It’s after dark on September 1st, 1666.
On Pudding Lane - a street in the heart of London - a baker named Thomas Farriner packs up for the night. Thomas opens the doors of his bread oven and rakes through the smoldering coals inside. Then he takes a cloth… and plunges it into a bucket of water. Then he reaches inside the oven and quickly damps down the hot coals.
And once he’s done… he closes the oven door and leaves the bakehouse.
Yawning, Thomas heads upstairs to his living quarters above the bakery. His son, daughter, and maidservant are already in bed, exhausted after a long day’s work. Taking care not to wake his sleeping family, Thomas tiptoes across the room and climbs into bed, quickly falling into a deep slumber.
By the early hours of the morning, Thomas is snoring contentedly; lost in pleasant dreams. Gradually, however, a powerful, acrid smell seeps into his nostrils. Thomas’ eyes snap open to see the room is filled with smoke.
Thomas throws off the covers and sprints to the stairs, his heart pounding. But when he reaches the top… he is confronted by a wave of heat and smoke. By now, Thomas’ two children have woken up. They stand with their backs against the wall, staring in dismay as the fire illuminates the fear in their father’s eyes. Thinking fast, Thomas rushes over to them… and throws open the window nearby.
Grabbing hold of his daughter’s waist, Thomas swings the child’s legs over the windowsill and pushes her out to safety. Thomas’ son follows, dropping down several feet to the street below. Thomas is about to follow his children when he remembers: his maidservant.
Thomas calls out to her, coughing and spluttering as smoke fills his lungs.
Through the choking haze, he can see the young woman cowering in a corner, her trembling knees drawn into her chest. By now, Thomas’ skin is blistered from the heat. He knows that if he doesn’t go now, he won’t make it. So Thomas turns, grabs hold of the window frame, and hurls himself out, leaving his maidservant to perish in the flames.
Thomas Farriner’s maid is the first victim of what will come to be known as the Great Fire of London. She will not be the last. Over the course of the next four days, the fire that started in a bakery on Pudding Lane will spread across the city, reducing a third of London to ashes and leaving over 100,000 people homeless; a tragic consequence of the Great Fire that started in the early hours of the morning of September 2nd, 1666.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is September 2nd, 1666: The Great Fire of London Begins.
Act One: Samuel Pepys
It’s September 1st, 1666, in London, the day before the Fire breaks out.
A horse-drawn carriage rattles through the cobbled streets. Seated in the back is a gentleman in his early thirties, with full lips and round cheeks flushed with merriment: Samuel Pepys.
Samuel will later become famous after the publication of his diary. But today, Samuel is just a naval administrator. And right now, he and his wife are on their way home from a friend’s dinner party.
The driver stops outside the Pepys residence near London Bridge. Samuel staggers drunkenly from the carriage, oblivious to the reproachful glare of his wife, Elizabeth, who bustles along behind him. Samuel makes his way upstairs to bed, where he promptly collapses and falls asleep, still smiling in recollection of the evening’s festivities.
The last twelve months have been difficult for Samuel – as they have been for the entire city of London. An outbreak of the bubonic plague swept the city last year, claiming 100,000 lives. Soon, bodies were piling up in the streets. Samuel rarely left his house, constantly scribbling in his diary as the death toll rose higher and higher…
Eventually, the Great Plague, as it’s known, died down, and normalcy is returning to London. Samuel has been making the most of it. He often attends the theater and goes out carousing with friends.
But a lingering sense of foreboding remains. This summer has been one of the hottest on record – an infernal heat that has yellowed the grass of the city and left the mud of the riverbed cracked and dry. Many fear this year - 1666 - will bring more bad luck because it contains the number of the devil. So despite his attempts at merriment, Samuel can't shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
In the early hours of the morning of September 2nd, Samuel is fast asleep in bed.
But he is shaken awake by a panic-stricken servant, telling him that a fire has broken out several streets away. Samuel rushes to the window, still inebriated from the night before. And sure enough, just beyond the thatched rooftops to the west, he sees a faint orange glow.
But Samuel isn’t concerned. It’s not uncommon to see fires in 17th Century London, a city of densely packed timber-framed buildings. Samuel shrugs it off and goes back to bed.
But around 7 AM, Samuel wakes again; he has a throbbing hangover. As he hauls himself out of bed and slopes over to the window, he’s met by a frightening sight. The fire from earlier has spread, now engulfing a large swathe of the city. Samuel hastily dresses, pulling on his frock coat and curly brown periwig. Then he hurries downstairs, out the door, and across town toward the Tower of London.
When he arrives, Samuel sprints upstairs to one of the lookout posts. By now, the blaze has grown tenfold, stretching miles into the distance. Samuel tries to clear his head, still foggy from last night’s revelry. He realizes that the only way to stop the flames from spreading is by demolishing the houses at the fire’s edge. But there’s only one person who can authorize such a drastic measure: England’s king, Charles II.
Samuel doesn’t waste any time. He rushes down to the river Thames and instructs a boatman to sail to Whitehall, the King’s palace in Westminster.
The boat slices through the murky water while fires rage on all sides. Samuel watches the sky darkening overhead, as smoke from the conflagration blots out the sun.
Moments later, Samuel strides into Whitehall. A group of courtiers surround him as he provides a vivid account of the blaze. Soon, a royal official tells Samuel that the King would like an audience with him. And Samuel is led through to the King’s private office, where he bows deeply before the monarch. The king brushes aside a strand of his long, curly black hair, and with a hand heavy with jewels, he motions for Samuel to stand up straight and say his piece.
As Samuel speaks about the fire, Charles curses his terrible luck.
Since his coronation, Charles has faced nothing but trouble. England is divided following years of civil unrest, and many regard the monarchy as a self-indulgent, self-serving elite. Charles is a dandy and a womanizer, a patron of the arts, and a lover of pomp and ceremony. And resentment for his lifestyle was stoked last year when the Great Plague hit London. As the bodies piled up, the King’s extravagance came under scrutiny, and his popularity sank even lower.
But as Charles listens to Samuel today, he sees something else hidden inside the moment of crisis: an opportunity. Charles realizes that if he responds to the fire swiftly and competently, then the public might change their feelings about him. So, Charles doesn’t delay. Almost immediately, he assembles his advisors and begins strategizing how to conquer the Great Fire of London – and win back the respect of his subjects.
Act Two: Fighting the Fire
It’s mid-morning on Sunday, September 2nd, 1666, and the Great Fire of London is raging.
Samuel Pepys, the naval administrator, and diarist, has just left Whitehall with an order from King Charles II: go to the Lord Mayor and instruct him to tear down the houses at the edge of the ever-spreading fire. Samuel presses sixpence into the palm of a carriage driver and tells him to hasten eastward, toward the heart of the blaze.
The carriage struggles through the crowded streets, fighting against the exodus fleeing in the opposite direction. People pull hand-carts laden with all their worldly possessions; mothers drag screaming children by the arm. And soon, the carriage has ground to a halt, unable to proceed through the dense human traffic. Samuel jumps from his seat and continues the journey on foot.
As he pushes through the fleeing crowd, it becomes harder to breathe. It’s a bright summer’s morning, but the smoke has turned day into twilight. Eventually, Samuel reaches the frontline of the fire, where a platoon of firefighters hurl buckets of water into the flames.
Standing at a remove, watching on with a look of dumbstruck disbelief, is the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. Samuel has a low opinion of Bloodworth, calling him in his diary a “silly man” and an incompetent mayor. But there’s no time for an airing of grievances today. Samuel rushes up to him and conveys the King’s message: create a firebreak by tearing down the houses adjacent to the blaze.
Bloodworth claims his militia has been demolishing the houses, but the flames overtake them before they can finish. Samuel won’t accept this excuse. He tells Bloodworth to enlist the services of the Royal Guards to help battle the fire. But Bloodworth is too proud; he refuses the King’s help, insisting he has everything under control.
Samuel looks around, exasperated.
A powerful wind has picked up, driving the flames along the narrow tunnel-like streets. Billowing heat rises above the city, turning the air into a scalding vacuum and causing pigeons to catch fire mid-flight. Despite Bloodworth’s assertions, nothing is under control, and the fire is unmanageable. Samuel doesn’t have the authority to override the Lord Mayor. But the King certainly does, and he’s already on his way.
Down on the river, King Charles stands at the prow of the royal barge as it plows through the water. Up ahead, he can see the extent of the fire and the pace with which the flames are consuming his capital. Charles disembarks just south of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There, he finds a group of firefighters sheltered on the riverbank. Charles addresses the group. He overrides Bloodworth and commands the firefighters to demolish the houses at the boundary of the ferocious blaze.
While the firefighters set about their work, Charles returns to Westminster. He orders a group of Privy Councilors to draw up a plan of action. And soon, a committee is appointed with headquarters in Holborn, just beyond the western wall of the city. From there, Charles coordinates the fire-fighting efforts, sending waves of Royal Guards and volunteers to help slow the fire’s progress.
But the blaze continues to rage overnight. By Monday morning, Charles faces another looming crisis. A powerful wind is carrying a rain of fire and sparks toward Westminster. There is now a possibility that the palace, and all the government offices, might be engulfed.
The King doesn’t hesitate. He orders the construction of firebreaks at Charing Cross - a public square in the heart of the city. Then he dispatches volunteers to smother any embers that spread to the western end of Fleet Street - a major east-west thoroughfare. Charles also appoints his brother, James, the Duke of York, as chief fire marshal, tasked with containing the blaze and stopping its spread.
But despite these measures, the fire builds throughout the day and into the night. By Tuesday morning, the scale of the blaze has reached its terrifying peak. Flames leap across the firebreaks at Charing Cross, advancing toward Westminster. Soon, even the wooden spire of St. Paul’s Cathedral has been consumed by flames - reducing the once magnificent structure to a charred skeleton.
Charles knows he’s fighting a losing battle. But the King’s determination doesn’t waver. He mounts his horse and spends the next twenty-four hours riding throughout the city. He rallies fire-fighters; he joins chains of volunteers passing along buckets of water; he sends shipments of bread from the Royal Navy’s stocks to distribute among the homeless; and he sets up a fund to provide support for those whose livelihoods have been destroyed.
By Wednesday evening, Charles is drenched in sweat; his clothes and face are blackened by soot. But the King’s labors have not gone unnoticed. Word has spread throughout the populace of his valiant efforts to fight the fire. And his work will not be in vain.
The destruction of houses at the boundaries of the blaze will eventually prove effective. The wind will drop, and by nightfall, the Great Fire of London will die down, leaving the city in smoldering ruin.
The fire is out, but the King’s work is just beginning. After leading the effort to fight the blaze, Charles must now lead the effort to rebuild the city - and to ensure that a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again.
Act Three: Rebuilding London
It’s September 11th, 1666, nine days after the Great Fire of London began.
A slender, pale-skinned man in a burgundy frock coat walks over the ashes where St. Paul’s Cathedral once stood. Christopher Wren is a thirty-four-year-old architect. He is currently working on the most important project of his career: rebuilding the city of London.
The human cost of the Great Fire of London was minimal. But the extent of the destruction was immense. More than 13,000 homes and 87 churches were razed to the ground, radically changing the complexion of the city.
So with his sketchbook in hand, Christopher wanders the streets. The sidewalks are still hot underfoot. And Christopher moves at a clip, jotting down his ideas, scribbling his plans for a new-and-improved London. He circles the city from the furthest reaches of the destruction in the north, down to the banks of the Thames in the south, before cutting up and walking the length of Fleet Street towards Charing Cross, Westminster, and beyond.
But the King is dubious of Christopher’s designs. To Christopher’s great frustration, Charles thanks the architect for his efforts – but rejects his ideas.
Instead, the city is rebuilt following the same basic layout, albeit with some significant changes designed to lower the risk of another fire. Rather than the timber-framed buildings that comprised most of the capital before the blaze, houses are to be built exclusively from brick and stone. The streets are to be wider, exchanging the cramped alleyways for broader thoroughfares. The guttering is to be improved, and jetties are to be built along the riverbank, allowing fire engines access to water from land.
Christopher helps the King implement these improvements. And in 1669, he is richly rewarded for his efforts. Charles appoints him Commissioner of Public Works, entrusting him with the reconstruction of more than fifty churches lost in the Great Fire. Among them is the largest place of worship in the capital: St. Paul’s Cathedral. Over the next three decades, the new St. Paul’s slowly rises from the ashes, featuring ornate baroque exteriors and an iconic domed roof.
Today, much of modern London is a legacy of the Great Fire - including Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, an iconic mainstay of the city skyline. Although it caused untold destruction and suffering, the Great Fire of London remains a defining episode in the city’s history, a tragedy from which a new city was forged, following the outbreak of a fire in a bakery on Pudding Lane, on September 2nd, 1666.
Next onHistory Daily. September 5th, 1774. The First Continental Congress assembles in Philadelphia to unite the colonies on a path that will eventually lead to Independence.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser