The Great Fire of London is one of the most well-known disasters in London’s history. Bringing major devastation to the City, the fire blazed for almost five days from Sunday 2nd September to Wednesday 5th September. It followed on from another catastrophic strike to medieval London, the Great Plague, however the fire arguably left behind greater social and economic problems.
It is well known that the fire broke out on Pudding Lane at Thomas Farriner’s bakery, at around 1am on Sunday 2nd of September. The initial cause of the fire is contested; it may have been the result of a spark from his oven falling onto a pile of fuel, or the mistake he made when trying to put out the fire. Nevertheless, due to the wind and a long dry summer, the fire quickly spread across the city, making its way through 373 acres in just four days. It burnt around 13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls to the ground, leaving London devastated and demolished.
Once the fire had been extinguished and the severity of its damage exposed, attention soon turned to blame, and it wasn’t long until angry Londoners pointed the finger at foreign immigrant groups. What perhaps exacerbated the persecution of substantial immigrant groups, and caused Londoners to be suspicious of them, was England’s ongoing conflict with France and the Netherlands in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This generated a climate of anxiety and hatred towards outsiders. Historian Neil Hanson has argued it made it easier for Londoners to conclude that the fire was an act of terrorism, most likely carried out by the Dutch, who were seeking revenge after England’s attack on 140 Dutch ships and the town of West Terschelling in August 1666. At the end of September, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to investigate the fire. The most intriguing and most remembered trial of the investigation was that of a French man, Robert Hubert, as his trial encapsulated the despairing attempts of the State to find a scapegoat for the fire and put an end to the violence and persecution of innocent foreign groups. Robert had initially confessed to starting the fire at Westminster, and then later, when the real details of the fire’s origin emerged, claimed that he had set it off at the bakery on Pudding Lane. Nevertheless, Robert was found guilty and was hung, despite details emerging that he wasn’t even in London
when the fire started. Robert’s trial paints a picture of the need to find a foreign scapegoat to put xenophobia on the streets to rest, particularly as King Charles II’s declaration that the fire was an Act of God had not proved an adequate explanation to Londoners.
Another overwhelming problem caused by the fire was large scale evacuation from London. As the fire began to spread across the City, many Londoners gathered their belongings and fled to the river to load their goods onto boats, while others rushed through the City gates and sprawled out onto the fields outside of London to get away to safety. Indeed, what backs up evidence that there was a surge of people evacuating the City is the diary of Samuel Pepys, which has become one of the most used sources of the Great Fire to date. Before burying his diary in the garden, Pepys wrote an entry for the 2nd of September, recording how, ‘poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another’. The evacuation of people from London was somewhat intensified by Charles’s encouragement to resettle. It is thought that Charles feared a rebellion occurring among the devastated refugees, which would only heighten social disruption if coupled with the ongoing persecution of foreigners. Undoubtedly, this large movement of people led to a decrease in London’s population, and resulted in masses of people entering London’s surrounding towns looking for work and a place to live.
The social problems caused by the Great Fire were severe and overwhelming. While London may have benefited from the fact that the fire had destroyed, and therefore sterilised, the filthy streets associated with the Great Plague, it is undeniable that it greatly disrupted London’s society, depriving many people of their homes and caused the violent persecution of innocent foreign immigrant groups.