Little known facts about the Great Fire of London

A painting of the Great Fire of London
Ludgate in flames, with St Paul's Cathedral in the distance by an unknown artist, 1670 | Public Domain | Wikipedia

On the 2nd of September, 1666, baker Thomas Farriner went to sleep in the early hours of the morning, having extinguished the remaining coals in his oven. Not much longer later, he was awoken by a blaze that was consuming his home. Escaping through his bedroom window, Thomas Farriner survived to see the fire destroy his home, his business, and a large portion of the City of London.

Despite being a significant chapter of London’s history, there’s a surprising amount of misconceptions about the event, along with some more things you might have missed. Here are eight facts about the fire that you might not have known.

It didn’t start on Pudding Lane

Perhaps one of the most perpetuated myths that are passed as fact is that the fire started on Pudding Lane. Farriner’s bakery was actually located in a small enclave just off of Pudding Lane called Fish Yard.

It didn’t stop the Great Plague

Another widely spread belief is that the Great Plague that had decimated half of Europe’s population was killed off in the city by the fire. The death toll had already started to fall, and new infections were in decline by the time of the fire.

London’s Lord Mayor believed it insignificant at the time and went back to bed.

As London’s Lord Mayor arrived at the fire at Farriner’s bakery, he was thoroughly unimpressed. The blaze had consumed most of Farriner’s home and livelihood, but Sir Thomas Bludworth took one look at the blaze and declared, 'Pish! A woman might p**s it out' before returning to bed.

Some onlookers were bringing water to try and quench the flames, but most observed, unaware of what was about to unfold.

It was seriously hot

The fire itself burned with the intense heat of 1,700 degrees c. In the ten months before the fire, London had experienced an extreme drought. The timber-framed buildings had thoroughly dried, and the combination of a city built of structures that jutted up against one another, basements filled with flammables like oil and turpentine, and countless stables filled with hay: the conditions in London were a perfect combination for untold damage.

They didn’t have proper buckets or hoses

Those trying to fight the fire were equipped only with small leather buckets, axes, and water squirts.

Devastation

70,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants of London had their homes destroyed. 13,200 houses and 87 churches burned down. Officially more people have died falling off the monument to the fire than were recorded as casualties of the event. However, the myth that only six people lost their lives in the fire is another popular misconception.

There’s no actual record of how many people died at the time, but eyewitness accounts detail scenes of horror, and when witnesses recounted the event in France, it was implied that the loss of life had been catastrophic.

The sad truth is that the majority of those killed were poor, working, or lower-middle-class making records of their deaths and lives very difficult to trace.

The British Navy fought it using gunpowder

Unable to stop the spread of the fire, the navy exploded buildings in the path of the fire to prevent the spread. In total, the fire covered 1 ½ miles across London.

Insurance companies used the fire as an incentive to start the first fire brigade

Following the fire, insurance companies began offering fire insurance. However, concerned at the consequences should another fire break out (and the extensive costs that it would incur them), they hired their teams of firefighters that would prevent the likelihood of them ever having to payout. This was the first London fire brigade.

Thomas Farriner was previously known to the authorities

While Thomas Farriner wasn’t prosecuted for starting the fire, it wasn’t his first brush with authorities. As a child, Farriner had been found wandering the streets, having escaped from his master. He was detained in the equivalent of a juvenile correctional facility today. After his second detention for running away and several attempts to escape his master, the next record of Thomas shows him in 1629 working as a baker’s apprentice

Written by:

Jo Rowan