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Episode
115

The Great Fire of London

Dec 15, 2020
History
-
17
minutes
London
Life in the UK
England
Great Britain
Weird history

In 1666 a huge fire swept through London, destroying much of the city and making a third of the population homeless.

Learn about how it started, what happened, why it happened, and the effect it left on the country's capital.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Fire of London, when a huge fire swept through the centre of London, destroying 13 thousand houses, making 100,000 people homeless, and changing the face of the city forever.

[00:00:42] It’s an amazing story, and one that is not very well known outside the UK, so I’m super excited to share it with you today.

[00:00:52] OK then, let’s not waste one minute, and get straight into the story of the Great Fire of London.

[00:01:00] In the early hours of the 2nd of September 1666, above a bakery on Pudding Lane, in the City of London, a baker, Thomas Farriner, was sleeping soundly.

[00:01:15] He woke up to find smoke coming through the door, and managed to escape out of the window onto a neighbouring roof, with his daughter Hannah.

[00:01:26] His maid, his servant, was too afraid to jump out of the window with them, and she perished in the fire, she was caught up by the flames, and died.

[00:01:37] And this was to be how the Great Fire of London, the most famous fire in British history, started.

[00:01:45] Fires in London were relatively common at the time. 

[00:01:48] Fire was used for all sorts of purposes, from lighting to heating to cooking, and it was common for fires to be left alight in the house during the evening, to heat it.

[00:02:02] Whatsmore, the streets in London were very narrow, most buildings were made from wood, and people would often keep flammable material in their homes, things like hay and oil. Things that would set on fire easily.

[00:02:20] London was a living, breathing, industrialising city, very different to the London of today, so people had all of this highly flammable, industrial material right in the city centre, right in the heart of London.

[00:02:36] If you’re wondering exactly where Pudding Lane is, where the fire started, it is right in the centre of the City of London, just a stone’s throw away from London Bridge. 

[00:02:50] The area is now very fancy, and the City is a centre of finance, it's the Wall Street of London, but back in 1666 it was very different, it was crowded, it was not fancy at all.

[00:03:07] So, fires were a relatively frequent occurrence, they happened quite a lot and they were nothing to be hugely concerned about.

[00:03:16] Indeed, The Lord Mayor of London, a man called Thomas Bludworth, went to look at the fire above the bakery in Pudding Lane at 3 o’ clock that morning, a couple of hours after it started, and he didn’t consider it to be anything out of the ordinary.

[00:03:36] But in 1666 there had been a particularly dry summer, there was a drought in London, so there wasn’t much water available to put out fires, and there was a strong wind. 

[00:03:50] These factors caused this fire to be anything but ordinary.

[00:03:56] Over the next 4 days it spread and spread, engulfing large parts of the city, destroying 13,200 houses and 89 churches, including the iconic St Paul’s cathedral.

[00:04:13] After the Lord Mayor returned to the scene of the fire the following morning, it was clear that he had been wrong. It was definitely something to be worried about.

[00:04:25] The fire was spreading quickly and the sky was turning black.

[00:04:30] But back in 1666 there was no official fire brigade, no government authority was responsible for putting out the fire.

[00:04:41] And techniques for actually putting out fires were pretty primitive, they were quite basic.

[00:04:49] There were quite simple water pumps and buckets, which were fine for smaller fires, but aren’t very effective when entire streets, and entire buildings, are burning.

[00:05:01] The Lord Mayor instructed for buildings to be pulled down, to be destroyed, so that the fire wouldn’t be able to spread

[00:05:10] Men were instructed to go to where the fire hadn’t yet reached and pull down houses, so that when the fire did get to the house before, it wouldn’t be able to pass to the next, in effect creating a void, a barrier, a gap to stop the flames.

[00:05:30] Even though these houses weren’t very structurally sound, they weren’t very robust, pulling down a house with hooks and ropes isn’t easy, and it took a long time.

[00:05:44] By the evening of Tuesday the 4th of September, a full 72 hours after the fire had started, flames had engulfed large parts of the city.

[00:05:57] Pulling down houses worked as a principle, creating these empty spaces did stop the fire, but actually pulling them down took too long, and the fire was still spreading too quickly.

[00:06:12] So they started using gunpowder, explosives to blow up houses, destroying them and creating voids, creating gaps, to stop the fire.

[00:06:25] By this time hundreds of thousands of people had fled the city, abandoned their homes to escape the blaze.

[00:06:34] The population of London at the time of the fire was around 350,000 - it was one of the largest cities in Europe - and 100,000 people were left homeless by the end of the fire.

[00:06:49] Rich and poor, they both lived in this area of London, and there are reports of wealthy Londoners fleeing with all of their possessions, packing up their entire large houses and trying to escape the flames.

[00:07:05] Not everyone fled though. 

[00:07:07] A man called Samuel Pepys, who was an advisor to the king, King Charles II, stayed to observe the fire, and it is actually through his diary entries that we get a lot of our knowledge about what happened.

[00:07:24] Pepys didn’t want to move everything out of his house, but he did want to protect his most valuable possessions. 

[00:07:32] To Pepys, two of his most valuable items were a bottle of wine and his parmesan cheese, which he decided to bury in his garden, to protect it from the fire. 

[00:07:46] Luckily for Pepys his house wasn’t burned down, so he was able to return to the garden and dig up the wine and cheese afterwards.

[00:07:55] In the end, the use of explosives did work, it did serve the purpose of containing the fire and stopping it spreading even further. 

[00:08:06] By September the 5th, three days after it had started, most of the fires were out, and a day later the fire was declared to be completely over.

[00:08:18] Outside London, for the 3 day period that the fire was raging, the rest of the country had no idea what was going on.

[00:08:28] The London Gazette, the main London newspaper at the time, had contained a news story on the 3rd of September that there was a fire in London that was “continuing with great violence”.

[00:08:43] The following day readers expected more news, but nothing came. 

[00:08:49] Then the following day, nothing again. 

[00:08:52] Rumours started circulating. 

[00:08:54] Was there some kind of foreign attack? What was going on in the capital? There was talk that thousands of people had been killed.

[00:09:05] The period before the Great Fire had seen Britain at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, and there was also a lot of suspicion towards Catholics. The atmosphere was tense, and the fact that London had gone silent was greatly worrying for the rest of the country.

[00:09:27] It wasn’t until the 10th of September, a full week later that people outside London were to learn what had happened.

[00:09:37] The reason for this was the printing press of The London Gazette had burned down, and they had only managed to set up a new press in a churchyard after the fire had died down.

[00:09:51] So, the fire was over, the rest of the country received the news, and could relax in the knowledge that this wasn’t a French or Dutch or Spanish plot, that the Catholics weren’t invading.

[00:10:05] But large parts of London were completely burned down, they were toast. 

[00:10:11] Over a hundred thousand people were homeless, and large parts of the city were in ruins. 

[00:10:18] Although there had been bad fires before, there was nothing quite of this magnitude, nothing quite as large as this.

[00:10:28] Things that we might take for granted today, like home insurance, didn’t exist. 

[00:10:34] And the law stated that tenants, the people who were renting rooms or houses, were not only liable for any repairs if the house was damaged, for example in a fire, but they also had to continue to pay rent even if they couldn’t live in the property.

[00:10:56] So if you were renting a house that burned down in the Great Fire of London, not only did you now not have a house to live in, but you were responsible for the cost of rebuilding it and you had to continue to pay rent.

[00:11:12] Evidently, this wasn’t a situation that was feasible, it just couldn’t work, and so this led to the creation of something called the Fire Courts, which were legal courts to decide who should pay for the repairs, based on who had the money to pay.

[00:11:31] The city needed to be rebuilt as soon as possible. 

[00:11:35] It was the capital of England, and the largest and wealthiest city in the country. People and businesses needed to get back on their feet.

[00:11:46] But the destruction that the fire had caused presented some opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without it. 

[00:11:54] It had destroyed lots of the old, badly built buildings and offered an opportunity for a new start.

[00:12:02] There were ambitious plans for how to build a new, modern city. Some plans included grid-style urban design with straight roads. Others included wide streets with large squares.

[00:12:19] If you have been to the City of London, you’ll know that the streets are neither in a grid system nor have straight roads with large squares. 

[00:12:30] The King realised that completely changing the layout of the city would have taken too much time and required too much work. So instead, most of the original streets were kept, which is why the city of London is how it is today.

[00:12:49] The city’s great church, St Paul’s cathedral was to be rebuilt, and the man chosen to lead the project was the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren. 

[00:13:01] Although he is now most famous for St Paul’s cathedral, he was responsible for designing 52 of the churches around the City of London, so if you have ever wondered why there is such an architectural consistency, it is the design mainly of one man.

[00:13:21] The fire had also presented opportunities for enterprising businessmen, and the concept of fire insurance was born after the Great Fire of London. 

[00:13:34] Instead of just paying out in the case of a fire though, these insurance companies actually operated private fire brigades, because they discovered it was cheaper to prevent these fires from doing real damage in the first place than paying out the compensation for damage that they did do.

[00:13:56] And although the fire was most probably just an unfortunate accident, it was no one's fault, the government looked for scapegoats, looked for people to blame, and it opened an investigation. 

[00:14:13] Had someone deliberately thrown a fireball into the bakery in Pudding Lane? 

[00:14:20] Could the French, the Dutch, of the Spanish have been responsible? 

[00:14:25] Or was it the work of a Catholic, trying to succeed where Guy Fawkes, the man who had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, had failed 61 years beforehand?

[00:14:38] Indeed, a Frenchman called Robert Hubert actually admitted to starting the fire, but he was mentally unstable and it’s now not believed that he had anything to do with it.

[00:14:52] In any case, he was a very convenient scapegoat, being French, and he was hanged, he was executed on the 27th October 1666.

[00:15:05] Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending for Robert Hubert, it does have a happier ending for London. 

[00:15:14] And despite the fire wreaking destruction across the city, very few people died.

[00:15:22] It’s thought that as little as six people died, which out of a population of 350,000 and with 13,200 houses destroyed, seems like a bit of a miracle. 

[00:15:37] London as a city has evidently not suffered long term, and of course the best news of all was that Samuel Pepys managed to return to his house and recover his parmesan.

[00:15:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Fire of London, when one of the world’s great cities almost burned to the ground.

[00:16:02] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:16:06] If you do go to London, make sure you make a trip to Pudding Lane to see where the fire originally started. 

[00:16:14] It obviously looks a little different now, but it is quite amazing to stand there and think that it all started from a bakery in this little road.

[00:16:25] I should also say that the Museum of London has a fantastic section on the Great Fire of London, so make sure you go there too.

[00:16:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:16:37] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:16:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:16:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Fire of London, when a huge fire swept through the centre of London, destroying 13 thousand houses, making 100,000 people homeless, and changing the face of the city forever.

[00:00:42] It’s an amazing story, and one that is not very well known outside the UK, so I’m super excited to share it with you today.

[00:00:52] OK then, let’s not waste one minute, and get straight into the story of the Great Fire of London.

[00:01:00] In the early hours of the 2nd of September 1666, above a bakery on Pudding Lane, in the City of London, a baker, Thomas Farriner, was sleeping soundly.

[00:01:15] He woke up to find smoke coming through the door, and managed to escape out of the window onto a neighbouring roof, with his daughter Hannah.

[00:01:26] His maid, his servant, was too afraid to jump out of the window with them, and she perished in the fire, she was caught up by the flames, and died.

[00:01:37] And this was to be how the Great Fire of London, the most famous fire in British history, started.

[00:01:45] Fires in London were relatively common at the time. 

[00:01:48] Fire was used for all sorts of purposes, from lighting to heating to cooking, and it was common for fires to be left alight in the house during the evening, to heat it.

[00:02:02] Whatsmore, the streets in London were very narrow, most buildings were made from wood, and people would often keep flammable material in their homes, things like hay and oil. Things that would set on fire easily.

[00:02:20] London was a living, breathing, industrialising city, very different to the London of today, so people had all of this highly flammable, industrial material right in the city centre, right in the heart of London.

[00:02:36] If you’re wondering exactly where Pudding Lane is, where the fire started, it is right in the centre of the City of London, just a stone’s throw away from London Bridge. 

[00:02:50] The area is now very fancy, and the City is a centre of finance, it's the Wall Street of London, but back in 1666 it was very different, it was crowded, it was not fancy at all.

[00:03:07] So, fires were a relatively frequent occurrence, they happened quite a lot and they were nothing to be hugely concerned about.

[00:03:16] Indeed, The Lord Mayor of London, a man called Thomas Bludworth, went to look at the fire above the bakery in Pudding Lane at 3 o’ clock that morning, a couple of hours after it started, and he didn’t consider it to be anything out of the ordinary.

[00:03:36] But in 1666 there had been a particularly dry summer, there was a drought in London, so there wasn’t much water available to put out fires, and there was a strong wind. 

[00:03:50] These factors caused this fire to be anything but ordinary.

[00:03:56] Over the next 4 days it spread and spread, engulfing large parts of the city, destroying 13,200 houses and 89 churches, including the iconic St Paul’s cathedral.

[00:04:13] After the Lord Mayor returned to the scene of the fire the following morning, it was clear that he had been wrong. It was definitely something to be worried about.

[00:04:25] The fire was spreading quickly and the sky was turning black.

[00:04:30] But back in 1666 there was no official fire brigade, no government authority was responsible for putting out the fire.

[00:04:41] And techniques for actually putting out fires were pretty primitive, they were quite basic.

[00:04:49] There were quite simple water pumps and buckets, which were fine for smaller fires, but aren’t very effective when entire streets, and entire buildings, are burning.

[00:05:01] The Lord Mayor instructed for buildings to be pulled down, to be destroyed, so that the fire wouldn’t be able to spread

[00:05:10] Men were instructed to go to where the fire hadn’t yet reached and pull down houses, so that when the fire did get to the house before, it wouldn’t be able to pass to the next, in effect creating a void, a barrier, a gap to stop the flames.

[00:05:30] Even though these houses weren’t very structurally sound, they weren’t very robust, pulling down a house with hooks and ropes isn’t easy, and it took a long time.

[00:05:44] By the evening of Tuesday the 4th of September, a full 72 hours after the fire had started, flames had engulfed large parts of the city.

[00:05:57] Pulling down houses worked as a principle, creating these empty spaces did stop the fire, but actually pulling them down took too long, and the fire was still spreading too quickly.

[00:06:12] So they started using gunpowder, explosives to blow up houses, destroying them and creating voids, creating gaps, to stop the fire.

[00:06:25] By this time hundreds of thousands of people had fled the city, abandoned their homes to escape the blaze.

[00:06:34] The population of London at the time of the fire was around 350,000 - it was one of the largest cities in Europe - and 100,000 people were left homeless by the end of the fire.

[00:06:49] Rich and poor, they both lived in this area of London, and there are reports of wealthy Londoners fleeing with all of their possessions, packing up their entire large houses and trying to escape the flames.

[00:07:05] Not everyone fled though. 

[00:07:07] A man called Samuel Pepys, who was an advisor to the king, King Charles II, stayed to observe the fire, and it is actually through his diary entries that we get a lot of our knowledge about what happened.

[00:07:24] Pepys didn’t want to move everything out of his house, but he did want to protect his most valuable possessions. 

[00:07:32] To Pepys, two of his most valuable items were a bottle of wine and his parmesan cheese, which he decided to bury in his garden, to protect it from the fire. 

[00:07:46] Luckily for Pepys his house wasn’t burned down, so he was able to return to the garden and dig up the wine and cheese afterwards.

[00:07:55] In the end, the use of explosives did work, it did serve the purpose of containing the fire and stopping it spreading even further. 

[00:08:06] By September the 5th, three days after it had started, most of the fires were out, and a day later the fire was declared to be completely over.

[00:08:18] Outside London, for the 3 day period that the fire was raging, the rest of the country had no idea what was going on.

[00:08:28] The London Gazette, the main London newspaper at the time, had contained a news story on the 3rd of September that there was a fire in London that was “continuing with great violence”.

[00:08:43] The following day readers expected more news, but nothing came. 

[00:08:49] Then the following day, nothing again. 

[00:08:52] Rumours started circulating. 

[00:08:54] Was there some kind of foreign attack? What was going on in the capital? There was talk that thousands of people had been killed.

[00:09:05] The period before the Great Fire had seen Britain at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, and there was also a lot of suspicion towards Catholics. The atmosphere was tense, and the fact that London had gone silent was greatly worrying for the rest of the country.

[00:09:27] It wasn’t until the 10th of September, a full week later that people outside London were to learn what had happened.

[00:09:37] The reason for this was the printing press of The London Gazette had burned down, and they had only managed to set up a new press in a churchyard after the fire had died down.

[00:09:51] So, the fire was over, the rest of the country received the news, and could relax in the knowledge that this wasn’t a French or Dutch or Spanish plot, that the Catholics weren’t invading.

[00:10:05] But large parts of London were completely burned down, they were toast. 

[00:10:11] Over a hundred thousand people were homeless, and large parts of the city were in ruins. 

[00:10:18] Although there had been bad fires before, there was nothing quite of this magnitude, nothing quite as large as this.

[00:10:28] Things that we might take for granted today, like home insurance, didn’t exist. 

[00:10:34] And the law stated that tenants, the people who were renting rooms or houses, were not only liable for any repairs if the house was damaged, for example in a fire, but they also had to continue to pay rent even if they couldn’t live in the property.

[00:10:56] So if you were renting a house that burned down in the Great Fire of London, not only did you now not have a house to live in, but you were responsible for the cost of rebuilding it and you had to continue to pay rent.

[00:11:12] Evidently, this wasn’t a situation that was feasible, it just couldn’t work, and so this led to the creation of something called the Fire Courts, which were legal courts to decide who should pay for the repairs, based on who had the money to pay.

[00:11:31] The city needed to be rebuilt as soon as possible. 

[00:11:35] It was the capital of England, and the largest and wealthiest city in the country. People and businesses needed to get back on their feet.

[00:11:46] But the destruction that the fire had caused presented some opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without it. 

[00:11:54] It had destroyed lots of the old, badly built buildings and offered an opportunity for a new start.

[00:12:02] There were ambitious plans for how to build a new, modern city. Some plans included grid-style urban design with straight roads. Others included wide streets with large squares.

[00:12:19] If you have been to the City of London, you’ll know that the streets are neither in a grid system nor have straight roads with large squares. 

[00:12:30] The King realised that completely changing the layout of the city would have taken too much time and required too much work. So instead, most of the original streets were kept, which is why the city of London is how it is today.

[00:12:49] The city’s great church, St Paul’s cathedral was to be rebuilt, and the man chosen to lead the project was the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren. 

[00:13:01] Although he is now most famous for St Paul’s cathedral, he was responsible for designing 52 of the churches around the City of London, so if you have ever wondered why there is such an architectural consistency, it is the design mainly of one man.

[00:13:21] The fire had also presented opportunities for enterprising businessmen, and the concept of fire insurance was born after the Great Fire of London. 

[00:13:34] Instead of just paying out in the case of a fire though, these insurance companies actually operated private fire brigades, because they discovered it was cheaper to prevent these fires from doing real damage in the first place than paying out the compensation for damage that they did do.

[00:13:56] And although the fire was most probably just an unfortunate accident, it was no one's fault, the government looked for scapegoats, looked for people to blame, and it opened an investigation. 

[00:14:13] Had someone deliberately thrown a fireball into the bakery in Pudding Lane? 

[00:14:20] Could the French, the Dutch, of the Spanish have been responsible? 

[00:14:25] Or was it the work of a Catholic, trying to succeed where Guy Fawkes, the man who had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, had failed 61 years beforehand?

[00:14:38] Indeed, a Frenchman called Robert Hubert actually admitted to starting the fire, but he was mentally unstable and it’s now not believed that he had anything to do with it.

[00:14:52] In any case, he was a very convenient scapegoat, being French, and he was hanged, he was executed on the 27th October 1666.

[00:15:05] Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending for Robert Hubert, it does have a happier ending for London. 

[00:15:14] And despite the fire wreaking destruction across the city, very few people died.

[00:15:22] It’s thought that as little as six people died, which out of a population of 350,000 and with 13,200 houses destroyed, seems like a bit of a miracle. 

[00:15:37] London as a city has evidently not suffered long term, and of course the best news of all was that Samuel Pepys managed to return to his house and recover his parmesan.

[00:15:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Fire of London, when one of the world’s great cities almost burned to the ground.

[00:16:02] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:16:06] If you do go to London, make sure you make a trip to Pudding Lane to see where the fire originally started. 

[00:16:14] It obviously looks a little different now, but it is quite amazing to stand there and think that it all started from a bakery in this little road.

[00:16:25] I should also say that the Museum of London has a fantastic section on the Great Fire of London, so make sure you go there too.

[00:16:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:16:37] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:16:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:16:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF PODCAST]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge and today we are going to be talking about The Great Fire of London, when a huge fire swept through the centre of London, destroying 13 thousand houses, making 100,000 people homeless, and changing the face of the city forever.

[00:00:42] It’s an amazing story, and one that is not very well known outside the UK, so I’m super excited to share it with you today.

[00:00:52] OK then, let’s not waste one minute, and get straight into the story of the Great Fire of London.

[00:01:00] In the early hours of the 2nd of September 1666, above a bakery on Pudding Lane, in the City of London, a baker, Thomas Farriner, was sleeping soundly.

[00:01:15] He woke up to find smoke coming through the door, and managed to escape out of the window onto a neighbouring roof, with his daughter Hannah.

[00:01:26] His maid, his servant, was too afraid to jump out of the window with them, and she perished in the fire, she was caught up by the flames, and died.

[00:01:37] And this was to be how the Great Fire of London, the most famous fire in British history, started.

[00:01:45] Fires in London were relatively common at the time. 

[00:01:48] Fire was used for all sorts of purposes, from lighting to heating to cooking, and it was common for fires to be left alight in the house during the evening, to heat it.

[00:02:02] Whatsmore, the streets in London were very narrow, most buildings were made from wood, and people would often keep flammable material in their homes, things like hay and oil. Things that would set on fire easily.

[00:02:20] London was a living, breathing, industrialising city, very different to the London of today, so people had all of this highly flammable, industrial material right in the city centre, right in the heart of London.

[00:02:36] If you’re wondering exactly where Pudding Lane is, where the fire started, it is right in the centre of the City of London, just a stone’s throw away from London Bridge. 

[00:02:50] The area is now very fancy, and the City is a centre of finance, it's the Wall Street of London, but back in 1666 it was very different, it was crowded, it was not fancy at all.

[00:03:07] So, fires were a relatively frequent occurrence, they happened quite a lot and they were nothing to be hugely concerned about.

[00:03:16] Indeed, The Lord Mayor of London, a man called Thomas Bludworth, went to look at the fire above the bakery in Pudding Lane at 3 o’ clock that morning, a couple of hours after it started, and he didn’t consider it to be anything out of the ordinary.

[00:03:36] But in 1666 there had been a particularly dry summer, there was a drought in London, so there wasn’t much water available to put out fires, and there was a strong wind. 

[00:03:50] These factors caused this fire to be anything but ordinary.

[00:03:56] Over the next 4 days it spread and spread, engulfing large parts of the city, destroying 13,200 houses and 89 churches, including the iconic St Paul’s cathedral.

[00:04:13] After the Lord Mayor returned to the scene of the fire the following morning, it was clear that he had been wrong. It was definitely something to be worried about.

[00:04:25] The fire was spreading quickly and the sky was turning black.

[00:04:30] But back in 1666 there was no official fire brigade, no government authority was responsible for putting out the fire.

[00:04:41] And techniques for actually putting out fires were pretty primitive, they were quite basic.

[00:04:49] There were quite simple water pumps and buckets, which were fine for smaller fires, but aren’t very effective when entire streets, and entire buildings, are burning.

[00:05:01] The Lord Mayor instructed for buildings to be pulled down, to be destroyed, so that the fire wouldn’t be able to spread

[00:05:10] Men were instructed to go to where the fire hadn’t yet reached and pull down houses, so that when the fire did get to the house before, it wouldn’t be able to pass to the next, in effect creating a void, a barrier, a gap to stop the flames.

[00:05:30] Even though these houses weren’t very structurally sound, they weren’t very robust, pulling down a house with hooks and ropes isn’t easy, and it took a long time.

[00:05:44] By the evening of Tuesday the 4th of September, a full 72 hours after the fire had started, flames had engulfed large parts of the city.

[00:05:57] Pulling down houses worked as a principle, creating these empty spaces did stop the fire, but actually pulling them down took too long, and the fire was still spreading too quickly.

[00:06:12] So they started using gunpowder, explosives to blow up houses, destroying them and creating voids, creating gaps, to stop the fire.

[00:06:25] By this time hundreds of thousands of people had fled the city, abandoned their homes to escape the blaze.

[00:06:34] The population of London at the time of the fire was around 350,000 - it was one of the largest cities in Europe - and 100,000 people were left homeless by the end of the fire.

[00:06:49] Rich and poor, they both lived in this area of London, and there are reports of wealthy Londoners fleeing with all of their possessions, packing up their entire large houses and trying to escape the flames.

[00:07:05] Not everyone fled though. 

[00:07:07] A man called Samuel Pepys, who was an advisor to the king, King Charles II, stayed to observe the fire, and it is actually through his diary entries that we get a lot of our knowledge about what happened.

[00:07:24] Pepys didn’t want to move everything out of his house, but he did want to protect his most valuable possessions. 

[00:07:32] To Pepys, two of his most valuable items were a bottle of wine and his parmesan cheese, which he decided to bury in his garden, to protect it from the fire. 

[00:07:46] Luckily for Pepys his house wasn’t burned down, so he was able to return to the garden and dig up the wine and cheese afterwards.

[00:07:55] In the end, the use of explosives did work, it did serve the purpose of containing the fire and stopping it spreading even further. 

[00:08:06] By September the 5th, three days after it had started, most of the fires were out, and a day later the fire was declared to be completely over.

[00:08:18] Outside London, for the 3 day period that the fire was raging, the rest of the country had no idea what was going on.

[00:08:28] The London Gazette, the main London newspaper at the time, had contained a news story on the 3rd of September that there was a fire in London that was “continuing with great violence”.

[00:08:43] The following day readers expected more news, but nothing came. 

[00:08:49] Then the following day, nothing again. 

[00:08:52] Rumours started circulating. 

[00:08:54] Was there some kind of foreign attack? What was going on in the capital? There was talk that thousands of people had been killed.

[00:09:05] The period before the Great Fire had seen Britain at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, and there was also a lot of suspicion towards Catholics. The atmosphere was tense, and the fact that London had gone silent was greatly worrying for the rest of the country.

[00:09:27] It wasn’t until the 10th of September, a full week later that people outside London were to learn what had happened.

[00:09:37] The reason for this was the printing press of The London Gazette had burned down, and they had only managed to set up a new press in a churchyard after the fire had died down.

[00:09:51] So, the fire was over, the rest of the country received the news, and could relax in the knowledge that this wasn’t a French or Dutch or Spanish plot, that the Catholics weren’t invading.

[00:10:05] But large parts of London were completely burned down, they were toast. 

[00:10:11] Over a hundred thousand people were homeless, and large parts of the city were in ruins. 

[00:10:18] Although there had been bad fires before, there was nothing quite of this magnitude, nothing quite as large as this.

[00:10:28] Things that we might take for granted today, like home insurance, didn’t exist. 

[00:10:34] And the law stated that tenants, the people who were renting rooms or houses, were not only liable for any repairs if the house was damaged, for example in a fire, but they also had to continue to pay rent even if they couldn’t live in the property.

[00:10:56] So if you were renting a house that burned down in the Great Fire of London, not only did you now not have a house to live in, but you were responsible for the cost of rebuilding it and you had to continue to pay rent.

[00:11:12] Evidently, this wasn’t a situation that was feasible, it just couldn’t work, and so this led to the creation of something called the Fire Courts, which were legal courts to decide who should pay for the repairs, based on who had the money to pay.

[00:11:31] The city needed to be rebuilt as soon as possible. 

[00:11:35] It was the capital of England, and the largest and wealthiest city in the country. People and businesses needed to get back on their feet.

[00:11:46] But the destruction that the fire had caused presented some opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without it. 

[00:11:54] It had destroyed lots of the old, badly built buildings and offered an opportunity for a new start.

[00:12:02] There were ambitious plans for how to build a new, modern city. Some plans included grid-style urban design with straight roads. Others included wide streets with large squares.

[00:12:19] If you have been to the City of London, you’ll know that the streets are neither in a grid system nor have straight roads with large squares. 

[00:12:30] The King realised that completely changing the layout of the city would have taken too much time and required too much work. So instead, most of the original streets were kept, which is why the city of London is how it is today.

[00:12:49] The city’s great church, St Paul’s cathedral was to be rebuilt, and the man chosen to lead the project was the famous architect Sir Christopher Wren. 

[00:13:01] Although he is now most famous for St Paul’s cathedral, he was responsible for designing 52 of the churches around the City of London, so if you have ever wondered why there is such an architectural consistency, it is the design mainly of one man.

[00:13:21] The fire had also presented opportunities for enterprising businessmen, and the concept of fire insurance was born after the Great Fire of London. 

[00:13:34] Instead of just paying out in the case of a fire though, these insurance companies actually operated private fire brigades, because they discovered it was cheaper to prevent these fires from doing real damage in the first place than paying out the compensation for damage that they did do.

[00:13:56] And although the fire was most probably just an unfortunate accident, it was no one's fault, the government looked for scapegoats, looked for people to blame, and it opened an investigation. 

[00:14:13] Had someone deliberately thrown a fireball into the bakery in Pudding Lane? 

[00:14:20] Could the French, the Dutch, of the Spanish have been responsible? 

[00:14:25] Or was it the work of a Catholic, trying to succeed where Guy Fawkes, the man who had tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, had failed 61 years beforehand?

[00:14:38] Indeed, a Frenchman called Robert Hubert actually admitted to starting the fire, but he was mentally unstable and it’s now not believed that he had anything to do with it.

[00:14:52] In any case, he was a very convenient scapegoat, being French, and he was hanged, he was executed on the 27th October 1666.

[00:15:05] Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending for Robert Hubert, it does have a happier ending for London. 

[00:15:14] And despite the fire wreaking destruction across the city, very few people died.

[00:15:22] It’s thought that as little as six people died, which out of a population of 350,000 and with 13,200 houses destroyed, seems like a bit of a miracle. 

[00:15:37] London as a city has evidently not suffered long term, and of course the best news of all was that Samuel Pepys managed to return to his house and recover his parmesan.

[00:15:53] OK then, that is it for today's episode on The Great Fire of London, when one of the world’s great cities almost burned to the ground.

[00:16:02] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that you've learnt something new. 

[00:16:06] If you do go to London, make sure you make a trip to Pudding Lane to see where the fire originally started. 

[00:16:14] It obviously looks a little different now, but it is quite amazing to stand there and think that it all started from a bakery in this little road.

[00:16:25] I should also say that the Museum of London has a fantastic section on the Great Fire of London, so make sure you go there too.

[00:16:33] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:16:37] You can head right in to our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:16:46] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English

[00:16:51] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

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