London’s Great Fire—A Selection of Fearsome Facts

The Great Fire of London was an event of HISTORIC proportions. While researching the 17th century timeline in AND BY FIRE, I read a collection of exceptional books on the Fire. In fact, let me drop a footnote in here with a couple of recommendations for those of you who would enjoy a deep dive into this traumatic and terrifying event.[i]

I am not going to write a book here. I’ve written a book—a dual timeline Detective novel—AND BY FIRE. In it you will travel to 1666 vicariously, joining Margaret Dove, Maid of Honour to Queen Catherine Braganza, as she lives through the Great fire in all its apocalyptic horror.

For the moment, I am offering a selection of Great Fire Facts –both fascinating and frightening—to give you a sense of the scope of the disaster.

☠️ The Great Fire of London began in the early hours of Sunday September 2, 1666. It burned for 4 days, with the worst of the fire finally over by the afternoon of September 5th.

☠️ The fire’s first fatality (more on the painfully inaccurate initial casualty count for the Great Fire in a blog yet to come) was a maid employed by the baker Thomas Farriner on whose property the fire started.

☠️ Fire was a common occurrence in London, so initially people shrugged this one off. BIG mistake. As it became clear that this fire was an existential treat officials equivocated . . .

☠️ Pressed to take aggressive action against the fire (including by his King), Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London equivocated and delayed—desperate not to damage and offend landlords by pulling buildings down for firebreaks. At one point famously (and damningly) Bloodworth said that things weren’t serious and that the fire was so insignificant “a woman could piss it out.”

☠️ Fierce easterly gales across the southeast of England, including in London, drove the spread of the fire and fed the flames until soon it wasn’t just an ordinary fire but a firestorm.

☠️ Fire “tornados” (of a type later observed during the WWII firebombing of Dresden) were reported and recorded during the Great Fire. These otherworldly cones danced across the city, springing up seemingly at random and sucking debris—even large timbers—into the fire, while carrying sparks and smaller flaming items (like branches or paper) aloft where they were caught by the wind, spreading the fire further.

☠️ The pitch coatings given to London’s wooden houses to protect them in non-fire conditions vaporized in the heat, allowing flames to spread over and through residences like wildfire.

☠️ The poorer neighborhoods were doomed. The poor lived in warrens of crumbling timber houses, shacks and shanties—crowded tenements housing hundreds. As the fire reached them these went up quickly. For example, the whole of the area West of London Bridge (Rood Alley, Fleur de Lys Alley etc.) burned end to end in minutes

☠️ So were the Elizabethan dwellings of their “betters” come to think of it. Many of the London dwellings of wealthy merchants and nobles were Elizabethan. Their style—from their wall-hangings and wainscoting to their paneling and paintings—helped generate fearsome fire temperatures. Estimates say a fire inside a SINGLE timber-framed Elizabethan house could easily reach and exceed 1800 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to melt lead, glass, bronze, and sliver.

☠️ By the time the damage was done, London, as it had existed was GONE—over 80% of the area within the city walls had been destroyed by The Great Fire.

    • 13,200 houses had burned or been torn down to create firebreaks.
    • Between 70,000 and 80,000 Londoners were homeless.
    • 87 Churches were either destroyed outright or damaged beyond saving.
    • London’s trades—along with their guildhalls—were decimated.
    • “The value or estimate of what that devouring fire consumed, over and above the houses, could never be computed in any degree.”—The Earl of Clarendon
    • Historians bold enough estimate, suggest that the losses in London exceeded nine-million pounds.

Little wonder that the fire was quickly labeled “Great” and is too this day often referred to simply as THE Fire. None of the London fires before it came close to its destructive power, and London has never seen another like it.[ii]

[i] A few top choices, imo, for readers wanting to travel back to 1666 and the apocalypse that was The Great Fire would be: Adrian Tinnniswood, By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London (Riverhead Books, 2003) and Neil Hanson, The Dreadful Judgement (Doubleday, 2001)

[ii] What about the Blitz you ask? At least one American correspondent declared the night of 29–30 December 1940 to be “The Second Great Fire of London” And the fires caused by the Luftwaffe raids that night were scattered over a greater area than that involved in the 1666 Great Fire. More homes and buildings were destroyed during the Blitz in terms of sheer numbers. HOWEVER, in terms of the proportion of London destroyed—the Blitz comes in somewhere around 60%. Which leaves The Great Fire, with its more than 80% destruction, the “winner” in proportional terms.

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