London's burning

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Paul Noble gives a flavour of what the Great Fire of London meant to the city and its inhabitants.

The Great Fire of 1666 was the most serious disaster London has ever seen, even more damaging than the Blitz of the Second World War. The fire was fanned by warm winds that sent sparks flying from one rooftop to the next. Lack of rain had caused the buildings to be as dry as tinder-boxes. The blaze totally flattened an area of 436 acres, destroying more than 13,000 houses, a cathedral, 87 churches, prisons, company halls, and the Guildhall, as well as the entire contents of all these buildings. Three city gates and four bridges were also destroyed. The damage was colossal.

* 'The fire... continu'd all night (if I may call that night which was light as day for 10 miles round, after a dreadful manner)' From the diary of John Evelyn. September 3, 1666.


* Look at the half-timbered house on page 33. How is it different from the houses of today? What is it made of?

* Draw a picture of the Great Fire and label it.

* How do we know about the Great Fire of London? Look for examples of different types of evidence used in the project (for example, diary entries, maps and pictures) * Using a computer, prepare a front page for The London Gazette, giving news of the fire.

* Place the Great Fire on a timeline. Can you include some other important events in the history of London?

* Investigate the lives of famous people who lived at the time of the fire (for example, Sir Christopher Wren, Samuel Pepys, Charles II).

* 'As it began in the dead of the night when everybody was asleep, the darkness greatly increased the horror ... Fire! Fire! Fire! doth resound in every street...' From The London, Evening Gazette September 10, 1666.


Three hundred and fifty years ago, London was one of the richest cities in the world, with royal palaces, merchants' halls, the Tower of London, a great cathedral, and more than 100 churches. Yet it could be a very dangerous place to live.

London was overcrowded, the narrow streets and lanes tightly packed with wooden-framed houses. The people of the city feared fire more than anything else.


"London's burning, London's burning, Fetch the engine, fetch the engine, Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Pour on water, pour on water."

Thomas Farrinor lived above his baker's shop in Pudding Lane. On Saturday, September 1, 1666, he was sure he'd put out the fires under his ovens. But in the middle of the night he was woken by thick smoke. The fire started in this shop. For almost a week the flames raged through the timber-framed houses. On Tuesday, September 4, St Paul's Cathedral burnt to the round.

Most of the city's fire-fighting equipment was in a poor state of repair and water was difficult to obtain. Houses had to be blown up or pulled down to stop the fire from spreading. The flames did not subside until Friday, September 7.

The fire left tragedy and disaster in its wake. In the fields around London, 200,000 homeless people were camping out in makeshift tents and shelters. King Charles II commanded that bread be delivered daily to temporary markets set up to feed the population. A national fast day was declared on October 10, 1666, and donations were collected to help the homeless.


* Talk about why the fire spread and how building materials changed after the fire. If your town or village were burnt down, what rules would you make about how it should be rebuilt?

* Do you know what to do if you discover a fire at school? At home? By what route would you escape? Make a plan showing where all the fire-fighting equipment is kept in your school. Where are the fire alarms?

* Look for pictures showing the Great Fire of London and pictures of London during the Blitz. Compare them.

* Pretend you are a witness to the Great Fire of London. Write a diary telling about what you saw.


'The design of the city does go on will be mighty handsome and to the satisfaction of the people' Samuel PepysNovember 25, 1666.

Many beautiful buildings were lost in the fire, but a new city rose up in their place.

Fifty-one new churches were built across the city, and St Paul's Cathedral, as we know it today, was redesigned by Sir Christopher Wren. Scores of streets were widened, and 8,000 new houses replaced those that had been destroyed. The new buildings were made of stone.

The intention was that such a widespread fire would not happen again. It was almost 300 years before the bombs of the Second World War once again brought large-scale destruction by fire to the streets of London.


* What is a monument? Look at a monument in your own area. Find out about the people or event which it commemorates.

* Design a modern memorial to commemorate the events of 1666. Instead of a stone column, what might we build today?

* Tell the story of the Great Fire of London in pictures. Write a caption for each picture.

* Use music and sound-effects to dramatise the story of the Great Fire. Choose your instruments carefully. You might perform the piece using music and pictures only.

* Record a tape or make a guidebook for foreign tourists visiting the Monument. Tell them the important facts but do it in a way that holds their attention - they may only have a short time to stop!

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today