London's Other Great Fires

By M@ Last edited 42 months ago

Last Updated 28 January 2021

London's Other Great Fires

The Great Fire of 1666 was bad and all, but it was by no means the only huge blaze to rip through the city. Other fires were numerous, more fatal and possibly more destructive.

60 AD: London razed to the ground

London's first great fire occurred little more than a decade after the city was founded. Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni tribe, wasn't much of a fan of the Roman occupation. She attacked the city along with what we now call St Alban's and Colchester. Many Londoners were slaughtered, and the city was put to flame. Still to this day, archaeologists regularly encounter a layer of charred clay beneath London, the physical reminder of Boudicca's wrath. Her statue can be found on Westminster Bridge.

~120 AD: Mysterious mishap

London soon got back on its feet, only to be largely destroyed by another fire a few decades later. Very little is known about this second conflagration, which might have been accidental or an act of war. It, too, has left a charred layer in the archeological record, and is known as the Hadrianic fire, after the Roman emperor of the period. Coming just 60 years after the Boudicca fire, it's quite possible that some unfortunate individuals lived to see their city destroyed on two occasions.

961: St Paul's destroyed

Record keeping in the Anglo-Saxon period was not exactly meticulous, and much else has been lost, so we have little evidence of the next fires to befall London. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles record that in 961: "St Paul's minster was consumed with fire, and in the same year was afterwards restored". Another fire of 989 was so severe that 'beginning in Aldgate, [it] burned down houses and churches all the way to Ludgate.'

1087: St Paul's destroyed again!

Another great fire swept through the capital destroying many of the buildings including — once again — St Paul's Cathedral. As the Anglo Saxon Chronicles put it: "the holy minster of St. Paul, the episcopal see in London, was completely burned, with many other minsters, and the greatest part, and the richest of the whole city." The chronology is not entirely clear, but the event seems to have taken place at roughly the same time as the death of William the Conqueror.

1135: Bye bye London Bridge

The old wooden London Bridge was soundly smited by fire in a mighty blaze that also damaged the cathedral and reached as far as St Clement Danes on Strand. Beyond that, we know little.

1212: London's deadliest fire

In July of this year, a fire took hold in Southwark, badly damaging many houses and the cathedral. What happened next is poorly documented but, if true, would count as the single worst disaster in London's history.

Tradition holds that citizens on the north bank spotted the fire and rushed in their hundreds across the newly completed stone version of London Bridge to help extinguish the flames. 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, and many jumped into the river. John Stow, writing in 1603, puts the subsequent death toll at 3,000. There is no way to verify the figure, but the fact that the tragedy was still talked about 400 years later in Stow's time suggests that this was a monumentally horrific event in the city's history.

1633: London Bridge is burning down, again

The 1212 fire wasn't the last to afflict the bridge. Most of the houses on the northern end, and parts of Thames Street, were reduced to ash by a blaze in 1633. Some of the damaged property was not replaced. The resulting gap may have spared the bridge during the Great Fire 30 years later.

1666: Another Great Fire of London

The big famous one. You know: Pudding Lane, Pepys buries his cheese, St Paul's burns down (again!). This fire is well covered elsewhere, and we'd particularly direct you to the current exhibition at Museum of London.

1698: Whitehall burns

During the 16th and 17th century, Whitehall Palace was the main residence of the monarchy — the Buckingham Palace of its day. Henry VIII and Charles II died here; Charles I had his head chopped off here. But the sprawling complex vanished forever during a disastrous fire in 1698. Only the Banqueting Hall survived the inferno, and can still be visited to this day.

1834: Parliament burns

What Guy Fawkes and chums had failed to do in the 17th century, some careless workers succeeded in doing in the 19th. A fire to dispose of old accountancy records (tally sticks) got out of hand, destroying most of the old buildings of the Palace of Westminster. The events were recorded by many artists, including Turner. It was quite a disaster, but laid the ground bare for Barry and Pugin to design the new Houses of Parliament, now one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

1861: The Great Fire of Tooley Street

Image stephencdickson under creative commons licence.

Much of the area between London Bridge and modern City Hall was razed to the ground by a long-burning warehouse fire in 1861. The fire was also notable for killing James Braidwood, the much admired superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment (predecessor of the London Fire Brigade).

1940: The 'Second Great Fire of London'

Otherwise known as The Blitz or, more accurately, the London Blitz, given that several other British cities were severely damaged by explosives and firebombs. The German bombardment of London began in August 1940, as attested by this plaque on Fore Street, south of the Barbican.

The worst night of the bombing campaign is usually reckoned as 10-11 May 1941. Almost 1,500 people were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed and many famous landmarks took a hit. The Germans dropped over 86,000 incendiary bombs causing huge fires across the city in a conflagration to match the events of 1666. A few days later, the nightly bombing raids stopped forever as Hitler's attention switched elsewhere, although his rocket-powered vengeance weapons would be unleashed from 1944.