London was a busy city in 1666. It was very crowded. The streets were narrow and dusty. The houses were made of wood and very close together. Inside their homes, people used candles for light and cooked on open fires. A fire could easily get out of control. In those days there were no fire engines or firemen to stop a fire from spreading.
The fire began on early Sunday morning on the 2nd of September. It started in Pudding Lane in the shop of the king’s baker, Thomas Farrinor. When Thomas went to bed, he did not put out the fire that heated his oven. Sparks from the oven fell onto some dry flour sacks and they caught fire. The flames spread through the house, down Pudding Lane and into the nearby streets.
Soon London was filled with smoke. The sky was red with huge flames from the fire. By Monday, 300 houses had burned down.
Everybody was in a panic. People loaded their things onto carts and tried to leave town. Others tried to get away on boats on the river. Some people buried their things in the garden, hoping to save them from the fire.
The fire still spread, helped by a strong wind from the east. London Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral were both burnt. On Tuesday, King Charles II ordered that houses and shops be pulled down to stop the fire from spreading. By Wednesday, they had the fire under control. But by then, 100,000 people were homeless.
Thomas Farrinor and his wife got out of their bakery in time, but their maid was too frightened to jump from the roof. She was the first to die. Surprisingly, only nine people died as a result of the fire.
Two people have left us eyewitness accounts of the fire. The first is Samuel Pepys, who worked for the Navy. He kept a diary from 1660-1669. The second is John Evelyn, who also kept a diary. Both men describe how dramatic and scary the fire was.
Not everyone at the time thought that the fire was an accident. Some said foreigners caused it. Others felt that the fire was started by those not free to follow their own religion. Some even saw the fire as a punishment from God.
A ten-year-old boy called Edward Taylor and his family were questioned for throwing fireballs at an open window in Pudding Lane and in the streets. Fireballs were made from animal fat (called tallow), set alight and used to start fires. However, the fire was most likely caused by chance rather than by a deliberate act.
Charles II ordered that 10 October 1666 be a day of fasting on account of the fire. He told the Lord Mayor of London to support collections for victims of the fire. Later, close to Pudding Lane, a monument was built so that people would not forget the fire. It was the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed many new buildings, including St Pauls Cathedral, when the city was rebuilt after the fire.
This lesson can be used with pupils at key stage 1 for the history national curriculum in year 2. It looks at the story of the fire of London through evidence relating to some of the key characters – Thomas Farrinor and Charles II. Background notes also provide contemporary views on the causes of the fire, based on original documents at the National Archives.
The questions progress in difficulty, so that questions based on source 5 are a little harder than questions based on source 1.
Source 1 provides evidence about Farrinor, the king’s baker, in Pudding Lane. E 170/252
Source 2 shows the instruction given by Charles II to survey the city after the fire. SP 44/23
Source 3-4 reveals how much of the city was destroyed. ZMAP 4/18
Source 5 provides evidence of how Charles hoped to improve the city and prevent such a calamity happening again. SP 29/171
The lesson could be expanded to ask pupils to attempt a piece of writing on the fire such as a diary entry.
Pupils could read extracts (or simplified versions) from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.
The class could make a class mural of the Great Fire of London or pupils could do an individual drawing.
The class could discuss how we deal with fires today.
The great fire of 1666
The diary of Samuel Pepys
A site with extracts from the diary of Samuel Pepys
Pudding Lane flythough
Fly through 17th century London prior to the Great Fire.