The 1666 inferno destroyed most of the walled inner city dating back to Roman times a bustling, congested maze of tightly-packed wooden houses and forced London to rebuild anew from the ashes.
Now the city is looking back to when it lay in ruins with a few shuddering sights to remind Londoners of the peril faced by their predecessors.
The Great Fire of London broke out in Thomas Farrinor’s bakery on Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on September 2, 1666, and gradually spread through the city before finally being extinguished on September 5.
How the Great Fire devastated 1600s London:
- The blaze left 80 per cent of the walled city in ruins
- Fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and Saint Paul’s Cathedral
- Only six deaths were officially attributed to the fire
- An estimated 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 residents were forced to flee, most to squalid camps outside the city walls
- Blaze broke out in bakery near London Bridge
- French watchmaker Robert Hubert confessed to starting the blaze and was swiftly hanged but it was later revealed he was at sea when the fire started
The London’s Burning program of events commemorating the disaster culminates in the torching of a 120-metre-long wooden replica of old London — built by US “burn artist” David Best — moored in the River Thames to prevent the fire from spreading again.
“It will look spectacular,” said Helen Marriage, director of creative events company Artichoke, which is staging the London’s Burning events.
During London’s Burning festival flames are being projected onto the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and 23,000 breeze blocks arranged as a domino run will be felled to show how the fire spread through the city.
PHOTO: A 120-metre-long wooden replica of old London by US “burn artist” David Best will be set alight on the Thames(Reuters: Peter Nicholls)
In London’s Inner Temple hall, the scale of events is being visually represented by piles of rice — one grain for each person.
Visitors can compare the numbers of those living in London now and then, and those evacuated from the city with the global number of refugees today.
Various scapegoats, chiefly Catholics and foreigners, were blamed for the blaze that killed six people and caused the relocation of thousands of people.
The London of today, with its characteristic English Baroque architecture in grey Portland stone, was built from the ashes of the wooden city, though the old street layout was retained to respect property rights.
The Monument column commemorates the fire near where it started but Pudding Lane itself is now an unremarkable concrete-lined back road.
The new St Paul’s Cathedral, still the centrepiece of the city, was completed 44 years after the Great Fire.
Nick Bodger, head of cultural and visitor development for the City of London, said the capital’s resilience — witnessed again during the 1940s Blitz — helped it rebuild and survive.
“350 years ago, when embers from a baker’s oven sparked one of the most catastrophic events the capital has ever witnessed, London’s economic prowess almost came to a fiery end,” he said.
“A renewed sense of purpose saw the great city we enjoy today rise from those ashes, develop and thrive.”
‘Hugely devastating’ fire destroyed homes, businesses
The Museum of London’s Fire! Fire! exhibition contains scorched possessions only just saved from the fire, leather buckets used to fight it and letters telling of the inferno written by people who fled.
It also has burnt items excavated from a Pudding Lane shop, including charred bricks, melted tile fragments and scorched wooden barrels, still black from the blaze.
“It was hugely devastating. It’s the heart of London where most of the major cultural and commercial buildings were,” curator Meriel Jeater said.
“People lost their homes, belongings and businesses.”
As part of the anniversary French street art group Compagnie Carabosse are a have created a Fire Garden display burning metal structures, cascading candles and flickering flowerpots at Tate Modern.