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The Great Fire of London, 1666

​The Great Fire of London 1666,  oil on canvas, ca.1670. Ref: GAG 1379

Archive Treasures: Fire in the City

Fire has always been an urban hazard, a bringer of disaster, and then an opportunity for renewal. Nicola Avery, Jeremy Smith and Charlie Turpie take a look not only at the Great Fire of London of 1666, the 350th anniversary of which was celebrated in 2016, but also at the many smaller conflagrations over the centuries. An early, Saxon version of St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1087, while over 100 houses in Cornhill were burnt in 1748. A preponderance of wooden structures, built close together, always made for high fire risk.

An earlier seventeenth century fire, which destroyed many houses on London Bridge in 1633, was chronicled by Nehemiah Wallington (1598-1658), a puritan turner who lived in the parish of St Leonard Eastcheap with his wife Grace and their five children, four of whom died in infancy. His notebook relates how the fire began in the house of John Briggs at the City end of the bridge. It burned fiercely, and Wallington conveys with journalistic detail the panic as people fled. The Thames was at low tide and despite the best efforts of the brewers from Southwark that brought water, the fire continued to burn into the following week. Wallington visited the scene and described holding "a live cole of fire in my hand". He also listed the 43 houses destroyed, and the trades of their inhabitants.

Wallington believed the fire to be a judgement on London’s sins, and he also catalogued at length the sins of contemporary London, the 'idolatry, superstitcion…adulteries, fornication, murthers, oppressions' which he saw around him. His notebook is valuable not only for its historical details but also for its insights into the thoughts and concerns of an ordinary Londoner of the period.

Fire of London map, 1666

Platte grondt der verbrande stadt, London, 1666. Ref: SC/GL/STP/006/004/016 

The fire of 1633 was as nothing compared to the destruction wrought by the Great Fire in September 1666, when the medieval City was almost entirely destroyed over three days. It started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, to the north of London Bridge. Within hours it was beyond control and by the time it was finally checked it had destroyed an estimated 13,000 houses, 87 of the 109 parish churches, 43 Livery Halls, the Royal Exchange, as well as St Paul's Cathedral. Although there were few recorded deaths, nearly nine-tenths of the City’s population saw their homes destroyed.

The view of the fire in this painting (top right) was probably taken from near the Inner Temple Gardens, with Old St Paul's silhouetted against the fiery red sky. The outline of the composition resembles an etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, which may have been used as a source. The painting is ascribed to Waggoner on the basis of another painting by him formerly belonging to the Company of Painter Stainers, which was destroyed in the Second World War.

Many maps were produced showing the extent of the fire. Doornick's (above left) provides a clear depiction of the magnitude of the disaster. An inset panoramic view with hand-coloured flames licking against the night sky infuses the necessary drama to the scene. At the top left we see one of the proposals for the rebuilding of London, favouring a very rational grid-like plan. This tri-lingual map, published in Amsterdam, also highlights the level of international interest in London's disaster.

Published:
04 May 2016
Last Modified:
23 August 2018

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