350 years ago, in early September 1666, the skyline of London changed forever when the Great Fire of London tore through the city. A lot of buildings in London were made of wood and thatch in those days, and people used flammable materials for tanning, as well as storing gunpowder by the harbour; hundreds of buildings were destroyed and the fire lasted for four days before the wind dropped and the blaze abated into a series of smaller fires that then burned themselves out. Surprisingly, there were very few recorded deaths as a result of the fire, though record keeping in the seventeenth century was inconsistent enough that this might not be accurate.
While the Great Fire was a tragedy, in some ways it was also a renewal for London. It meant that new laws were brought in about building, so people used stone rather than wood, and an organised fire service was set up in response. It also led to the construction of some of the most beautiful buildings in London, most famously St Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren. There is also some disagreement as to whether the fire helped drive the last remnants of the Black Death out of London and stop the epidemic.
To mark the occasion, a model reconstruction of the skyline of London was set alight on a barge on the Thames, evoking what it must have looked like from elsewhere in the city. See some amazing photos here.
If you’d like to learn more about it, read The Great Fire of London by Sarah Blackmore (BOOK ZONE 942.1).
Peter Ackroyd’s novel The Great Fire of London is not really about the fire itself, but it is about the history of London and how it has shaped the present day (BOOK ZONE 823.91).
Samuel Pepys is famous for his diaries, which paint a rich picture of life in seventeenth-century London. His account of the Great Fire is fascinating, as he observed it from the Tower of London. Read The Concise Pepys for a first-hand experience! (BOOK ZONE 828.4)
The Gazette, the official record of events for the whole of the United Kingdom, has put the front page of The London Gazette reporting on the Great Fire on their website here. It’s surprisingly readable, even though it was written three and a half centuries ago!
Unknown artist (1670) Keeling Fire Engine [photograph of illustration] Accessible at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Keeling-fire-engine-illustration.jpg (Accessed on: 08/09/16)