The Great Fire of London 1666

Hurrah! I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my latest book in the Hartford Manor series. My debut novel is called “The Mazzard Tree”, and the sequel, “The Angel Maker”. The books are set in a rural village in North Devon in Victorian times. The third book does not have a title yet; after all it is a work in progress! However, some of the characters in the story visit London and this led to researching the sights they might have seen. One landmark that is featured in the book is The Monument, which commemorates The Great Fire of London, and I thought it’s history was worth sharing in a short blog. However, the story begins with The Great Plague.

The Great Plague of 1665

The Great Plague originated in China and swept through England in 1665 killing an estimated 100,000 people.  The first epidemic of this illness occurred in 1348 when it was known as The Black Death.  However, in 1665, more than three hundred years later, little more was known about the cause of the disease and there was still no cure.  The outbreak started in London where the poor lived in overcrowded tenements and garrets.  There was no drainage or sewage system and the cobbles were slippery with animal dung and every sort of rubbish.  That summer the smell was unbearable and people carried nosegays of flowers and herbs to mask the stench.  The City Corporation employed rakers to gather the rubbish and take it away, but it was simply piled up outside the city walls where it continued to rot.

At the time, it was thought the plague was spread by bad air and large bonfires burned in the streets.  People were encouraged to keep the fires in their homes burning night and day.  However, the plague was spread by the fleas living on the millions of black rats that infested the city.  Rich people fled the cities and made for the country, leaving the poor to their fate.  If a person fell ill with the plague, the entire family was imprisoned in the house, condemning them all to death.  Red crosses, painted on the doors, identified infected households. Carts collected the bodies at night and took them to the plague pits, for the cemeteries were full.

The plague was infectious and unpleasant.  The victim’s skin turned black in patches and inflamed glands or ‘buboes’ appeared in the groin. Combined with severe vomiting and splitting headaches, it was a horrible and agonizing killer.  The nursery rhyme “Ring a Ring a Roses” originates from this time. The “ring of roses” relates to the red blotches on the skin, the posies people carried to mask the stench, and the last line because so many died.  The final word of the rhyme was “dead” but is no longer used.

Ring a ring a roses,

A pocket full of posies,

Atishoo, atishoo we all fall down (dead)

The Great Fire of London of 1666

The fire began in a baker’s house in Pudding Lane on Sunday, 2 September 1666.  It had been a long dry summer and the wooden, thatched houses were tinder dry. The fire was finally extinguished on Wednesday, 5 September by blowing up houses in its path.  Although there was little loss of life, it destroyed around a third of the city. The fire brought all activity to a halt, having consumed, or severely damaged thousands of houses, hundreds of streets, 90 churches and St Paul’s Cathedral. Fortunately, the fire also killed many of the black rats which carried the plague-ridden fleas.

It was originally thought the fire was started intentionally and, for many years, the Catholics were blamed.  A French watchmaker called Robert Hubert confessed to starting the fire and was hanged. It was later established he was at sea at the time and was mentally ill.

The Monument

The Monument stands in Monument Street off Fish Street Hill in the City of London.  It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London and celebrate the rebuilding of the city.  It is 202 feet high which is the exact distance from where it stands and the site in Pudding Lane where the fire began.  There are 311 steps to the top of the Monument which provides an excellent view of the city.


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