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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > September 2016 > Great Fire of London

Great Fire of London

How the ferocious blaze of 1666 destroyed the capital
LONDON’S BURNING What began as a small fire at a bakery spread into a devastating inferno that engulfed the capital

The date was Sunday 2 September 1666, and Samuel Pepys was enjoying a good night’s rest. The previous day he’d been to the theatre, avoided someone he didn’t like and repaired to Islington. He ate, drank and became “mighty merry”, before singing all the way home, writing some letters and falling into bed. Hardly surprising, then, that when his maid called him at three o’clock in the morning to look at a fire across town, he decided it was far enough away not to worry about and went straight back to sleep.

CITY IN FLAMES Old London Bridge, houses and churches blaze as the fire sweeps along the north bank of the Thames

Pepys wasn’t the only one. The Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, took one look at the blaze, declared “a woman might piss it out,” and dived back under the covers. In the days that followed, his weak leadership added fuel to a fire that became one of the greatest catastrophes the city has seen. A spark from a baker’s oven grew into an all-consuming monster that lasted four days. The immediate aftermath was homelessness and ruin for thousands, but the effects can still be seen today.

BLAZING SQUAD The Watch tackles the flames with a ‘squirt’

“The Great Fire is such a well-known disaster it becomes a myth rather than a story,” says Meriel Jeater, curator of the Museum of London’s ‘Fire! Fire!’ exhibition, commemorating the disaster’s 350th anniversary this month. Modern archaeology, X-ray and microscopic techniques are still uncovering secrets. “We want to reveal the personal stories, we have actual burnt, melted things and fascinating, less-well-known accounts.”

“Pepys decided the fire was far enough away not to worry about and went back to sleep”

The myth began when someone in Thomas Farynor’s Pudding Lane bakery failed to securely damp down the oven before going to bed. By Monday evening, 300 houses had burned – the final toll would top 13,000.

FORCED TO FLEE

As panic spread, people poured down to the river to escape. Others loaded their belongings onto carts or buried them in their gardens, before fleeing on foot.

Every church had rudimentary fire-fighting gear, including leather buckets
ART ARCHIVE X1, ALAMY X1, BRIDGEMAN IMAGES X1, GETTY X2, TOPFOTO X1, MUSEUM OF LONDON X1
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September 2016 issue of History Revealed.
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