Thursday 6 September 1666: the extent of the damage
On the morning of 6 September 1666, fires still burned across London. However, they were either contained or such that could be put out one-by-one. The Great Fire of London, as a single conflagration, had been tamed. At this point, it was possible to begin reckoning the extent of the damage. Mercifully, very few people, perhaps just half a dozen in fact, had lost their lives. The damage to property was much greater. All told, 436 acres from Temple and Fetter Lane in the west, to Aldersgate and Cripplgate in the north, and to Leadenhall and Tower Hill in the east had been laid waste. This amounted to some five-sixths of the area within the city walls and perhaps 80 per cent of London’s total footprint. As we have already seen, a great deal of the city’s secular infrastructure, for example the Royal Exchange and the Guildhall, along with the city’s prisons and many of its hospitals and markets, had been destroyed. St Paul’s Cathedral and 87 parish churches were also lost, along with almost four dozen company halls and 13,200 homes. All told, the bill for the damage was ten million pounds in contemporary money and a German witness recorded that ‘with the pen alone it is hardly possible to set down an adequate account of the pitiful state of things brought about by the most destructive fire England has ever seen.’
Several grand, perhaps even grandiose plans, for the redevelopment of London along Parisian lines were suggested, but there was little public appetite for that. It would take time for the necessary transfers of property to take place, slowing down the rebuilding work and stopping the city springing back to life. John Evelyn believed that 200,000 refugees were camped outside the city. There is no way he could have counted them all, of course, but the number seems reasonably plausible. Each of these families was eager to rebuild their homes, to reopen their business and to restart their lives. Moreover, the country was at war and it was imperative that its capital city started to function again. As such, speed was of the essence and the layout of the new city was largely the same as that of the city which had been destroyed by the Great Fire.
However, we should not think that it looked identical. By March 1667, two Acts of Parliament had been passed which enabled reconstruction to begin. The first was an Act for the Rebuilding of the City of London, which, among other things, established building regulations, opened up the market for construction workers to come to the city, instituted improvements to the city’s physical infrastructure, and provided for a tax of 1s on each chaldron of coal arriving in London to pay for the building programme. The second Act established a Fire Court to resolve differences in law between the Londoners so that building work might begin all the faster. The Acts by themselves were not enough to get reconstruction underway; there were obvious logistical difficulties to overcome, too. For example, it would take time to find and transport enough building materials to begin the work. But the Acts did their job and by the middle of 1668 the new city was rising inexorably from the ashes.
With so many Londoners homeless, houses were evidently a priority and, by the end of 1673, some 8000 houses had been built to replace those destroyed. The new building regulations specified that the Londoners’ homes were to be faced with brick and tile; they also fixed the size of each home according to the width of the street onto which it faced. Thanks to these provisions, and to the widening of many of London’s streets, the number of rebuilt homes was fewer than those which had been lost to the flames, but it was enough to satisfy the demand for housing in the historic city. At the same time, work was underway to replace London’s great secular buildings, too. By 1676, new or repaired structures stood on the sites of the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange, the city’s prisons and, rather bizarrely, the gates in the city’s defunct walls. There were some new buildings too, for instance, the Monument to the Great Fire, standing 202 ft high in Fish Street Hill, designed by Robert Hooke and Sir Christopher Wren and built by the master mason Joshua Marshall. In addition, by the middle of the 1670s, most of London’s livery companies had also rebuilt their halls.
On the whole, the rebuilding of London’s churches only began in the 1670s once work on the city’s houses and secular buildings was well underway. There was, after all, only so much stone which could be quarried and brought to London. Moreover, it obviously took Wren and his assistants, like Nicholas Hawksmoor, a while to complete the individual designs for St Paul’s Cathedral and each of the fifty-one parish churches which were to be rebuilt. Most of the churches were ready enough for worship within a few years of work starting, although they usually only had their towers and steeples completed towards the end of the century. Work at St Paul’s took much longer. In fact, its foundation stone was laid in 1675 and it was only declared complete in 1711. In all, huge sums, raised by increasing the duty on each chaldron of coal from 1s to 3s, were lavished on this building programme. More than £800,000 was spent on St Paul’s Cathedral, and about £300,000 on the city’s new churches. For enterprising contractors in London, this building boom was an unprecedented opportunity and those master masons, carpenters, bricklayers and plumbers who could manage complex supply chains, provide materials and men, and finance building work while they waited – sometimes years – for payment from their patrons profited handsomely. Perhaps the most famous family of masons in London at this time were the Strongs, whose careers I have discussed in this video.
As we look back today on the Great Fire, what were its long-term consequences? It can fairly be said that it accelerated trends which were already apparent in the seventeenth-century city. For example, it is often thought that the livery companies were moribund institutions at the time of the Fire. That is not quite true. The speed with which the companies replaced their halls, financed by donations from their members, suggests that there was life in the companies yet. But, they were losing their importance in the city and the Fire was disastrous for almost all of them. It destroyed not just their halls but also their rental properties and almshouses, and the twin financial pressures of loss of rent and rebuilding costs drove several companies close to ruin. For London’s construction companies, in particular, the Fire was calamitous, as the consequent opening of the labour market in London removed many of the final vestiges of their power. Thus, the Fire sped up the process by which the companies reinvented themselves as social and charitable institutions within the city.
The Fire also gave impetus to two demographic trends already in train in London. The first of these was the shift of fashion and money to what would become known as the West End. This process had begun with the development of Covent Garden in the 1630s, and the completion of squares such as Bloomsbury, St James’s and Soho in the 1660s provided the Quality with an ample supply of townhouses to take as London residences.
Second, with fewer homes in the city, its population fell from around 200,000 people on the eve of the Fire to 140,000 in 1700; thus, by the end of the century, perhaps just over one in four Londoners lived in the historic city of London. Thereafter, the number of people living in the ‘square mile’ has fallen inexorably over the centuries. Of course, there were and are many reasons for this phenomenon and as London grew to become a metropolis with more inhabitants than any other city in the world, this process would have happened anyway, but there is no doubt that it, too, was accelerated by the Great Fire.
Finally, and most obviously, the Fire transformed the built environment. Gone was the cramped medieval city, with its wooden, thatched houses leaning over narrow alleys. In its place arose a modern city of brick and stone, with wider streets and better services. Of course, we Londoners are fortunate that Wren played such an important role in the rebuilding of London. His churches, for example, still grace London’s skyline and some, like St Stephen Walbrook which is shown in the image below, are sublime manifestations of his genius.
All the same, it is a tremendous pity that so few buildings with any medieval fabric survive in London today. There are the crypts at the Guildhall, some of the hall itself and the Tower of London, of course. There is some medieval masonry work still visible in surviving sections of London’s wall, too. However, only eight parish churches survived the Great Fire intact. One, St Bartholomew-the-Great, is the most important surviving medieval religious building in London, but it was originally part of an Augustinian priory at Smithfield and was only converted to a parish church at the Reformation. Another, St Katherine Cree, had only been built three decades before the Fire so it was not medieval at all. Of the remaining six churches, five have since been badly damaged or destroyed by bombs dropped on London in the Second World War or planted by the IRA in the 1990s, leaving St Andrew Undershaft as the only medieval parish church in London which has not been rebuilt following bomb damage. The Great Fire consumed almost all medieval London. In a few days at the end of a hot summer, it wiped out buildings which had decorated and defined the city for hundreds of years. In this way, it opened a new chapter in the history of the city.