How the Great Fire of London changed the face of the city

Sian Bayley

It’s one of the key historical events you learn about at school, but it’s easy to forget exactly what happened during the Great Fire of London. We spoke to the Museum of London for a quick round up:

When was it?

The fire began at 1am in the morning on Sunday, September 2, 1666 and lasted just under five days.

Where did it start?

In Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane, near London Bridge and the Monument, in the historic City of London.

How did it start?

Nobody is entirely sure, but some think it may have been caused by a spark from the baker’s oven catching a pile of fuel nearby.

How much damage did it cause?

One-third of London was destroyed – including 13,200 houses and 87 out of 109 churches, which made nearly 100,000 people homeless. Some places still smouldered for months afterwards and famous sites such as St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guildhall were ruined.

It took nearly 50 years to rebuild the burnt area of London, and only 51 churches and about 9,000 houses were replaced. St Paul’s Cathedral was not completed until 1711.

How many people died?

Fewer than ten deaths were recorded in the official records, but we don’t know for sure. Some historians believe it could be significantly more, as these records do not account for those who died indirectly. Many may have died after returning to their homes and falling through weakened floors, for example.

One death that is recorded is of 80-year-old watchmaker Paul Lowell. He refused to leave his house on Shoe Lane even though his son and friends begged him to go. His bones and keys were found in the ruins.

How did the fire stop?

Londoners had to fight the fire themselves with the help of local soldiers, because there was no fire brigade at the time. They used buckets of water to fight the flames, but the best way to stop the fire spreading was to pull down houses with hooks or make gaps between them. Unfortunately, the wind still forced the fire across the gaps, making it difficult to stop.

By the third day of the fire, people were demolishing houses by blowing them up with gunpowder and fire posts were set up with teams of 130 men. By Tuesday night the wind dropped and the fire teams gained control, and the fire was out by Thursday morning.

Did it stop the great plague?

This is a common myth that the fire killed the rats and fleas that spread the plague. Muriel Jeater, a Curator at the Museum of London, explains that many of the areas that were worst affected by the plague, such as Whitechapel, Clerkenwell and Southwark were not destroyed by the fire, so it could not have purged the plague there.

Likewise, people continued to die from the plague after the Great Fire was over. Although historians are still not sure why the plague did not return after fading out in the 1670s, it is clear the disease was already in decline from the winter of 1665, before the fire even started. So they cannot be linked.

Where can I learn more?

The Museum of London features a permanent gallery called War, Plague and Fire which looks into the history of the Great Fire of London. They have various objects on display including maps, models and a video explaining which part of London was burned down.

Where is the Museum of London?

It is located at 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN. The museum’s entrance is located on a pedestrian high walk that can be reached by stairs, escalators or lifts from Aldersgate Street, London Wall or St Martin’s-le-Grand.

How can I get there?

The nearest tube stations are St Paul’s (Central line – 5 minute walk) Barbican (Circle and Hammersmith and City lines – 5 minute walk) and Moorgate (Northern, Circle, Hammersmith and City and Metropolitan lines - 7 minute walk).

The bus routes 4, 56, 76, 100 and 172 all stop near to the museum

If you are travelling by rail Liverpool Street and Farringdon stations are just under a 15 minute walk away.

How much does it cost?

Daily entry is free. Although some talks, walks and workshops require a small fee.

Is there a café?

Yes – there are two cafes, as well as a kitchen for larger rooms and a museum lunch space for packed lunches.

Is it wheelchair accessible?

Yes - There is full access to all public areas including the galleries, learning rooms, shops, cafes and the Weston Theatre. Wheelchairs, powered scooters and portable induction loops can be borrowed free of charge. There are also a small number of disabled parking spaces available.