In 1666, a conflagration raged in London for three days and four nights. 75 percent of the city was destroyed. One man could have prevented all this – but didn’t.
Have you ever felt like you messed something up? Don’t worry – things won’t have been that bad after the fact. And even if you should have fallen out with someone permanently: At least you weren’t the one who could have prevented the great fire of London in 1666 – and didn’t. No matter what you did, you didn’t make 100,000 people homeless, an unknown number of people lost their lives and one of the most important European metropolises was largely destroyed. A comforting thought?
Because this person actually existed. When on September 12, 1666, after a hot and dry summer, a single spark went unnoticed and a fire ignited in a master baker’s house, catastrophe was looming. The fire only became noticeable at night, the baker’s family was able to flee into the street just in time – for a housemaid any help came too late, she died in the flames. As bad as this incident was, it was commonplace in a city like London, where since the Middle Ages there have still been many houses built close together with a high proportion of wood.
Great Fire of London could have been stopped
Accordingly, the residents were not entirely helpless in the face of the fire. There were ditches specially created for extinguishing fires and even the first fire engines with pumps, which had only been invented in Germany a few decades earlier. Horses pulled the heavy equipment to the sites. Exactly that turned out to be difficult in the narrow streets of London. The most effective protective measure was therefore a radical one: the houses surrounding the fire house were often torn down in order to take the fuel out of the flames and to spare the rest of the quarter.
This was quickly thought to be the smartest option when the bakery caught fire. However, the mayor had to give his consent – so a messenger was sent to the villa of the wealthy merchant Thomas Bludworth, who held this office in 1666. Not only was he annoyed at being woken up by what appeared to be a small fire, he also knew that the city councilors would be against the demolition of undamaged houses in any case. The influential men owned numerous properties in the city, the craftsmen and traders living there were usually only renters. A dilemma for Bludworth.
Mayor misjudged situation
If he had taken the fire seriously, his next step would have been to ask the king for permission to demolish the surrounding buildings – otherwise he could later have been held financially responsible himself. But waking the king, because of a maybe not very serious fire in a bakery? Bludworth examined the flames from a safe distance together with the city councillors, who had also been informed. Apparently they didn’t impress him. “Oh dear, a woman could piss that off,” he is said to have said disparagingly.
Volunteer work with the volunteer fire department
Volunteer in the middle of the fire
The mayor and his councilors agreed: This fire could be extinguished conventionally. A catastrophic misjudgment. But one with which Bludworth was not alone: Several eyewitnesses, whose reports have survived to this day, wrote down how they became aware of the fire at night, but went back to bed unimpressed. The next morning, however, they woke up in the midst of an inferno.
Attempts to delete it were unsuccessful
Residents formed human chains to the Thames and passed buckets of water to the fire site. However, an unfavorable wind and the previously long drought ensured that the fire spread rapidly. With their buckets of water, the helpers simply didn’t stand a chance. From Pudding Lane, where the bakery was located, the blaze spread to 75 percent of the city over the next three days. The metropolis of London was almost completely razed to the ground. Miraculously, only the town hall, the Guildhall, remained largely intact, which housed many of the most important documents – and survived the fire. The magnificent building lasted until 1944, when German bombs severely damaged it.
Today’s experts are certain: If Bludworth had decided differently, this enormous catastrophe would not have happened. If the bakery had been directly insulated, the flames would not have been able to spread to such an extent. But the fire destroyed around 13,2000 houses, 87 churches, the prison, the stock exchange, 400 streets – and it almost caught the Tower of London. At that time, cannons, ammunition and other weapons of war were also stored in it. In order to prevent the flames from spreading in any case, the London aisles around the Tower were blown up – successfully.
Tower was only just saved
100,000 people lost their homes. The damage, converted to today’s conditions, was more than 1.7 billion pounds (approx. 1.9 billion euros). After all, only nine fatalities were officially reported. However, it is assumed that many more people died in the inferno of flames, of which only no remains remained. Those who didn’t have family or friends in town asking about them simply disappeared without a trace.
After such a disaster, Londoners were eager to find someone to blame. Although Mayor Bludworth was heavily criticized, he got off relatively lightly. Rather, people suspected the Catholics – who were treated with great skepticism in England at the time – of setting fires on purpose. A French watchmaker confessed under torture to having acted as an arsonist on behalf of the Pope. He was executed. Only later did it become apparent that the man had only arrived in London two days after the fire.
There was (only) malice for the mayor
Biting mockery remained for Bludworth: After all, he would have provided help by helping to extinguish the contents of his chamber pot, it was said – alluding to the mayor’s ungallant comment when he first saw the fire. Contemporaries described him as “stupid” and “weak”, but the wealthy politician escaped the wrath of the citizens, sat in parliament until 1679 and only died in 1682.