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1666: Houses demolished as London burns

A serious fire has taken hold in the City of London, just north of the River Thames.

The blaze is thought to have started at about 0200 in the Pudding Lane house of the King's baker, Thomas Farynor and is now spreading rapidly through the narrow streets and wooden buildings of the City.

Mr Farynor was woken by a workman who smelled smoke. His family fled, but a maid who worked in the house is believed to be one of the fire's first casualties.

City residents have resorted to pulling down buildings in an attempt to stop the flames, which are being fanned by a strong east wind.

The Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, was said to be initially unconcerned when woken with news of the fire during the night.

But within hours of the alarm being raised, the smoke could be seen as far away as Oxford and many Londoners began frantically loading possessions into boats on the Thames before fleeing the danger area.

By 0600 London Bridge was burning and it was only a small gap between two of the structure's buildings, acting as a firebreak, which prevented the fire spreading south of the river to Southwark.

King Charles II commanded Sir Thomas to pull down as many houses as was necessary to contain the flames after being warned of the fire's seriousness by Secretary of the Admiralty Samuel Pepys.

But Sir Thomas told Mr Pepys the situation was close to hopeless in a city tinder dry following months of drought.

"I have been pulling down houses - but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it," he said.

The flames have so far claimed 300 houses and are now threatening to engulf St Paul's Cathedral. This is a special report for Archive Awareness Month. Use the links in the right hand column to find out more.

In Context
The "Great Fire of London" burned for five days, destroying 80% of the City, from the Tower of London in the east to Fleet Street and Fetter Lane in the west.

The number of dead was officially only four, though it was likely to have been a lot higher. About 100,000 were made homeless.

The disaster was blamed variously on the French, the Dutch or a Popish plot - conspiracy theories being just as popular in the 17th century as they are now.

A French Protestant, Robert Hubert, did actually confess to starting the fire but a jury decided he was unlikely to be telling the truth. He was hanged anyway for the 1666 equivalent of wasting police time.

In January 1667 a Parliamentary committee charged with investigating the blaze found the cause to be nothing but the, "hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry."

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