How the Great Fire of London began before it burned thousands of homes

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The worst fire in the history of London began in a bakery on Sunday, September 2, 1666 and raged for days throughout the capital, destroying thousands of homes.

The fire destroyed the first Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and up to 13,000 homes, leaving around 80,000 people homeless

Fires were a fairly common occurrence in 17th century London - and when the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth was woken to be told of the fire, he said, “Pish! A woman might p**s it out!”

The anniversary of the 1666 great fire of London
The fire raged through the city for days (Getty)

But the fire spread rapidly as London was ‘very dry after a long hot summer’: warehouses near Pudding Lane, where the fire started, were also full of timber and oil.

Just six people are known to have died in the fire, although modern historians suggest the true casualty count may have been considerably higher.

Much of what we know about the fire comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, a naval administrator and member of Parliament. 

Very Rare, Beautifully Illustrated Antique Engraving of Samuel Pepys, English Victorian Engraving, 1887. Source: Original edition from my own archives. Copyright has expired on this artwork. Digitally restored.
Much of what we know about the fire comes from the diary of Samuel Pepys (Getty)

Over four days, he chronicled how the fire tore through the city, defying efforts to stop it by destroying homes in its path. 

He wrote that he saw the fire, “rage every way, and nobody, to my sight, endeavouring to quench it, but to remove their goods, and leave all to the fire, and having seen it get as far as the Steel-yard, and the wind mighty high and driving it into the City; and every thing, after so long a drought, proving combustible, even the very stones of churches.”

Pepys - who had witnessed the plague laying waste to London the year before - described how the river was full of boats carrying people and their goods. 

Some of the people fled to the hills of Hampstead and Highgate, others to Moorfield. 

Pepys describes a destruction which saw buildings including the Guildhall and the Royal Exchange destroyed, leaving Medieval London ‘all in dust.’

Pepys wrote that, “[Saint] ‘Paul’s is burned, and all Cheapside. I wrote to my father this night, but the post-house being burned, the letter could not go.”

Copyright has expired on this artwork. From my own archives, digitally restored.
The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of London from Sunday, 2 September to Thursday, 6 September 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall.
Engraving showing the Great Fire of London (Getty)

A French watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to starting the fire and was hanged, but evidence emerged later showing he was at sea at the time and could not have been guilty. 

As London was rebuilt in the wake of the Great Fire, Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, also proposed a monument to the fire.

Today, the Monument is a familiar London landmark, which contains a stone staircase leading to a viewing platform. 

Londoners are also familiar with it due to the Tube station near Bank which bears its name. 

At the top is a drum and a copper urn from which flames emerge, symbolising the Great Fire.

The Monument is 202ft high, to commemorate the distance between the pillar and the bakery in Pudding Lane where the fire began. 

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