The Great Fire of London

September 1, 2014

The Great Fire of LondonSunday, 2 September to Wednesday, 5 September 1666

Pat a cake, Pat a cake, baker’s man

Bake me a cake as fast as you can;

Pat it and prick it and mark it with a ‘B’,

And put it in the oven for Baby and me.

 A nursery rhyme with origins referencing the Great Fire of London.

At that time, bakeries were viewed as great fire risks. The Great Fire of London is believed to have started in a Baker’s shop on Pudding Lane. Only a short distance from the wharves of London, Pudding Lane was reportedly amid some of the most unsavory parts of the city. The shop and dwelling of Farynor (aka Thomas Farrinor), King Charles I’s baker was on Pudding Lane 10 doors from Thames Street. Flames reportedly broke out from Farynor’s ovens between one and two o’clock in the morning. Farynor, his wife and daughter escaped their hose through a garret window, his man followed, but his maidservant became the first fatality of the fire.

The city was at that time a “walled city” which was designed in the feudal concept for defense. Mediaeval construction was the style of the time. Shakespeare had died a mere 50 year prior. Land was a premium commodity, and houses were nestled in one upon the next. Densely packed narrow houses, timber framed of varied heights with red tiled roofs. Houses treated with pitch to preserve the wood frames. Factories interspersed among the dwellings, getting workers from communities within walking distance. Factories spewing smoke from stacks of furnaces – the heart of soap making, dying, drying, and brewers. Pudding Lane was one of the tightest streets in the city, with only a cart width of space in some tighter areas.

Firefighting in the 1600’s was nothing like today. Houses were built with iron rings near the rooftop for ropes to be affixed and hooks on long poles to grab. The wall of the offending house – or that of a house to be used as a fire break was pulled down by teams of men. Squirts, long, large syringes filled with water by drawing the plunger, then pushing the plunger to expel the water under pressure were the fire extinguishers of the day. Two men would hold the syringe while a third pressed the plunger. Cisterns on wheeled carts would be wheeled to the fire to give a quick means of refilling the squirts. Wood pipes were drilled into to provide a cistern of water along the street. 17th century firefighting was no match for the ravages which fell upon the city.

In the end, the fire consumed 13,200 houses which housed approximately 70,000 of London’s 80,000 citizens. 87 parish churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities were consumed.

The city was rebuilt. Several lent ideas, including Sir Christopher Wren, Captain Valentine Knight, and John Evelyn. During the rebuilding, occupants dispersed to wherever they could find an abode.

The Great Fire of London is not unique among fire history. It is an item of history amid many other cities which burned. The Great Fire of London will continue to remain in the forefront of fire history.

The Monument stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in the City of London.

The Monument stands at the junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill in the City of London.

Visit to the Monument. Standing 202 feet high, the Monument is the tallest isolated stone column in the world.

Stairs going up to the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London

Stairs going up to the top of the Monument to the Great Fire of London

The monument was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and constructed with Portland stone in 1671-7. The simple Doric column is topped by a flaming urn of copper gilded with two layers of gold leaf to symbolize the Great Fire. I am privileged to have climbed the 311 steps to the balcony at the top.


Bell, Walter George. The Great Fire of London. London: Bracken, 1994. Print.

“Great Fire of London.” New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Sept. 2014. <;.

Photo – Detail of the Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 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. – Wikipedia (Public Domain)

The Second Great Chelsea Fire: October 14, 1973

October 14, 2011

The first great Chelsea, MA fire was on April 12, 1908. Over 2800 buildings were destroyed. The fire began at the Atwood and McManus Box Company on Everett Ave. at the Vale Street. Wind carried the burning embers to other buildings. There were four fatalities, many injuries, and 10,000 people were left homeless. Most of the buildings in the area were of cheap wooden construction. 13 churches, to hospitals, the public library, the City Hall, five schools, 20 blocks filled with businesses, and 300 residences were destroyed.

Move forward to October 14, 1973. The second conflagration to hit Chelsea struck within hundreds of feet of the first conflagration of 1908. The area was dilapidated and under an urban renewal plan. The rag shop district was to be converted into a modern industrial park. 39 buildings had been vacated, but not yet demolished. Some of the buildings held product which was not salable. Again, wind was a major factor in spreading the fire. By the end of the fire, 18 city blocks, 45 acres, and an area 1 mile long and 1/2 mile wide were destroyed. Fortunately, there were no reported fatalities.

Throughout history there are many examples of recurring fires. Perhaps not in the same city, but in the same type occupancy. Nightclubs, theaters, hotels, and residences are some of the occupancies jump forward in my mind when I think of recurring fires, particularly when I think of loss of life.

Our fire codes and standards are developed as a result of major fire losses. Many lives have been lost, many people have been injured, and many people have been tragically touched as a result of these fire incidents. One of the greatest defenders against fire is the automatic sprinkler system. Today in the United States, our hotels, hospitals, nightclubs, and other assembly occupancies are predominately sprinkler protected. Our next great challenge is the sprinkler protection of all private residences. Almost 40 years ago, in 1973, the presidentially appointed National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control published America Burning. The report stated that we should be using new technology, such as sprinkler protection, to protect our country from the ravages of fire.

A Fire Sprinkler in a Residence Under Construction

In terms of the residential fire problem, the statistics have changed, but the problem continues to exist. According to the United States Fire Administration, An estimated 374,900 residential building fires are reported to U.S. fire departments each year and cause an estimated 2,630 deaths, 13,075 injuries, and $7.6 billion in property loss (2009 statistics). Forty-six percent of nonconfined residential building fires extend beyond the room of origin. Smoke alarms were not present in 21 percent of the larger, nonconfined fires in occupied residential buildings.

The fire service is making progress by endorsing ordinances which require automatic sprinkler protection in all new residential construction. Unfortunately, many of our lawmakers who have sworn to protect us are falling short when it comes to ordinances requiring fire sprinklers. In Pennsylvania, a state law was passed to require automatic sprinklers in all new residential construction. Unfortunately, our lawmakers kowtowed to the construction lobbyists which help fund their reelection coffers. The law to require sprinklers in residential structures was recently repealed, opening the door to additional future residential fire deaths in Pennsylvania.

When is our society going to wake up to the fire hazards in our communities? When is our society going to take a proactive stance against fire deaths in our communities? Until we are personally touched by the catastrophe of fire, fire is another person’s problem, not ours.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Einstein