London’s Forgotten Disasters: The Capital’s Greatest Tragedy

The modern London Bridge glows red, with Southwark Cathedral in the background. Image by mattomatto in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Continuing our somewhat morbid look at the capital’s horrid history.

Like any ancient city, London has suffered untold tragedies over its long history. Our two previous installments looked at little-remembered fires from the 20th Century, which each claimed dozens of lives. But the most horrific fire, or disaster of any type in London’s history, had a death toll that was possibly two orders of magnitude greater.

The Great Fire of Southwark, which supposedly started on 10 July 1212, devastated the area directly south of London Bridge. St Mary Overie (now Southwark Cathedral) was totally gutted, along with much of Borough High Street and the houses on London Bridge. The cause of the fire is not recorded, but its devastating effects have come down to us through sketchy historical accounts.

Tradition holds that citizens on the north bank spotted the fire and rushed in their hundreds across the bridge to help extinguish the flames, or simply to spectate. But strong winds carried fiery embers back over the Thames, setting aflame the straw and wood buildings at the northern end of the bridge. Those upon the span were now trapped between two fires. It’s impossible to know how many were killed by the blaze. In addition, many drowned or were crushed while attempting to board rescue boats in the Thames. John Stow, writing in 1603, puts the death toll at 3,000. That figure is probably an exaggeration, or simply made up, but it’s also likely that the Great Fire of Southwark was the single worst disaster in the capital’s history, if we discount purposeful enemy attacks and prolonged events like plague and smog.

Having been almost destroyed by fire, the bridge also succumbed to ice a few decades later, when a severe frost froze the Thames, eventually sweeping away five arches — again, according to Stow. London Bridge is falling down, and on more than one occasion.

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  • CycleLove

    So what is the second worst tragedy? Was it anywhere close? The numbers on this one sounds a bit sketchy to me.

    • MattFromLondonist

      The numbers are sketchy. But the next worst is the Princess Alice disaster with a fifth of the death toll (600 deaths). It’s possible that one was worse, I suppose, as we’re dealing with a medieval estimate in the case of the fire.

  • Mark Johnson

    luckily there have been no major London fires ( aside from the tube ) for years.

  • ryditya909

    good idea

  • Caroline Murray

    Today (17 October) is the anniversary of the London tornado of 1091. The then London Bridge was destroyed, but, extraordinarily, only 2 people are recorded as having been killed.