The First Great Fire of London: What is the take-home message?

The First Great Fire of London: What is the take-home message?

There are so many unfortunate and unnecessary victims of fires, so why is this? Fires, we can and should personally learn from, and ensure that we take all necessary precautions in our own lives. Precautions such as having an evacuation route planned, working smoke alarms in place, and having an emergency fire mask are all great ways to help save lives. The greatest fire in London is a perfect example of not learning from such a tragic event.  

At some point on a summer afternoon on 10th July 1212, the devastating incident began. As the horrible events unfolded it is recorded that 3000 unfortunate people lost their lives over the course of a few days That’s over seven percent of the population of London at the time. Historic accounts detail the loss of lives through the ravaging flames from the fire itself, smoke and inhalation of toxic gases, and crushing through crowds of people panicking in their flight to survival. For those that looked to escape the fire through the river Thames, drowning in the muddied waters was inevitable. 

The area of Southwark, or South Warke as it was then known, and the London Bridge at the time would have been unrecognisable in today’s London landscape. Houses and shops lined the River Thames. King John had given the go-ahead for them also to be built along London Bridge itself. Up to sixty-seven buildings were crammed in and towering above the narrow crossing over the busy river Thames. Many of the businesses were undoubtedly hoping to thrive off the passing footfall. They were totally unaware of the tragic future which was laid out in front of them.

Fire needs three elements to burn – fuel, heat and oxygen. This is discussed fully in a recent article.  For the fire in Southwark, the source of ignition is unknown as no record has been found of what actually started the fire. Most of the buildings at the time, though, were crowded together and built of wood and other highly combustible material including thatched roofs. A perfect food source for a hungry fire. The oxygen was in the air around them and was heavily increased by the prevailing southerly wind. Once it grabbed hold, the flames engulfed Borough High Street and the church of St Mary. The wind continued to push the wildfire toward the bridge where the true devastation occurred. 

On the bridge, the crowded street was packed with people. There were people trying to escape the flames and those running toward them in a possible attempt to help. The resulting pile-up of people encouraged people to jump into the river Thames below.  The rescue attempts by boats were made impossible due to the sheer number of people trying to get on them. Historic records show that many of these boats were sunk, taking the crew down with them. The hot cinders were blown across to the north side of the river where further destruction occurred. The fire then continued to spread to the City of London. The bridge itself had been made in stone some years before so the structure stayed upright after the tragic event but remained heavily damaged. 

At the time, there were no organised fire services like there are today. They used small leather buckets filled with water which didn’t do much to quell the flames.  Thatched roofs were banned later that year but in the lead up to the well-known Great Fire of London 1666, several centuries later, they were still using hand-held pumps and buckets to put out fires. It was only after this second great fire that they began structuring an organised force to fight fires.

So what is the take-home message?

After this terrible event of 1212, not a great deal appears to have been learnt or changed as a result. There was no radical transformation of fire services, the fires were handled in the same way by people of London centuries after during the 1666 fire – the fire that we were taught about in primary school, which devastated the city of London once more.

The message is that although we do not control fire services or the actions of the government, we need to personally learn from fire disasters such as this and other catastrophic events such as the Grenfell Tower from modern times.

Fire kills. We need to update our knowledge on how to prevent a fire and what to do if a fire does happen. We should also be prepared with the best fire face masks to prevent inhalation of toxic gases and other fire safety equipment and the knowledge of how best to use them.