The baker and the Great Fire of London

In London 334 years ago, on the night of September 1st, 1666, the king's baker went to bed early at his establishment on Pudding…

In London 334 years ago, on the night of September 1st, 1666, the king's baker went to bed early at his establishment on Pudding Lane - and forgot to damp his oven. In the early hours next morning, sparks from the bakery set fire to straw and fodder in the stables of an inn across the street; the flames quickly spread to nearby Thames Street, and the Great Fire of London had begun.

But if the king's baker was the inadvertent villain, the weather was his aider and abettor. The summers of the early 1660s had been noticeably dull and wet, but 1666 proved very different. The months from June to August were dominated by an anticyclone over Scandinavia, and a parching easterly wind blew over the southern counties of Britain. By early September, many of the streams and rivers had run dry.

London was a city of some 130,000 souls, who lived in closely packed, wooden houses with upper stories reaching out over the streets, almost to touch each other overhead. Because of the long, hot summer, every building in the capital was tinder dry, and after the first spark, the flames were fanned by the fresh easterly breeze.

In addition, in the area where the fire started there were many warehouses full of flammable materials. As Samuel Pepys noted in his diary: "The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts and full of matter for burning as pitch and tar in Thames Street, and warehouses of oyle [sic] and wines and brandy and other things."


Because of the drought, water quickly ceased to be available to quench the flames. During the following days, great efforts were made to create fire-barriers by pulling down buildings in the path of the inferno, but the wind simply snatched the burning embers and carried them across the gap to the supposedly protected buildings on the other side. It was September 8th before the Great Fire was controlled.

As it happened, there was little loss of life, mainly because the consistent easterly breeze made the path of the flames predictable and people were not taken unawares. But by the time it ended 13,000 houses, churches and public buildings, including St Paul's Cathedral, had been totally destroyed, and 100,000 people left homeless.

But there was one positive outcome. The widespread havoc wrought by the disaster created a demand for protection, and the remaining years of the 17th century saw the formation of several companies for the provision of fire insurance. By the early 1700s, many such organisations were in business, some of which are household names today.