The City of London – the area mainly inside the Roman walls – was the economic engine of the capital in the mid-17th century, just as it is today. So, it was all the more devastating when just after midnight on 2 September 1666, a spark from a bakery on Pudding Lane laid waste to the City and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Thanks to a balmy summer and easterly winds, the fire spread rapidly through the wooden buildings. The flames didn’t spare the shops selling luxury products on Cheapside, or the Royal Exchange, or the slums that ringed the city.
Over 13,000 houses went up in smoke and tens of thousands of Londoners, out of a population of half a million, were made homeless. But even as the flames engulfed street after street, many Londoners couldn’t resist the opportunity to turn a quick profit.
Boatmen charged punters extortionate prices to escape by river; the cost of hiring a cart soared to the equivalent of several thousands of pounds in today’s money; and anyone standing around was liable to be hired by the rich to serve as porters. Food also went up in price – the cost of a loaf of bread doubled.
A combination of blowing up buildings, pulling down buildings and early, if ineffective, fire engines was used to fight the flames. After four days, the wind dropped, leaving the authorities to survey the burnt-out shells.
The cost of the Great Fire was put at £10m – a colossal sum considering the annual income of London was only around £12,000. A special levy on coal imports helped pay for the repairs.
Fearing a rebellion by the dispossessed (London was still a hotbed of republicanism following the Civil War), King Charles II promised a relief effort.
In time, London rose up from the ashes to the designs set down by Sir Christopher Wren. It was a London of stone and brick. But the Great Fire also bestowed upon the City of London another blessing – or a curse depending on how you look it – for out of the carnage rose the beginnings of the modern insurance industry.