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Today in history... a spark that consumed a city

12:00am | & News

In the early hours of September 2nd a spark jumped from gently glowing embers in a baker's oven, landing in a pile of firewood stacked on the floor. Four days later more than 80% of London was a smouldering ruin.

It was 1666 – exactly 350 years ago today – and that single spark from Thomas Faryner's bakery in Pudding Lane would start the Great Fire of London. Faryner was a successful and well thought-of baker whose wealthy customers included King Charles II. But he had gone to bed the previous night without properly extinguishing the fire in his bakery oven and it would prove a costly mistake.

His pile of firewood, stacked to feed the oven, quickly caught light and before long his house and bakery, close to London Bridge, were engulfed in flames. Faryner managed to flee through an upstairs window with his family and a servant, but a less fortunate maidservant became the first victim of the fire.

Sparks leapt across the narrow street to The Star Inn, setting fire to straw in its stables. From there the flames had only a short journey to Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were stacked high with inflammable goods such as lamp oil, tallow for candles, turpentine, alcoholic spirits and coal. Once they were alight the inferno was out of control and panicked Londoners who had been desperately trying to fight the fire with buckets of water abandoned their futile efforts and fled.

In truth it had been a disaster waiting to happen. After a hot dry summer, London was a tinderbox of closely-packed medieval wooden houses, where open fires for cooking were the norm. Many of the poorer houses had their walls coated with tar to make them watertight. Londoners were well aware of the danger and while small accidental fires were fairly common, most happened in the daytime and were quickly spotted and brought under control using buckets and primitive handpumps.

In the early hours of September 2nd, the Great Fire had taken hold before people had time to react, with a strong wind fanning the flames into a firestorm. The fire continued to spread throughout the day – a Sunday – despite efforts late in the day to create a firebreak by large scale demolition of buildings in the path of the flames.

It was too little too late. By Monday the inferno had reached the heart of the city and by Tuesday most of the capital was burnt or ablaze, including St Paul's Cathedral. The flames even leapt the River Fleet to threaten King Charles' court at Whitehall, but better quality buildings of brick and stone, spaced further apart, slowed its progress.

Thankfully by Wednesday the strong east winds had subsided and properly co-ordinated efforts to fight the flames began to prove effective. Most notably the garrison was turned out from the Tower of London, using its stores to gunpowder to blow up buildings and make an effective firebreak. Rather than being extinguished, the fire was prevented from spreading and allowed to burn itself out.

Official records show only a handful of deaths attributed to the fire, although the true figure was probably much higher. Only the deaths of wealthier people with some social standing were recorded in the chaos that followed the fire, while most of its victims would have been poor and anonymous. The heat was so intense that nothing remained of those caught in the inferno, not even bones.

Many did manage to escape though, fleeing before the flames reached them. Those who couldn't get out of the city made for the Thames, taking to boats or just seeking shelter at the river's edge. But there were many more deaths not caused directly by the flames.

Early rumours that fires had been deliberately started by French and Dutch immigrants spread almost as quickly as the flames had, with outbreaks of street violence and even lynchings. Both countries were Britain's enemies at the time and Londoners who had lost everything in the blaze were hungry for a scapegoat.

Many more would perish in the following harsh winter, with an estimated 100,000 people left homeless and without shelter from the cold. Some 13,000 houses had been destroyed, together with nearly 90 churches, hundreds of businesses and scores of public buildings.

Several grand plans were submitted for rebuilding the city in a radical new style, but in the end it was done on more or less the same street plan. However, new laws stipulated wider streets, open access to the river wharves and, most importantly, building in brick and stone to prevent another "Great Fire".

Many of London's best-known buildings were constructed after the fire, including St Paul's Cathedral and 50 other churches all designed by Sir Christopher Wren. A 200ft tall monument to the Great Fire was also erected near Pudding Lane, known simply as The Monument.

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