The Great Fire of London - What Happened? A Guide for Kids
Updated: Aug 21
September 2021 marks 335 years since the Great Fire destroyed four-fifths of London in 1666. But what actually happened in the days that the fire raged through London? How did the fire start, how big did it get and how long did it take to put it all out?
Before the Fire Started:
Before we tell you about the Fire of London, there are a couple of important things you need to know about London in 1666:
The summer of 1666 had been very hot and London had not had much rain for the last 10 months. This meant that everything in the city was very dry and could easily catch fire. It was also very windy in London in September 1666.
The houses and buildings in London were built very closely together. This meant that fire could spread from house to house very quickly.
Not many buildings in London were built from stone and bricks like ours are today. Most of them were made from wood, plaster, or even straw and could be set on fire very easily.
People used fires in their homes to cook food and keep warm. People often stored things that burned easily, such as straw, wood, oil, and tar, in their homes. This could be very dangerous and fires would break out on a regular basis.
The Fire Brigade hadn’t been invented yet! There was no Fire Service and no Fire Engines. If there was a fire, it was the job of the people who lived nearby to put it out. They would use leather buckets to carry water and a “Fire Squirt” (a bit like a giant water pistol) to squirt water on the fire.
So what happened during the Great Fire of London?:
Sunday 2nd September 1666:
Thomas Farriner and his daughter Hanna were woken up by thick, black smoke in their house on Pudding Lane. Thomas was a baker and a fire had started in his bakery downstairs. A spark from one of Thomas’ ovens accidentally started the fire. Thomas and his daughter had to clamber out through an upstairs window and climb onto the roof of their neighbour’s house to escape.
People living in the area of Pudding Lane were trying their best to put out the fires. But the strong winds were blowing the flames from house to house faster than people could put out the fire.
The Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bloodworth was woken up and told about the fire. But he didn’t think it was important and went back to bed.
By morning 300 houses had already burned down. We know this because a man called Samuel Pepys kept a diary during this time and wrote down everything that happened during the Great Fire of London.
Many people thought that they should pull down the houses in the path of the fire to stop it from spreading. This is called a “Firebreak”. But the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bloodworth, told the people not to make any firebreaks. He didn’t want to spend money building new houses after the fire was over.
The fire kept spreading further and further into the city. People were starting to panic. They were packing up their belongings and leaving London. Cart owners charged people lots of money to use their carts to move their belongings.
Samuel Pepys went to visit King Charles II. He complained to the King that not enough was being done to stop the fire. People in London were more worried about fleeing the city than helping to put out the fire. King Charles II stepped in and ordered the Lord Mayor, Thomas Bloodworth, to create firebreaks.
To create the firebreaks, people used fire hooks (a long pole with a hook on the end) to pull down the buildings closest to the fire. But the fire was spreading too quickly and was overtaking the houses faster than people could pull them down.
Monday 3rd September 1666:
King Charles II put his brother, James, the Duke of York in charge of organising people to fight the fire. He set up 8 areas around the fire where he could command the fire-fighting from. He called these areas Fire Posts.
The streets were in chaos as people tried to flee the city. Carts and people blocked up the roads. Soon the King told people they weren’t allowed to use carts anymore.
The fire was so big that the flames could be seen from Oxford (this is around 100 kilometres away from London!).
Many people had lost their homes and had to camp in tents on fields outside of London.
The fire had spread so much that it was getting very close to the Tower of London. There were lots of barrels of gunpowder stored underneath the Tower of London. People worried that if the fire made it to the Tower that it would set off an enormous explosion.
Tuesday 4th September 1666:
Tuesday was the day that the fire was at its worst. James, the Duke of York, had hoped that the River Fleet and London’s widest road, called Cheapside, would both work like firebreaks and stop the fire from spreading. But this didn’t happen. The strong wind blew the flames right over the river and the road.
The fire was so big that even the King decided to join the force to try and fight it. He helped by passing buckets of water to throw on the fire.
St Paul’s Cathedral was made of stone so many people put their belongings in there thinking they would be safe. But the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral was made from lead and soon caught fire. The lead in the roof melted and set fire to all of the belongings stored in the Cathedral. Soon the whole Cathedral was on fire and the melted lead washed down the streets.
James, the Duke of York, started to use gunpowder to create firebreaks. He used it to blow up the buildings in the path of the fire. Gunpowder was quicker to use than fire hooks so they could create the firebreaks long before the fire got to them.
By late evening the wind started to change. Finally, the fire stopped spreading so fiercely because sparks and cinders from the flames couldn’t blow across the firebreaks to start new fires.
Wednesday 5th September 1666:
By Wednesday the firebreaks had started to work better and the fires began to go out across the city. By late afternoon some buildings were still on fire but most were down to just smouldering embers.
A few more fires broke out from the smouldering embers of the buildings. But these fires were easily put out.
Thursday 6th September 1666:
By early morning on the 6th of September, the last few fires are finally put out.
John Evelyn, another man who kept a diary during this time, walked through the city to St Paul’s Cathedral and claimed that the ground was still so hot that it burned the soles of his shoes.
When the fire was over, it was clear to see how much damage had happened. 13,200 houses were burned down in 400 streets. 87 churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, were destroyed. Up to 80,000 people were left homeless. Records show that only 6 people actually died in the disaster but historians are not sure how accurate this number is.
If you are a primary school teacher then you'll definitely want Imagining History to bring their 'Great Fire of London' KS1 interactive workshop to your school.
Our Award-Winning sessions combine role-play, storytelling, demonstrations and drama and performance to bring history to life for your students.
Travel back in time to London in 1666 to learn more about the Great Fire in this exciting and educational session for Keystage 1. Topics include:
How & where did the fire start
Fighting fires in 1666
How the people of London reacted
Creating better firebreaks - using dynamite