The Great Fire of London in 1666

The City of London was very small and is still called The Square Mile. It was enclosed in thick walls, with gates which could be closed at night. Moorgate, Aldersgate and others are still familiar districts but well inside London. Then they were the outer limits. All this had not changed much since Roman times and everything was crowded together. City streets had always been narrow, with just room for a cart to get through. If you met a man on horseback you had to ‘take the wall’ – stand back against the wall to let the gentleman go by. If a rider and a cart met, there was a traffic jam.

Add to this the fact that the houses on either side jettied out towards each other. They overhung the street so far that people on the top floors could shake hands through the windows. From below only a narrow strip of sky could be seen. It was as if the street was in a tunnel.

In 1665 there had been the Great Plague, a tragic outbreak of Bubonic Plague which killed thousands and, in 1666, came the Great Fire of London

Detail of painting from 1666 of the Great Fire of London by an unknown artist, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September from a boat in the vicinity of Tower Wharf. The Tower of London is on the right and London Bridge on the left, with St. Paul's Cathedral in the distance, surrounded by the tallest flames.

The fire was trapped between the houses houses. The jettied floors and the thatched roofs made a series of steps which trapped the fire. The close-packed houses burnt fiercely and spread rapidly. The upper floors became hot from the flames below and burst into flames. Fire spread from one side of the street to the other and strong winds carried the heat rapidly from one district to the next. Wooden cities all over the world have had devastating fires. Rome, Chicago, - fires have always been dreaded and the Fire of London was no exception. Once started, they had to burn themselves out.

The Fire of London Building Regulations

After the Great Fire of London, in 1666, new Building Regulations were imposed and they, repeatedly updated, have governed London building ever since. All houses were to be in brick or stone; no wooden eaves were allowed. Roofs were pushed back behind brick parapets; wooden window frames were reduced and later recessed behind a layer of brick. Thatch was forbidden; party walls between houses had to be thick enough to withstand two hours of fire, to give people in neighbouring houses a chance to escape and perhaps extinguish the blaze. The face of London was changed for ever. From a wooden City it became a brick one. This was the period of Wren and, if you look at a Wren house and compare it with the wooden houses in Holborn, you see how the new Fire of London Building Regulations transformed London. A new style was born.

++ Is this the picture?

Their roofs protected behind brick parapets and no eaves project.
They are built this way because of the Fire of London.

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Revised: October 25, 2011 8:22 AM