July is the anniversary month of a vast, devastating fire which consumed much London hundreds of years ago. But we’re not talking about the 'Great Fire of London' which swept through the city in 1666, after famously starting in a bakery on Pudding Lane. While the 1666 disaster has taken on almost mythic significance in Britain, most people won’t even know of the much earlier, much deadlier 'Great Fire' that engulfed the capital in July of 1212 AD.
At the time, London Bridge was an entire community set over the flowing Thames...
This inferno began south of the Thames, in Southwark. Unlike the 1666 fire, the cause of the 1212 blaze will never be known. What we do know is that it spread with terrifying ferocity, consuming a cathedral, destroying streets and reaching London Bridge. At the time, London Bridge was an entire community set over the flowing Thames, crammed with shops and houses. It was a multi-level, higgledy-piggledy warren of wooden dwellings, packed with people. In other words, the worst possible place to be in the event of a hellish fire.
Winds whisked burning embers from the southern banks of the river to the north, sparking a new fire on the other side of the bridge. Panic broke out, not only on the bridge itself but also among those north of the river, as the fire ate its way towards other parts of the city. While historical records from so long ago are rather hazy, it’s clear that many, many people succumbed to the flames and smoke, not to mention those who plunged from the bridge into the river.
It’s thought that the 1212 fire claimed up to 3,000 lives – compare that with the mere handful that perished in the Great Fire of 1666. And this is far from the only example of a major disaster being forgotten over time. Here are three other startling examples.
The first Chernobyl
A Soviet nuclear facility explodes, spreading lethal amounts of radiation across a vast area and forcing the evacuation of ordinary citizens who have no idea just how much danger they’re in. Sounds familiar, but this wasn’t Chernobyl. This was the Kyshtym disaster of 1957, which unfolded in the remote Ural Mountains region of the USSR, and still ranks as one of the worst nuclear accidents of all time.
The name is misleading – Kyshtym was merely the nearest officially recognised town to where the accident took place: Chelyabinsk, a secret community built to house workers at the nearby Mayak plant. It was here that weapons-grade plutonium was produced for the Soviet atomic bomb project, in a manner so haphazard that the entire region soon became contaminated with toxic waste.
'Around the smoke it was the colour of sunsets'
But then came 29 September 1957, when one of Mayak’s waste tanks exploded due to a cooling system failure. Local villagers felt the ground vibrate and saw a looming black cloud on the horizon. In the eerie words of one eyewitness, 'around the smoke it was the colour of sunsets'.
The government knew that dangerous amounts of radioactive debris had been thrown into the atmosphere, but evacuations were slow and accounts differ on just how many local civilians – including those pressed into service as 'liquidators' to destroy poisoned crops and livestock – may have died, either from immediate radiation exposure or long-term diseases like cancer. As it took place in the depths of the Cold War, when secrecy took precedence over all else, it’s likely the true human fallout of the Kyshtym disaster will never be fully known.
The post-Pompeii rage of Mount Vesuvius
It was in 79 AD that the most famous volcanic eruption in history took place. Mount Vesuvius came to fiery, devastating life, engulfing the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in deadly volcanic ash, and burning and suffocating thousands of people to death. The fate of these idyllic Roman settlements has cast such a long shadow over the history of Vesuvius that another apocalyptic eruption, hundreds of years later, has been all but forgotten.
It was in mid-December 1631 that rumblings and tremors in the region around the volcano presented the first signs that something was about to happen. There was no grand evacuation – the locals must have hunkered down and prayed it was a false alarm, and that Vesuvius would slumber on. But it was not a false alarm, and Vesuvius exploded with biblical ferocity, raining down ash just as it did in the days of Pompeii.
It’s thought at least 3,000 people died. And Vesuvius is by no means done with us yet. Experts agree the volcano is overdue another explosion on the 1631 scale, which would be an even bigger calamity today thanks to the millions of people who live in the danger zone. The volcano is closely monitored for signs of activity, and the Italian government has an emergency evacuation plan in place to save as many lives as possible if and when the worst happens again.
The worst ever stadium disaster
Stadium disasters have blighted the world of sport throughout modern history. Hillsborough looms the largest in our collective consciousness, but there were also the many deaths that occurred at Heysel Stadium in 1985, as well as the Bradford City stadium fire that same year. Those with longer memories will also think of the Ibrox disaster of 1971, when 66 spectators were crushed to death during a Rangers v Celtic match.
But the very worst stadium disaster of all, in terms of numbers dead, has been almost completely forgotten – simply because it happened so long ago. The year was 27 AD, and the location was a vast amphitheatre in Fidenae, a city just outside Rome. According to the great Roman historian Tacitus, the amphitheatre had been poorly designed by a man named Atilius, resulting in an arena with lethally weak foundations.
During a packed-out gladiatorial tournament, the foundations gave way, and the amphitheatre simply collapsed in on itself. In the grisly words of Tacitus, 'those who were crushed to death in the first moment of the accident had at least under such dreadful circumstances the advantage of escaping torture. More to be pitied were they who with limbs torn from them still retained life.'
The chronicle goes on to describe the mass panic and grief that swept across Rome, as families waited fearfully to hear if their loved ones had survived. Different accounts give different estimations of how many died, the lowest being a staggering 20,000 people. Atilius, who according to Tacitus had been motivated by 'sordid gain' to cut corners on the amphitheatre design, was 'banished' from Rome as punishment.