Bad Decisions in History: featuring the Great Fire of London

Ravaging central parts of the city in September of 1666, the Great Fire of London was a disaster that left thousands of buildings reduced to rubble and ashes, and claimed the lives of victims unable to escape the deadly swathe of flames.

The fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane in the middle of the night on September 2nd. How it started is unclear, though there was probably a bad decision at stake. The real bad decision for this post, however, comes from the next step by London’s mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth.

Bad decision:  Failing to initiate firefighting techniques in a timely fashion; this indecisiveness and lack of action allowed the fire to spread

Even with our modern plumbing and specialized fire departments, fires are still dangerous and frightening, and could be even more so in the past. During the time of the London fire, there was no fire brigade, although watching for fires was one of the duties of the watchmen who patrolled the streets. A fire would be alerted through the ringing of church bells, and citizens and the local militia would undertake to contain the fire. The main technique for controlling the conflagration was to create firebreaks. Sometimes, this involved levelling tall buildings completely to the ground, a sacrifice deemed necessary because it would stop the fire from spreading. Occasionally, buildings in the path of the fire could even be razed through a controlled gunpowder blast.

Fires weren’t uncommon during the time period. After all, everything was made of wood and people used candles and open fireplaces all the time. Most of the time, the fires could be dealt with relatively quickly. Every parish church was required to store firefighting equipment, including ladders, leather buckets, axes, and firehooks for pulling down the building. Sometimes these were also called pike poles. A fire would be fought quickly and determinedly, and could often be doused it before it spread too far.

As the fire started, the baker’s family was trapped upstairs, but the family managed to climb from an upstairs window into the house next door. Unfortunately, one of the maids did not escape and became the first victim of the blaze.

Following the usual firefighting procedure, the parish constables and citizens attending the blaze advised that the adjoining houses should be torn down to create a firebreak to stop the flames from spreading.  Up until this point, dousing the fire with water had little effect. The tenants of the houses that would need to be demolished refused to cooperate, so Lord Mayor Bloodworth (isn’t that a villain’s name if there ever was one?) was summoned, since he had the authority to override their protests and make a decision.

Even though the flames had crept to the adjoining houses and were hungrily reaching toward nearby paper warehouses and flammable wooden stores along the riverfront, plus the fact that London had been in a drought since November of the previous year, making everything extra dry and fire-friendly, Mayor Bloodworth scoffed at the idea of demolishing the houses as a firebreak. Supposedly he even made the crass remark of, “Pish! A woman could piss it out,” of the fire, and then departed. 

Since dedicated citizens had already been dousing the fire with water and making no progress, and the fire was severe enough that at least one life had already been lost, it goes without saying that no one, no matter what quantity of beverage they might have ingested, could quench the flames by urination. And don’t forget, one life had already been lost to the fire.

Bloodworth’s decision wasn’t looked kindly upon, as Samuel Pepys remarked in his diary. Later, he wrote that “People do all the world over cry out of the simplicity of my Lord Mayor in general; and more particularly in this business of the fire, laying it all upon him.” Bloodworth may have been financially on the hook for replacing the demolished houses unless he got the king’s consent first, but as the fire soon proved, his derisive recklessness ended up costing far more than replacing a few houses.

The fire had been raging for around a full day before it became so severe that firebreaks became the only course of action, but it was too late by then.  The fire had already spread to the heart of the city. Altogether, the fire destroyed over 13,000 houses, 87 churches, St. Paul’s Cathedral, many city buildings, and the homes of 70,000 people. The death toll is uncertain. While only six verified deaths were recorded, there’s some conjecture that not all of them were noted. This is partly because the poor and middle class people may not have been as well tracked, and also because the fire reached levels of heat high enough to cremate the bodies, making the discovery of remains difficult. There’s a melted piece of pottery on display at a museum in London that shows the temperature reached 1250 degrees. Eventually, the fire was put out, partly due to the good fortune of the changing winds, and also due to serious firebreak efforts via gunpowder through the Tower of London garrison.

The burnt areas are shown in red

The fire had serious political and economic consequences as well. Thousands of people became refugees without homes, and Charles II, the reigning king, encouraged them to leave London and resettle elsewhere. The fear the foreigners started the fire also spread, leading to street violence, mainly against people of French and Dutch descent, since England fought them in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Outcome: Mass destruction, deaths of citizens, street violence, thousands of people homeless

 

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