1666: A chance to rebuild – The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London started in the early morning hours of Sept 2 and burned for four days in 1666, destroying much of the city and leaving some 100,000 people homeless.
The fire spread quickly due to strong wind, a warm summer with limited rain, and building construction materials being very dry (wood and thatch) which destroyed an area a mile and a half wide along the River Thames.
After the fire new royal proclamations and regulations for building codes, fire mitigation and building material & construction design codes, and fire response procedures were implemented. Buildings, homes and water pipers were made of wood in 1666 and there were no access points to get to water without stopping the flow.
The 1667 Rebuilding Act stated in part “No man whatsoever shall presume to erect any house or building, whether great or small, but of brick or stone.”
The medieval cathedral, which was more than 500 years old when the fire broke out, had suffered years of neglect and was even used by Oliver Cromwell as a stable for his horses.
Architect Sir Christopher Wren was involved with improvements to the pre-fire cathedral and had submitted designs just weeks before the fire, including cladding it in Portland stone and putting a dome on top of the existing tower.
The age of the building and attempts to support it contributed significantly to its destruction.
When cinders, carried by the wind, set the roof alight, the wooden scaffolding around the cathedral increased the intensity of the blaze.
Not only that, but Londoners’ hoped that the cathedral churchyard would be safe and inadvertently made the damage even worse.
“There are reports that local people brought their furniture to the churchyard as they thought it would be safe and stacked it high against the cathedral walls,” said Simon Carter, head of collections at St Paul’s Cathedral.
“The Worshipful Company of Stationers loaded the crypt with books and paper, and sealed it to keep them safe. But it is likely that when the roof collapsed it smashed through to the crypt beneath, and the books then burnt with exceptional ferocity.”
“The heat must have been intense because we have some medieval stones in the cathedral collections which have changed colour as a result of the fire, a witness described some of them as exploding like grenades.”
At the time, diarist John Evelyn wrote of “the lead melting down the streets in a stream and the very pavements of them glowing with a fiery redness”.