London’s ‘hell of confusion and torment’
This weekend millions will celebrate the stunning new city that rose from the ashes of the great fire of London. But should we also recall just how little London has changed in 350 years?
In the early hours of Sunday September 2nd 1666, Thomas Farriner was woken by his manservant. The ground floor of his bakery in London’s Pudding Lane was on fire. Farriner, his daughter and the servant escaped, but his maid became the first victim of the great fire of London.
The fire quickly spread out of control. Fuelled by a strong wind, it latched on to timber buildings which were close together and dry. It grew to a mile and a half long and raged for four days.
‘It made me weep to see it,’ wrote the diarist Samuel Pepys. ‘The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin.’
Only six people are known to have died. But most of the walled area of medieval London was destroyed; up to 100,000 people were made homeless. Much of the water supply infrastructure was destroyed.
This weekend, the fire’s 350th anniversary will be marked at the London’s Burning festival. London’s facade has changed greatly since the fire. Much of the change came in its immediate aftermath: new houses were built in brick or stone, and insured for the first time; St Paul’s and other major buildings were restored in new styles.
The city has also grown many times over. Its estimated population in 1666 was 500,000; now it is 8.7m. Its inhabitants are changing quickly: 600,000 Londoners are now there illegally, and 57% of its births are to migrant mothers.
But is the city’s character different? Modern London is home to more billionaires than anywhere else in the world, but over 7,500 of its people sleep rough. It is a wealthy city with an ethnic majority; 60% of its electorate voted to remain in the EU during June’s referendum.
There are also striking parallels with 17th century London, which had a youthful and fluid population. One of the main reasons the great fire spread was that London’s poor were crowded into small areas. London has been a trade hub since medieval times, and it was home to a migrant population even during the Roman empire.
London has changed a lot, say some. It has been rebuilt after both the fire and the Blitz of 1940. Its inhabitants are connected to the world by technology and methods of travel which their ancestors could only have dreamt of. And it is now home to far more people and many more migrants, who often come from much further away.
The change is mostly illusory, others respond. The architecture may look different and many people’s ancestry may be different. But it has the same qualities as ever. It is cosmopolitan and youthful; a thriving political and financial centre; and home to both the richest and the poorest of society.
- Which do you notice first about a city: the attitudes of its people, or the appearance of its buildings?
- Would modern London be recognisable to someone who lived there in 1666?
- Work in groups of three. Write and perform a short role play re-creating the events of the great fire of London. If possible, build props to help to explain what happened.
- How has the city, town or village you live in changed over the last 350 years? Research and prepare a three-minute presentation to your class.
Some People Say...
“Cities never truly change.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- This happened 350 years ago. Is it relevant to London today?
- Much of central London was destroyed in the fire, so many of the buildings you can see there today were built shortly after it. The fire is an important part of London’s history, and has therefore informed the attitudes which still attract people to — and repel them from — the city.
- I do not live in London. Does its history matter to me?
- London’s priorities help to inform those of the whole UK: for example, British politicians’ economic policies often aim to strengthen London’s economy. This could help or damage your job prospects. Even if you live outside the UK, the city may affect your country’s trading relationships. London’s social make-up also affects people further afield, as more people travel to and from a growing city.
- The summer of 1666 was very hot.
- London’s Burning
- To include: flames projected onto the dome of St Paul’s; 23,000 dominoes toppled along the fire’s course; and a floating sculpture of a 17th-century street of wooden houses burnt.
- Physician Nicholas Barbon set up the first insurance company, the Fire Office, in 1667.
- St Paul’s
- The architect Sir Christopher Wren designed it as the first cathedral in Protestant England.
- Wren rebuilt 52 churches, 36 company halls and The Monument — a memorial to the fire.
- According to projections based on census data and statistics from the GLA (Greater London Authority).
- According to analysis cited in Ben Judah’s book This is London.
- According to figures from a network of charities.
- Ethnic majority
- In the 2011 census, 45% of Londoners said they were ‘white British’.
- Historians at the Old Bailey found that one-sixth of people born elsewhere in England in 1700 lived in London at some point in their lives.
- Roman empire
- For example, analysis of one teenager’s remains, now in the Museum of London, shows she had ancestry in north Africa.