The history of humanity has seen a colossal amount of fires, which had a lasting impact on people’s lives. While such events occur daily, some fires remain in the annals of history due to their magnitude. The Great Fire of London, which happened in the year 1666, lasted for several days. It had an unprecedented impact on the life of entire communities, leaving thousands of people without a home. In addition, the Great Fire of London determined relevant policies for centuries ahead, as the developed civilization saw the level of threat such events posed to its development. The purpose of this paper is to examine the Great Fire of London in terms of factors, which contributed to it, as well as its lasting impact on fire protection policies.
Background of the Event
The Great Fire of 1666 took place in the City of London, which was one of the largest and the most prosperous cities at the time. The city had a rich history, which spanned across centuries from Roman domination to its contemporary state. The City was ground zero of the fire, and, while being densely populated and important, it was only a part of the larger territory. Evidently, following centuries of gradual, spontaneous development, London lacked proper organization in terms of city planning. Similar to other centers of the civilization of this era, the city had retained its medieval nature. Its streets were narrow and cobblestoned, while many buildings were still wooden with thatch roofs (Great Fire of London). Stone construction was primarily available to wealthy people and organizations, which were not numerous in the City, as the British aristocracy preferred to reside outside the crowded territories of London. In addition, the area possessed multiple smithies and foundries, which were located near houses and posed considerable threats for communities. Therefore, London demonstrated a range of potential fire hazards at the time, which aggravated the situation in 1666.
Despite several prior fires, the City remained unprepared for its challenges. Before 1666, London did not have a specialized fire service, which also contributed to the risk. Despite existing prohibitions issued by the Crown, wooden construction and the use of hanging floors had continued, as well (Garrioch 319). The City remained the territory in which the majority of people lived modestly or even in poverty. Some of them lived on the London Bridge, thus crowding the only pathway between two banks of the Thames river. Accordingly, the combination of the aforementioned factors entailed a dire situation, in which the fire spread rapidly, while narrow, overcrowded streets remained blocked. The background information regarding the Great Fire of London allows for a better understanding of the underlying issues, which were revealed and underlined by the described event.
The Great Fire of London
The timeline of the Great Fire of London encompasses several days. As historical documents state, the initial source of the fire is considered to be located in the house of the king’s baker in the City (Great Fire of London). This accident led to a difficult situation due to strong winds blowing from the East. The fire broke out on Sunday, September 2, and the unfavorable weather conditions persisted through Monday and Tuesday. At the same time, in the aftermath of the Civil War, there was a considerable amount of gunpowder stored in people’s houses. As the fire reached them, these constructions exploded, which aggravated an already serious situation (Great Fire of London). The Diary, written by Samuel Pepys, who lived across the Thames, contains interesting details regarding the description of the event. According to him, Londoners actively tried to save as many goods and belongings as they could, causing jams in both the streets and the river (Great Fire of London). The entire City remained in shock, as thousands of people were rapidly losing their houses.
In the course of the violent fire, those who lived in the City had to seek refuge in other parts of London. Samuel Pepys’s diary lists Moorfields, Highstead, and Highgate among the most popular destinations for the newly homeless Londoners (Great Fire of London). The days from Sunday through Tuesday became the most difficult ones during the event. On Wednesday, the fire became weaker, which made it possible to extinguish it the next day. Nevertheless, the damage it had entailed was already significant, as over 13000 houses of regular people were destroyed. Simultaneously, the fire affected a considerable amount of civic buildings, whereas the Great Fire also destroyed the first Saint Paul’s cathedral (Great Fire of London). Overall, the event lasted for five days, and it has entailed serious consequences due to a lack of proper planning and the city’s overall unpreparedness.
Consequences of the Event
An event of such a considerable magnitude inevitably would have profound, lasting consequences for the city. It was important to analyze what had led to such a destructive fire while discussing possible ways of prevention or compensation for the citizens. Historical data suggests that the Great Fire of London made Great Britain’s authorities reconsider the entire safety framework (Garrioch 319). The responsible representatives of the government managed to discern particular factors, which increased the hazard and introduce related policies. Nevertheless, as Garrioch writes, the implementation of the measures was not universal, and the hazard persisted (319). The population of London continued to grow at a rapid pace, and it was impossible to avoid overcrowded areas or wooden building construction in the City. Consequently, London saw over fifty new fires in the next two centuries, although they were not as massive. Therefore, while the authorities drew correct conclusions in the aftermath of the Great Fire, the new policies’ implementation was not comprehensive.
At the same time, the list of consequences of the Great Fire of London extends further, encompassing other areas of life in the city. The event introduced new rules to the fire safety policies in London, which were later reflected on a global scale. Rawlings states that the Great Fire became the leading factor, which caused the creation of fire insurance. It did not emerge right after the event due to particular organizational difficulties, but the year 1666 marks the beginning of debates around the topic (Rawlings). Therefore, the City of London, having sustained considerable damage, led to the creation of a new policy, which would later be adopted by the rest of the world. Research shows several positive effects of the Great Fire of London (Great Fire of London). For example, a major plague outbreak in the city is considered to have stopped after the described event. Additionally, a global reconstruction led by Cristopher Wren began, creating the majestic Saint Paul’s cathedral.
In conclusion, the Great Fire of London, which occurred in September 1666, remains of the most significant historical events of its type. It happened due to a range of issues, which were typical for a post-medieval city in Europe. Narrow streets, crowds, and abundant wooden constructions facilitated the spread of the fire, along with windy weather conditions. The Great Fire caused colossal damage in the City of London, but it forced the authorities to reconsider the fire safety framework. Some decisions made in London after 1666 were eventually adopted by other counties, which places the Great Fire in a global historical context.
“Great Fire of London.” Britannica. Web.
Garrioch, David. “1666 and London’s Fire History: A Re-evaluation.” The Historical Journal, vol. 59, no. 2, 2016, pp. 319-338.
Rawlings, Philip. “The Great Fire of London and the Origins of Fire Insurance: A Brief Note.” SSRN, 2016. Web.