What was known for centuries as The Great Fire of London killed 3,000 people, almost 7.5% of the city’s population. Not the famous Great Fire of 1666 that started in Pudding Lane and sticks in everyone’s imagination. That caused huge damage to property, with over 13,000 houses destroyed, but hardly anybody was recorded as being killed. The original Great Fire happened over 450 years earlier, in 1212, in Southwark.
No-one knows how it started, but it swept through Borough High Street ravaging most of it. It completely destroyed the historic church of Saint Mary Overie (site of today’s Southwark Cathedral) and then was blown across the recently re-constructed London Bridge, destroying all the wooden structures on it – there were over 60 shops there – and killing crowds of people in both directions. These included both those fleeing the blaze, which was whipped up by strong winds from the south, and those coming from the north to help or merely gawp at the flames. Others died by diving into the swirling waters of the Thames in an effort to escape.
Had the authorities applied at the time the lessons that would be learned from the 1666 blaze, as they could have done, such as banning wooden homes in favour of stone and bricks the the 1666 fire need never have happened. Instead they continued to build in wood and to use buckets of water to dowse flames rather than more sophisticated devices.
For hundreds of years the 1212 inferno was known by everyone as “the Great Fire of London“ but that sobriquet passed to the 1666 fire thereafter. This is understandable in view of the huge damage done, but cynics might say that in the end property was considered more important than lives.
The figure of 3,000 deaths comes from John Stow, writing much later in 1603, and is disputed by some modern historians, though no-one really knows.
Fires were commonplace in medieval London, with its wood and pitch buildings, and most had much higher death tolls than that of 1666. Boudica razed the city to the ground in 60 AD and there were fires in 675 and 989. St Paul’s Cathedral was burnt to the ground during another one in 1087. In 1135 the London Bridge of that time was destroyed by flames.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.
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