London’s burning, London’s burning

London has seen many momentous events in its chequered history, but perhaps none more so that the Great Fire that began at a baker’s on Pudding Lane on September 2nd, 1666. It spread rapidly and consumed most of the City of London (the central parts of London). In its four days it burned an estimated seven out of every eight homes in London’s central district, together with 87 parish churches and St Paul’s Cathedral.

London’s wooden homes and thatched roofs were tinder to the flames, and the riverside stores of pitch, tar, sugar, alcohol and turpentine fed their hunger. The battle to contain it was helped when the strong winds abated, and the fire-breaks created by the Tower of London garrison’s use of gunpowder stopped it spreading further East.

Recorded casualties were light, with some accounts recording 6 deaths, others 8, though many more poor people may have been burned or suffocated, with their deaths unrecorded. This is insignificant compared to the 100,000 deaths suffered a year earlier in the Great Plague of 1665, perhaps up to a fifth or even a quarter of London’s population. Some historians suggest that the fire extinguished the Bubonic Plague by destroying the unsanitary housing and killing most of the rats and fleas that spread it.

Scapegoats were needed, and when Robert Hubert, a simple-minded French watch-maker confessed to staring the fire on the instructions of the Pope, he was convicted and hanged, despite concerns that he lacked the mental competence to plead. It later emerged that he had been at sea when the fire started and hadn’t reached London until two days afterwards.

London changed in the aftermath, with new houses built upon wider, less crowded streets that gave more access. Christopher Wren built 50 new churches to replace those lost, including, most famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. Close to Pudding Lane, where the fire started, a 200-foot Doric column was erected, now called simply, “The Monument,” which gives its name to the nearby tube station.

Fires and other calamities bring death and destruction, but they bring in their wake the opportunities to rebuild and renew. The Nazi blitz destroyed much of the slum housing of Britain’s city centres, but cleared the space to replace it with something better. Coventry Cathedral was destroyed, but the new one designed by Sir Basil Spence stands resplendently in its place. Much of Notre Dame was destroyed earlier this year, but the determination is there to build it anew.

Humans learn from their misfortunes, and after the setbacks and the suffering they construct new and more durable systems to replace what was lost. We do this after physical calamities such as the Great Fire, we do it after disastrous epidemics and natural disasters, and we do it after social and economic collapses such as the Great Depression. We are resilient, and we rise up from misfortunes. We learn, we replace and we improve.