London is a city with a tremendous history. Attempts to learn from it might yield too many lessons for the unwary.
The Great Fire of 1666 was the biggest blaze London had ever seen. It started, famously, from a baker’s oven in a shop on Pudding Lane. Around midnight, some tinder placed near the oven caught on fire, and consumed the shop.
The fire ate everything in its path – taking the shop, street, waterfront and after four days, had destroyed all four-fifths of London. In a city with a memory as long as that of London, the fire ought to have served as a warning for urban planners.
But its official death toll painted a meek picture. According to official reports at the time, only six people had died, though 70,000 people lost their homes. For some, this was seen as a miracle, prompting the poet John Dryden to compose “Annus Mirabilis – The Year of Wonders, 1666.”
Later analysis contest this – it’s likelier that hundreds died. The absence of forensics and a propensity to count only the rich who died could mean that the official figure is grossly understated.
There are many lessons to be taken from the fire. The first is that the poor are especially vulnerable to disaster. Over 100,000 were left homeless in the wake of the fire.
The state raised over £50,000 from taxing coal. This amount was largely used to rebuild the city. But its allocation was disproportionate to the need. Only £12,000 was put into a fund from which destitute Londoners could apply. A woman who applied for £800 received only a tenner. Meanwhile, £60,000 was spent rebuilding the London Exchange.
While many parts of the city were redesigned, with ‘noxious trades’ moved to the outskirts and streets widened, a large focus was given to rebuilding the 80 churches destroyed in the blaze. Architect Christopher Wren redesigned the City of London around a magnificent new cathedral – St. Paul’s. Today, it’s one of the most iconic landmarks in London.
Among those questioned was a ten-year-old, accused of throwing ‘fireballs’ made from animal fat at the baker’s window. But the person upon whom the axe would fall was Robert Hubert, a mentally-challenged watchmaker from France. He was captured in Essex and confessed to helping start a fire at Westminster.
The problem was that the fire never reached Westminster. On further interrogation, Robert changed his story. He is likely to have been coerced into confession, or perhaps had a tendency to say yes to his interrogators. Charles II ruled him guilty, and he was hanged on October 27. It later transpired that he was still on the ship “Maid of Stockholm” when the fire broke out.
It didn’t matter, however. Robert’s confession implicated the Catholic Church, which fed into the rising belief that it was a Catholic terror attack on a Protestant nation. In the aftermath, foreigners were subject to vicious revenge attacks – including one where a French woman’s breasts were cut off.
Even today, a 200 foot monument to the fire on Pudding Lane includes a condemnation of the “Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors.” The search for a scapegoat follows every tragedy. But in the rush for blood, it’s important not to draw hasty conclusions.
There were no firefighters in those days, only watchmen. The night was associated with criminality, and over a thousand of these watchmen patrolled the street in the late hours. They served as the first responders to the fire.
London had learned one lesson from previous fires – no thatched roofs. Over 3,000 people died in the fire of 1212, and a law was passed mandating tiled roofs thereafter. However, many buildings continued to be made out of wood, and kept in tight clusters.
After 1666, Charles II ruled that all walls had to be made out of stone or brick. But it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that bigger buildings began to use non-combustible materials. But the concept of ‘fireproof’ was itself lacking – as the interiors of buildings were filled with combustible materials.
After the fire, the city was divided into four sections for firefighting efforts. Each had to have 800 buckets of water on standby, and every fireplace had to inspected twice a year.
The real outcome of the fire was the birth of insurance. The London Fire Office was formed in 1680, providing property insurance. This led to London becoming an insurance capital of the world – a position it holds even today.
Modern day fire-suppression techniques and emergency response times are far superior to those employed in the seventeenth century. But fires continue to kill, especially when they occur at odd hours.
The recent fire at Grenwell Towers gave many Londoners the spectre of a burning building in their midst, with six people reported dead as of writing. Reports now emerge that numerous fire safety concerns had been raised for years without officials paying heed.
As times change, methods of firefighting change with it. There are six classes of fire under European specifications, and each requires a different approach to fighting. But psychological changes have also made disaster-response an individual affair – it was found that 91.4 percent of 9/11 survivors from the World Trade Centre delayed evacuating from the building in order to perform small tasks, like switching off a computer or using the restroom.
Being constantly plugged-in and witness to tragedy encourages many to pull out their mobile phones and film. We need to be more aware of our surroundings and the inherent danger of living in an electrified, and still flammable, world.
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