Lecture 27: The Great Fire

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Lecture 27: The Great Fire

I. Introductory Comments

II. The City in 1665

A. The Borders of the old city—show map

B. Urban development—urban development did extend outward, but for the most part, it was confined to the area south of the Thames in Southwark. Urban development pre-fire was haphazard, with buildings going up rather than out.

III. The Fire

A. casualties, cost and tragedy—the fire, so the story goes, started in a baker's shop (not just any baker, but the king's baker, Thomas Farynor) on Pudding Lane in the market district of the City in September of 1666. The causes have sometimes been attributed to a Popish plot intent on destroying the capital, but it was probably an accident with the unhealthy conditions in which Londoners lived at the time, the city was ripe for flames. In any case, once the king was apprised of the situation, he order the destruction of as many houses as possible to create a fire break and stop the fire, but the fire continued to spread. The fire burned for three days until it ran up against brick, which stifled its power and gave the people battling the blaze a chance to build more fire breaks.

B. A sanitizer against the plague. The fire, as horrible as it was, effectively sanitized London against the Plague that crippled the city for the previous year. While fire was always a threat, and indeed there was a fire in 1632, people were more worried about plague. Fire destroyed many of the agents causing plague and ended the horrible plague year.

C. A new urban space--nothing left—also, there was nothing left. The fire destroyed nearly 373 acres (roughly 5/6 of the territory or 83%) of the City (show map), about 63 acres outside the wall 13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls. There is no real death toll; while the government put an official toll at only 4 deaths, the smell of burning flesh was described by enough contemporaries to suggest that the death toll was more extensive. Of those who survived, nearly ¼ were made homeless by the fire. The result was that the old timber buildings, the crooked houses and the winding streets all had potential for rebuilding and remodeling.

IV. Rebuilding London--Creating the Metropolis

A. Designs for a new City—There were quite a few plans to make a new, modern city, but while some of the more crooked streets were straightened and others were widened, the attempt to remake the City—the walled in area—more of a new kind of City, was problematic. Many of the crooked streets remained (and still remain).

B. Charles I and his plans--Very shortly after the fire (October), Charles II appointed a Commission to organize the process of rebuilding the City. Included among those commissioners was Christopher Wren. Part of the rules for a new London included making it as "fire proof" as possible with the requirements of brick buildings rather than timber. Charles also addressed the homeless (c. 100,000 people) at Moorfields the day after the fire and declared that it was an Act of God

C. Christopher Wren and Architectural development—CW lived from 1632-1723. he was raised around the monarchy and Charles II was a childhood friend—they remained friends through their lifetime. He was a great inventor, but he became attracted to architecture at a young age. as one of the members of Charles' commission, Wren had very specific plans to rebuild London—these plans were never fully put into effect (gradient streets among other changes), but his Churches (such as the dome at St. Paul's, where he is buried) were built (about 52 of them.

D. The consequences of a clean slate

1. new urban development

2. cleaner streets

3. new borders, new suburbs

While there were actually fewer houses in the City as older, ramshackle homes made way for larger dwellings and businesses, London grew during this period. The Borders of the City never changed. In fact, the gates to the Old City were actually replaced after the fire even though they were no longer in much use. It has been estimated that thee were 20 – 30% fewer homes after the fire. So where did London get such a huge population boom—from 200,000 in 1600 to 375,000 right before the fire (1650) to 490,000 in 1700 (from Beier and Finlay) The answer lies in the new plan for a restructured suburban London. Before the fire, many gentry had already been moving out of central London to places like Covent Garden and the West End, both just outside the City Walls. But as London faced the effects of the Fire, urban flight became even more necessary. Moreover, rents increased. Country places like Kensington and Chelsea, former stomping grounds of Kings and Lords, were increasingly sold in a lucrative land market, and homes were built up in those areas. None of this means that the idea of the squares in the suburbs and the rows of houses was entirely new as a result of the fire. Many ideas were already in existence previous to the fire and some people simply rebuilt the same fashioned house in brick.

V. Concluding Comments—We've examined the Great Fire and its aftereffects. By the middle of the eighteenth century, central London would be the haven for merchants who lived near their warehouses. The City of Westminster and other suburbs of London would house other merchants, both male and female. Land was sold and rented in newer districts often funded by a new thing called the "Turnpike Trust" –an early version of a tollroad that granted access to London through early versions of master communities (like Laguna Niguel or Irvine).

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