With this post, I depart from my usual practice of noting an anniversary or similar connection to an event. This topic is not inspired by a long past event on this date nor an especial anniversary. The Great Fire of London happened 351 years ago last month. But given current events, it is perhaps pertinent and fitting to speak about this historical event as fires yet rage in California.
Between Sunday, 2 September 1666 and early Wednesday 5 September 1666, the Old City of London was almost completely destroyed by a devastating conflagration known ever after as The Great Fire of London. The fire was unprecedented both in scope and scale – more than 15,000 structures were consumed over an area of more than 700 acres within the ancient city which was at that time still bounded by its Roman walls built almost 1,500 years before.
The fire was fiercely fueled by the fact that the vast majority of London’s buildings were made of wood. Today, we know London as a city of incredibly creative and beautiful brickwork and stone masonry, but in the late 17th Century, cheap and easy wood construction dominated. The presence of so much ready fuel – the structures themselves – plus the additional effect of stores of good such as turpentine, pitch, hemp, and timber – all so necessary for a maritime economy – as well as enormous amounts of gunpowder which was inevitable in a great military capital, meant that the fire was able to burn with an unusual intensity: ingots of steel and bronze liquified in the heat and poured like water into gutters running into the Thames.
The Lord Mayor of London was unwilling to take action against the fire, and though it was contrary to tradition and law, ultimately King Charles II commanded the creation of fire breaks which required that rows of houses and shops and warehouses be pulled down or, ultimately, blown up with gunpowder. This meant that property was destroyed before the fire reached it, but it also meant that the fire was, at last, stopped. This tactic, plus the cessation of powerful, dry winds finally brought an end to the devastation.
But London was, effectively, no more. More than 80 churches, in those days the center of neighborhood life, and more than 13,000 homes were gone. The Old City was a black and reeking ground.
Some visionaries such as the remarkable architect Sir Christopher Wren proposed a complete redesign of London and a rebuilding that would utterly modernize the ancient city. But King Charles II knew that England could not long stand without London in full working order – England was even then still engaged in a costly and dangerous war with The Netherlands. So the time needed to effect a complete redesign of the City was out of the question. The King convened special courts to settle matters of land ownership and legal responsibilities. These special courts facilitated rapid reconstruction, though they left many unsatisfied.
NOTABLY, in the aftermath of the fire, London’s building codes – already strict “on paper” were strengthened and, more importantly, firmly enforced. No longer would wooden buildings be permitted; no longer would thatched rooves be allowed. Any new buildings in London were required to be constructed of stone or brick, with rooves of tile or slate. And until 1997, when the recreated Globe Theater was constructed, these restrictions were rigidly enforced.
London has suffered fires since 1666, of course. There was no way to escape vast fire damage during The Blitz when German bombers carpeted whole neighborhoods of the great city with incendiary explosives. But the wisdom of building with fire-resistant materials was shown quite wise indeed. Though London went up in flames several times as The Blitz was waged, the flames were quickly and efficiently contained.
The Great Fire of London happened more than 350 years ago. The immediate and forceful response of London’s government in the wake of the fire has helped protect London ever since.
I have always wondered why it is that in our nation, particularly in areas where fire is a frequent and devastating impact, we still gladly and blithely accept the practice of building our homes and schools and churches and places of business out of easily flammable and readily combustible material? The technology to build fire-resistant structures is more than 5,000 years old, and in the past few millennia it has been improved. Why do we still build with so much fire fuel?
San Antonio, Texas
Your country is desolate, your cities are burned with fire.
— Isaiah, 1:7