350 Years Later: The Great Fire of London
The disaster originated in a bakery on Pudding Lane and went on to obliterate 13,200 houses, 87 Parish churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral and many more of the city’s buildings over a 3 day period. 17th Century London was rife with fire hazards, especially in the poorer areas of the capital, where buildings had been constructed out of dry-timber and thatched roofs.
On Sunday 2nd September 1666, the evening of the fire, strong winds caught hold of the sparks causing buildings to ignite and spreading the fire across London at a greater rate. Flammable warehouses were positioned along the wharves and when these were ignited, fire-fighters were cut off from the water supply.
There were no fire-brigade, but ‘Trained Bands’ and Fire alarms came in the form of a watchman/bellman who would alert the people to the spreading fire. Fire-fighting tactics involved demolishing the engulfed building with the use of ‘fire-hooks’ or explosives and putting out the debris with water from the Thames or the elm pipe system that supplied water to 30,000 houses via a high water tower at Cornhill. It was often possible to open a pipe near a burning building and connect it to a hose or fill buckets of water which could also be used to extinguish the flames.
When the Great Fire reached the water wheels under London Bridge (which pumped water to the Cornhill water tower) the direct access to the river and London’s supply of piped water was completely cut off. In hindsight, the lanes from the river up to the bakery and adjoining buildings should have been manned with double rows of firefighters passing full buckets up to the fire and empty buckets back down to the river, but this did not happen. Nobody attempted to put it out, but instead fled from the danger, hurrying to ‘remove their goods and leave all to the fire’.
London had advanced fire-fighting technology for its time and boasted fire engines which had previously been used in large scale fires. However, on this occasion the fire engines failed to fill their reservoirs and several of the engines tumbled into the Thames. The heat from the flames was too great at a destructive 1700°C and as a result the remaining engines were unable to get within a useful distance in order to successfully hold off the fire. They could not even reach Pudding Lane by this point.
Thank goodness that we, 350 years later, are in a much more technologically advanced era where buildings are designed to limit the spread of fire. BBC Fire Protection is also able to design and install sophisticated Fire Alarm Systems allowing us to alert the emergency services and sleeping residents immediately, rather than relying on a ‘bellman’ to wake you should a fire arise.
To commemorate the 350 year Anniversary of the Great Fire, the Museum of London have restored a 17th-century fire engine for the Great Fire of London exhibition which shall be on display from July.