The late 1600s were a time of great tragedy and sorrow for the people of the city of London, England, as well as many others throughout Europe (Tinniswood). It was during this time that the Black Plaque took millions of lives and spread, along with disease, a great deal of sadness and financial, emotional and physical loss. Following this terrible event was a massive fire which destroyed much of London in 1666.
Throughout history, this would come to be known as The Great Fire of London (The Great Fire of London), and over 4 centuries later, is still being discussed not only for what it took away but also for what it made possible in its aftermath. Through this research, the point will be made, and supported, that although the Great Fire in itself was a horrible event, it made possible some dramatic improvements to the city of London that set it on a new course and literally a brighter future. The Circumstances of The Great Fire
Today, if such a huge fire took place, it would be an easy guess to blame it on terrorism or the actions of a demented person, but in reality, the 1666 Great Fire of London started under much simpler circumstances. The generally accepted accurate story of the start of the fire is as follows: in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 2, 1666, Thomas Farynor, baker to the king, located in Pudding Lane, near the famous London Bridge smelled smoke, which today is agreed to have come from a roof fire which was started by a spark from Farynor’s own bakery chimney.
Seeing the start of a fire in a time when firefighting was not as advanced as today, Farynor gathered his family and they escaped, with the exception of their maid, who, being too scared to join them in the escape, stayed behind and ironically became the first casualty of the fire (Hanson). With a fire on the loose, the old city of London had quite a problem- this was a city of narrow streets with wooden buildings located very close to each other in a city where space was very hard by which to come.
The effects of the plaque which had crippled the city for several years before the fire resulted in dry air and perfect climate conditions for the spread of fire. Therefore, what happens is that the fire quickly spreads from building to building. Adding to the intensity of the fire is the denial by Mayor Thomas Bloodworth of the severity of the growing fire, who refused to take much action to fight it. Because of this lack of response, by dawn, London Bridge began to burn, but a break in the bridge actually saved other portions of the city, as the fire was confined to the city limits itself (Olsen).
Restricted to the city or not, the fire was terrible-and still, for whatever reason, the Mayor refused to take the problem seriously and take any measurable action. Because of this, the danger of the situation was brought to the attention of King Charles II and his brother, James, Duke of York, who were not in the city at the time, desiring to stay away from what was at that time basically ground zero for the plaque, and those with the means to leave the city did so for the protection of their health.
At any rate, the King and Duke took decisive action, giving orders for the people to destroy as many wooden buildings as possible to prevent the spread of the fire and therefore reducing the threat of people, many of whom had fled the city, but still more were either trapped by the fire or unable to leave because of the crowds that blocked the narrow streets as they all tried to escape (Alagna). While the fire itself was deadly, the events that it caused were very deadly as well; large public buildings at that time, most notably the massive St.
Paul’s Cathedral, had roofs made of lead, a metal that will provide protection from the elements, but has a very low melting point. The heat of the fire melted these lead roofs, sending the equivalent of red hot lava flowing into the narrow streets, burning to death many people who had nowhere to go because they were trapped in the streets themselves. Also, burning beams were falling from the tops of buildings, cinders were flying everywhere, and the thick smoke made it all but impossible to see or breathe in many cases (Baker).
After 4 deadly days, the fire had subsided, but not before destroying 13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 businesses, having covered hundreds of acres of area. Technically, only 4 deaths were officially reported as a result of the fire, but people reported the stench of death throughout the city, giving the impression that the death toll was much higher (Robinson). Of course, after the fire was put out, human nature called for someone to be blamed for starting the fire itself.
According to The London Gazette of that time, there were some ready suspects: Divers(e) strangers, Dutch and French were apprehended during the fire, upon suspicion that they contributed mischievously to it (London Gazette, September 10, 1666, p. 1). By the end of September, 1666, British Parliament conducted an investigation to the fire. It was during this investigation that Robert Hubert, a French Protestant, confessed to have started the fire at the bakery, along with nearly 2 dozen confederates.
Strangely enough, although testimony by others supported the fact that Hubert was mentally unstable and no evidence could be found to link him or any others to a deliberate fire, a jury found him guilty of setting the fire and he was eventually hanged. (Hanson). While this may seem completely insane in itself, it is not when considering the religious and political situation of the time as researched by a prominent historian as such:
Following decades of political and religious upheaval, the restoration in 1660 of the Protestant Charles II ensured that suspicion lingered around republicans and Catholics alike. With the country also at war with the French and Dutch, paranoid xenophobia – a familiar English trait – was rife (Robinson, p. 1). From the Ashes- The Great Fire Improves London With a scapegoat having been blamed for the fire, and that scapegoat disposed of, it was possible for the physical rebuilding of London to take place.
The introduction to this research stated that the thesis of London actually being improved by the Great Fire would be discussed and proven. By looking at the evidence, this is something that is possible. First, it is important to remember the events that were taking place in London before the Great Fire; the city had lost most of its most prominent citizens due to the Black Plaque- most of them had fled the city, but many of those who stayed died of the terrible disease that claimed the lives of millions of people across Europe and the British Isles over a period of years (Alagna).
Without the medical technology of today, there was very little that could be done to fight the disease, and it ran its course of death. However, one force of nature that can literally kill any germ or disease is the extreme temperature that can occur from a large fire. Therefore, it is fair to say that the Great Fire played a large role in the fight against the Black Plaque, and probably saved more lives in this way than it took (Baker). The logistics of the city of London itself was vastly improved by the Great Fire as well.
As was stated earlier, London, before the fire, was cramped- containing narrow streets and wooden buildings that were too close together, making the city dangerous in the event of fire, and making it difficult for people to move about in regular times, let alone when it was necessary to escape quickly in an emergency. With the leveling of much of the area of London from the Great Fire, city planners were basically given a blank canvas from which to plan a better layout for the city.
As a result, the new city of London that came to life from the aftermath of the fire had wider, better planned streets, more buildings constructed of brick and stone rather than flammable wood, and better sanitary conditions existed, which although unknown to the people at that time, reduced the possibility of diseases spreading (Olsen). Conclusion As we have seen, from the damage and death of The Great Fire of London, the city rose to be better and safer than before.
While it cannot be said with a clear conscience that the fire was a good event, it is fair, in conclusion to say that the Great Fire made the best of a bad situation. Bibliography Alagna, Magdalena. The Great Fire of London. Chicago: Rosen Publishing Group, 2003. Baker, Timothy. London: Rebuilding the City After the Great Fire. Gloucestershire, England: Phillimore, 2000. Hanson, Neil. The Great Fire of London: In That Apocalyptic Year, 1666. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. Keene, Derek & Harding, Vanessa.
A Survey of Documentary Sources for Property Holding in London Before the Great Fire. London Record Society, 1985. Olsen, Donald J. The Growth of Victorian London. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1976. Robinson, Bruce. London’s Burning-The Great Fire. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1994. The Great Fire of London. London Gazette, September 10, 1666, p. 1. Retrieved November 17, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www. exmsft. com/~davidco/History/fire1. htm Tinniswood, Adrian. By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London. Denver: Riverhead Books, 2004.
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