Jonathan Eyers is the author of the middle-grade novel The Thieves of Pudding Lane (Bloomsbury) and three books of non-fiction for children and adults. He goes on about books and writing at jonathaneyers.com and @eyersjonathan too.
In the middle of the 17th Century, London was the third largest city in the Western world, with only Paris and Constantinople (now Istanbul) being larger. London had long spilled over its ancient Roman walls, but those stone ramparts (which can still be seen in many places today) had penned in the old city, turning it into an overpopulated warren of narrow, labyrinthine streets and densely crowded wooden townhouses sometimes six or seven floors high.
The Great Plague of 1665 had killed 1 in 5 Londoners and caused the richest to flee the city, but by the middle of 1666 things had begun to return to normal. The long hot summer had left the wooden city bone dry, and the wells low. When a strong gale blew in from the east on the night of Saturday 1st September, it turned a small blaze in the house of the navy’s baker on Pudding Lane into the Great Fire of London – which raged uncontrollably through the old city until the middle of the following Wednesday.
Much of the city as we know it today owes itself to those four days, 350 years ago this week. As rarely happens, one of the world’s capitals was given a clean state to start again. Sir Christopher Wren’s ambitious plans for a completely different city didn’t quite come to pass, but he remains the most famous name in architecture to have emerged from the period, with his rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral remaining one of the most distinctive buildings in the capital.
However, streets were made wider, regulations were introduced as to the construction and extension of buildings within the city, facilities were provided to ensure any future fires could be better fought, and other conscious decisions were made to avoid many of the factors that contributed to the unprecedented scale of the Great Fire so that it could never happen again.
For this reason, the Great Fire remained a key part of the Key Stage 2 curriculum for a long time. Even though it’s no longer an essential part, many teachers continue to opt to teach it precisely because of its continuing relevance, even centuries later. And, of course, because it’s one of the most exciting few days in all of Britain’s long history.
The Great Fire of London in numbers:
- 1,500,000,000: the cost, in today’s pounds, of the damage caused by the Fire (£9.9 million in 1666’s money)
- 300,000: the population of London as of September 1666 (in contrast to the 9,800,000 who live there today – 300,000 is about the same as modern-day Newcastle)
- 80,000: the number of people left homeless after the Fire
- 13,200: the number of houses destroyed by the Fire
- 1,250: the temperate, in degrees Celsius, that the Fire is thought to have reached – this was hot enough to melt iron gates and the lead roof of the old St Paul’s Cathedral (the molten metal from which ran down the hilly streets nearby)
- 436: the number of acres consumed by the Fire
- 400: the number of streets and courts completely destroyed by the fire
- 80: the rough duration, in hours, of the Fire, before the wind died down and the firefighting efforts began to have an effect (though some of the ruins smouldered for weeks, and red hot embers were discovered still burning in a cellar a month later)
- 56: the length, in miles, of the pall of smoke generated by the Fire, as noted by the writer and diarist John Evelyn
- 6: the number of verified deaths – despite the scale of the destruction, the Fire moved quite slowly and most people were able to escape (however, there were so many transient workers in London that the actual death toll is suspected to be much higher)
For a gripping historical drama set during the Great Fire of London check out The Thieves of Pudding Lane