeless as a result of the fire, and many lost their belongings, businesses, and sources of livelihood. The impact on the city’s social fabric and economy was profound, even if the number of direct fire-related deaths was relatively low. ↑
- Source: Charles II, 1666: An Act for rebuilding the City of London, Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 603-12. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=47390. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Source: ‘Book 1, Ch. 15: From the Fire to the death of Charles II’, A New History of London: Including Westminster and Southwark (1773), pp. 230-55. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=46732. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Sources:  Bawtree, Maurice (Spring 1969). “The City of London coal duties and their boundary marks” (PDF). London Archaeologist. (6MB download from the Archaeology Data Service, University of York Department of Archaeology) (1): 27–30, and  Nail, Martin. “Types of boundary mark”. City posts: the coal duties of the City of London and their boundary marks. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Source and Acknowledgement: (©Copyright UK Parliament 2023) at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/towns/collections/collections-great-fire-1666/1666-act-to-rebuild-the-city-of-london/ ↑
- Source: Porter, Stephen (1996). The Great Fire of London. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing. pp. 92–115. ISBN 0750907789. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Source: Charles II, 1666: An Act for rebuilding the City of London, Statutes of the Realm: volume 5: 1628-80 (1819), pp. 603-12. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=47390. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Ibid ↑
- Source: Inwood, Stephen (2000). A History of London. London: Macmillan. p. 249. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑
- Source: Weiss, David (1968). The Great Fire of London. New York: Cumberland Enterprises, Inc. p. 129. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebuilding_of_London_Act_1666 ↑