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Resurgam: "I will rise again."


The Great Fire on the evening of 4 September from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The artist is unknown.

Beginning today and continuing for three days, the Great Fire of London swept through the city in 1666. It was not long after the plague had killed 100,000 Londoners.

Despite the Maunder Minimum, it had been a hot, dry summer in a city largely built of wood and still storing huge piles of gunpowder left over from the Civil War.

In the past firefighting techniques had been effective. Church bells would ring, and volunteers would gather at their local parish where the church tower stored long ladders, leather buckets, axes, and firehooks for pulling down buildings to create firebreaks. They also had fire engines with fire hoses sucking water out of the Thames to put out fires. In short they had almost everything a modern city has today except helicopters.

On the fateful day, as the fire began to spread and rage, citizens protested the demolition of their homes, and the mayor of London dithered. He delayed giving the order to demolish houses to create firebreaks.

With a strong wind blowing, the fire began to burn out of control. Warehouses on fire on the bankside made it impossible to draw water from the Thames.

The fire gutted the medieval city of London, consuming thousands of homes, more than 80 parish churches, St. Paul's Cathedral, and most municipal buildings before it was stopped due to two players - human will and a change in the wind.

The Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to blow up buildings and create effective firebreaks and the wind, helpfully, died down.

Afterwards, John Evelyn (the polymath who would inspire the planting of more than a million trees) was impressed by the pride of distressed Londoners - "Tho' ready to perish for hunger and destitution, yet not asking one pennie for relief."

A special Fire Court immediately went into session to deal with disputes between tenants and landlords to decide who should rebuild, based on ability to pay. Court decisions were made in one day, meaning that lengthy legal wrangles did not delay rebuilding.

Encouraged by Charles II, rebuilding ideas poured in. Evelyn, astronomer and architect Christopher Wren, the physicist and inventor Robert Hooke, and political philosopher John Locke made decisive contributions.

The energy of Londoners in responding to the disaster was wonderful.

The old street plan was retained and improvements in hygiene and fire safety were made with houses rebuilt in brick and stone, and access to the river - those lovely river views! - ensured. Wren, who rebuilt St Paul's and fifty other churches, filled them with light. He took as London's motto an old stone fragment that had survived the fire - Resurgam: "I will rise again."

Leo Hollis is the author of London Rising: The Men Who Made Modern London. He describes the creative ferment that followed the Great Fire.

Comments (2)

Sandra Hurt-Norris:

Thanks for the book tip. I will order today. We have traced my husband's genealogy and his Norris family was living in London during the Great Fire so we are excited to find a book written about it.

Sandra Hurt-Norris:

Thanks for the book tip. I will order today. Since my husband's family (Norris) and my family (Hurt) were still in England during the Great Fire, we are always excited when a new book describing major events comes out.

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