Cambridge Historical Reader: Primary - Cambridge Press

The Great Fire of London

When Charles II had been on the throne about five years, two sad troubles befell the city of London. The first of these was an awful disease called the plague, which killed thousands of people, during the spring and summer of the year 1665.

In those times, people were not very careful to keep their houses and streets clean; and dirt, as perhaps you know, is a. great cause of disease. Neither did they know the best way to stop a disease like the plague, after it had broken out, and thus much sorrow and trouble were caused.

While the great plague lasted, London was a very dreadful place in which to live. The once busy streets were now silent, and almost empty; the dead were buried in great pits, like dogs; and many people fled from the city into the country.

At last the plague stopped, and, in a few months, London was itself again. Then, one night in September, 1666, a fire broke out in a baker's shop, standing in a place known as Pudding Lane, not far from London Bridge. This shop was built of wood, and its roof was coated with pitch, so you can see that it would burn very fiercely.

Great London Fire


Most of the other houses near were also built of wood, and the flames from the burning shop were blown towards then by a strong east wind. Soon, many houses were in flames: not only those on the same side of the street, but those on the other side also.

This was because the streets were so narrow, that the flames could leap across them quite easily.

Soon, large warehouses, filled with such things as pitch, tar and resin, were on fire; and, as there were no fire engines at that time, there was not much hope of putting out such a large fire, in the usual way. The people, too, seemed to have lost their senses, and very little was done to stop the flames from spreading.

When night came, the city was as bright as day, and the glare lit up the country for ten miles around London. By the next day, St Paul's cathedral was burning, and the molten lead from its great roof flowed down the streets in streams.

People living near the river Thames crowded what goods they could save into boats and barges; while hundreds of carts and wagons carried still more into the fields lying round the city. Here, thousands of poor people could be seen, some living in tents which they had put up, and others lying on the bare ground.

Monument of London Fire


By this time, the greater part of the city had been burned to ashes, and it seemed that the king's palace at Whitehall, and Westminster abbey, too, would be destroyed. At this point, many houses were purposely blown up by gunpowder, thus making great gaps, which the flames could not easily cross.

So the fire was at last stayed; but London was a city of ruins. Thirteen thousand houses, and eighty-nine churches are said to have been burnt down; and thousands of rich people were now poor, having lost everything by the fire.

King Charles, who generally thought only of his own comfort, behaved very well at this time. He helped to blow up the houses, which, as you have just read, put an end to the fire; and he also sent food and money to the people who had lost their homes.

You will be surprised to learn, that, in the end, the Great Fire was a good thing for the city of London. When London was built again, most of the houses were of brick or stone, and the streets were made much wider than before.

Sir Christopher Wren, a great architect, rebuilt St Paul's as we see it to-day, and no less than 36 of the 53 new churches which arose in the city.

It is thought, too, that the fire burnt out all traces of the great plague, and London, which, in the old days, had a great deal of sickness, is now a very healthy place.

Two things about the Great Fire you can easily remember: it began at Pudding Lane, and ended at Pie Corner. Near the spot where it began, stands a very tall column, known as the Monument. From the top of it, the whole of London may easily be seen. The Monument was built by Wren in memory of the greatest fire which London ever had.