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London’s Burning: Fires That Shaped the City

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London BridgeFires have played a major part in human history. London is a notorious tinderbox of a city, having been engulfed in flames on numerous occasions. It’s almost the 801st anniversary of The Great Fire of Southwark. Let’s take the time to look at some of the most monumental fires that have shaped the city.

1. Queen Boudicca’s revolt (AD 60/61)

Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni tribe, left his kingdom jointly to the Roman emperor and his wife, Boudicca. Following his death, however, his will was ignored. The kingdom was seized, Boudicca was flogged, and her daughters raped. Boudicca then revolted against Rome by burning Londinium to the ground. Londinium had been made a notable port and important city by the Romans. The fire killed hundreds of people, both Britons and Romans. The fire was so destructive that there is still a clearly defined layer of ash that was deposited by the flames. Following the rebellion, the city of London was rebuilt and expanded to become one of Roman Britain’s largest cities. The city became shaped by Roman architecture and constructions, including the London Wall, Hadrian’s Wall and the road network.

2. The Great Fire of Southwark, London (July 11th 1212)

‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ really does have an origin. It talks about the first London Bridge, which was made of wood and clay. It was then rebuilt with various materials listed in the famous children’s rhyme. The Great Fire of Southwark is one of the many disasters to have struck London Bridge. At the time, it was made of stone. However, the bridge was also covered with highly flammable wooden shops and houses, which were incredibly flammable and slowed movement across the bridge. The fire in question gutted most of the area known as Southwark, which is the area south of the Thames. London Bridge ignited first on the south side, but strong winds blew embers to the north side, which also caught fire. This left many people trapped on the bridge, both those who were fleeing the fire, and those who were heading towards the main blaze in order to fight it. Overall, around a third of the old city of London was ravaged by flames. It is said that around 3,000 died that day, many of whom were trapped on the bridge or drowned in the Thames. The structure of London Bridge remained, but it was only partially usable for years after the fire.

3. The Great Fire of London (2nd-5th September 1666)

This burgeoning blaze began at a bakery on Pudding Lane and appeared to be controllable in the beginning. However, London was jam packed with crowded, narrow streets, making it easy for the fire to spread. In an attempt to contain the fire, buildings were torn down and a large scale demolition took place. The fire eventually ended, thanks the Tower of London’s troops who used gunpowder to create fire breaks. There was a break in east winds that slowed the spread of the fire. The four day fire destroyed 80% of old London, which contained many roman constructions. It is also said to have wiped out the plague. At the time, London was at war with the Catholic French and Protestant Dutch. Unsurprisingly, scared Londoners, who were looking for a scapegoat, began blaming foreign enemies. Many immigrants became the victims of street violence and xenophobia became rife. The fire even had a literary impact; The Diary of Samuel Pepys is famed for the first hand account it gives of the disaster.

4. Great Fire of Tooley Street (1861)

The Tooley Street fire, which burned for 14 days, is often referred to as the worst fire since The Great Fire of London. It began at Cotton’s Wharf, an industrial area that housed many warehouses. These warehouses stored highly flammable goods, such as hemp, cotton and jute. The fire itself was the result of spontaneous combustion. However, the fire was able to quickly spread through warehouse doors that had been carelessly left open. The firefighters who tackled the blaze were unable to reach water for around an hour. The fire grew so hot that the London fire service was unable to get close enough to adequately fight it. Over 30,000 spectators watched the fire, which lasted for 14 days. Despite the fact that it had been banned, pubs remained open all night while street vendors provided roadside refreshments. Fire brigades from across the country attended to help fight the fire and provide supplies. A total of £2 million was lost, including the value of trade supplies. This fire is famed for killing James Braidwood, who was then superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment. His body could not be retrieved for 3 days after he died. The fire also caused warehouse insurance companies to act, claiming they should no longer be responsible for the fire safety of London. It was agreed that London’s fire safety should be a public concern. As a result, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act was passed in 1865. This stated that the Metropolitan Fire Brigade would commence as a public service. photo credit: Plbmak via photopin cc
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