The Great Fire of London: Causes, Facts & Aftermath

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

What could possibly lead to the destruction of 80% of a major city? You'll find out in this lesson on the Great Fire of London. You'll learn about the fire's many causes, as well as some interesting facts and a bit about its aftermath.

Cities on Fire

Rome. Boston. London. Chicago. San Francisco. Tokyo.

What do all of these cities have in common? They have all been the locations of massive and devastating fires. And one of the largest of them all was the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Causes of the Great Fire of London

The easiest way to state the cause of the Great Fire of London is to blame Thomas Farynor and his family and servants. Farynor owned a bakery in Pudding Lane (near London Bridge), and a fire started in the bakery sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. on September 2, 1666. The rest, as they say, is history. So we can, in a way, blame him and his family for 'starting the fire', albeit by accident.

Of course, Farynor and his family and employees are not totally to blame. In 1666, London was a tinderbox waiting to ignite. There had been centuries of improper construction, regulation, and enforcement of laws regarding the types of buildings that could be built, how they could be built, and where they could be built. In short, London at the time was a confusing and congested maze of highly flammable wood and tar buildings.

On top of that, the summer of 1666 had been especially hot, dry, and long. That only made it that much easier for a fire to start and spread. It also depleted water reserves that might have been used to help put out the fire, although no real system of fire prevention nor fire extinguishment existed back then. London relied on volunteers and crude firefighting techniques, such as bucket chains or basically useless primitive fire engines. The only other option to try and contain the spread of a fire was to literally use a big hook to pull down buildings one by one, thereby creating a perimeter around the fire to hopefully prevent its spread.

When the fire first started, some of London's leaders simply didn't believe that it was anything to worry about. And as the fire spread, chaos made things worse. The streets were clogged with people carting their goods out of the city or throwing them into the Thames River in a last-ditch bid to save them from the blaze. Those fighting the fire had trouble getting through to the blaze as a result.

Furthermore, massive protestations from people who didn't want their houses pulled down led to a critical delay in containing the fire. This allowed a roaring wind to spread the fire without much pushback from London authorities.

Ultimately, many factors led to the start and eventual spread of the fire.

The Great Fire of London destroyed 80% of the city.
Great Fire of London

Facts and Aftermath

The blaze was finally extinguished on September 6, thanks in part to the wholesale blasting of buildings using gunpowder to create a perimeter around the blaze. Diminished winds also played a large part in stopping the spread of the fire, as well.

By the time everything was settled, 80% of London had burned down - 436 acres, according to official surveys shortly after the fire. Officially, only six people died in the fire, but this is likely a gross underestimation. London's many poor people were never recorded by authorities, especially those who were not born there, and their fates likely were not counted. Another problem is that because the fire burned so hot (2282 degrees Fahrenheit), there would've been few traces left of any victims. The fire's temperature was far higher than even that of a crematorium.

The Great Fire of London spread across the city from Sept. 2 to Sept. 6, 1666.
Great Fire Map

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