The Great Fire of London began on the 2nd September 1666. Having famously started at a bakery in Pudding Lane, the catastrophic fire blazed for more than three days and destroyed over 13,000 houses, churches and government buildings.
London in the 17th Century was a sprawling and disorganised conurbation, with the thousands of buildings inside the old Roman wall at its heart. This area – known confusingly as ‘the City’ – may well have been the centre of English commerce but was also an enormous fire hazard due to its narrow warrens of houses and workshops. The ballooning population ignored the law that banned the use of wood and thatch, and continued to construct up to six- or seven-storey buildings with over-hanging ‘jetties’ whose roofs would often meet.
It’s generally accepted that the Lord Mayor should have acted more decisively when pressed to authorise the demolition of buildings to create a fire-break. Having failed to cut off the fire in the early hours of Sunday morning, it quickly spread to the south and west thanks to the wind. By lunchtime most residents had given up any hope of extinguishing the flames themselves, and instead were fleeing the fire. This mass of refugees in the narrow streets made it almost impossible for professional fire crews to reach the blaze.
It’s generally believed that the fire was only brought under control due to the use of gunpowder to create large firebreaks, which coincided with the previously strong winds dying down. Then the biggest challenge began: trying to rebuild the city from the smouldering ruins.