The Grenfell Tower fiasco serves a tragic reminder of the Great Fire of London

On June 14, 2017 a tower block in London burned to the ground causing massive property damage and the deaths of 12 people. A fire in London of such a magnitude is highly rare as the city has extremely stringent fire security measures as well as an extremely dedicated force of firefighters. However, this was not always so. Nearly five centuries ago, another fire had consumed London. However, unlike the tower fire of 2017, this one changed the physical landscape of the city and is considered one of the worst conflagrations ever to hit Europe. The event is also considered to be one of the worst in London’s long past.

The great fire of London took place in 1666. One of the worst fires ever to be recorded in human history, the fire burned massive parts of the city. Before the fire was eventually quelled, it burned all of the offices of the city administration along with hundreds of shops as well as 87 parish churches. The fire also burned down one of London’s most iconic sites St Paul’s Cathedral (the building was rebuild after the fire by Christopher Wren). However, the worst hit by the fire were people’s personal dwellings. Nearly 70,000 homes of inhabitants were burned down by the fire leaving tens of thousands of people out on the streets of the city.

The Great Fire of London began on Sunday 2ndSeptember 1666 and continued on till Wednesday, burning the city for nearly four straight days. Accounts vary on how the fire got started. However, most historians agree that the fire began on Pudding Lane at the home of one Thomas Farriner (who happened to be the king’s baker at the time). The fire first consumed Thomas’s residence and soon after began consuming the neighbouring houses. As the fire spread neighbours arrived to try to quell it. To do that they began to demolish the houses nearest to the flames. This was keeping in mind a common firefighting method called firebreaks, in which a perimeter was established around the flames in order to deprive the fire of any additional fuel and to stop it from spreading further. However, in this instance, the owners of the houses protested to having their homes demolished and the Lord Mayor of London Sir Thomas Bloodworth was summoned. Unfortunately, Sir Thomas did not order the demolition of the houses (instead he famously remarked “Pish! A woman could piss it out”) on the grounds that most of the houses were rented and that their owners could not be found.

The delay turned the fire from a small blaze that could have been contained into a rapidly spreading inferno. As the fire burned houses, it moved west in the city quickly spreading wider and taking on the attributes of a firestorm. Seeing the ineffectiveness of Sir Thomas, messages were sent to Charles II (the king at the time). By the time news of the blaze reached the king it had burned down hundreds of houses as well as several churches. Hearing the news of the fire the king ordered that all houses standing in the way of the flames be pulled down. However, by that time such measures were too little too late and the fire continued to steadily spread across the city.

By Monday morning the fire was quickly spreading north and west. The fire’s advance in the north quickly brought it to the financial centre of London where many bankers’ shops were located. Many of these were burned with some bankers attempting to take their stacks of gold coins with them as they fled. Even London’s Royal Exchange was burned to the ground. As fire continued to engulf the city suspicion arose among its inhabitants that the fire was no simple accident and was instead a planned attack on the city by foreign elements.

As England was at the time engaged in the Second Dutch War, suspicions immediately fell upon the Frenchmen and the Dutch. Because of this, many innocent foreigners living in London at the time were lynched by angry mobs of people. By Monday, fire-fighting efforts began to get more coordinated and organised. The Lord Mayor of London had fled and had instead been replaced by the Duke of York whose first act was to build up gangs of fire-fighters and then to send them to build up perimeters around the fire.

These firebreaks eventually began to take effect by Wednesday, and by Thursday the fire was eventually over. However, before the fire was over it had done massive property damage and destroyed vast parts of London – although the reported number of causalities was low for a blaze of this magnitude (allegedly only 9 people died from smoke inhalation and burning). In the aftermath of the fire many parts of London were rebuilt in such a way that any future fire would be unable to cause devastation on such a massive scale.

Although the fire of London is history for the people of England, for us in Pakistan it can prove to be a word of caution. Many buildings in Pakistan flagrantly ignore building codes and few have fire extinguishers and emergency flame doors. The burning of factories in Karachi and of shopping malls in Lahore should warn us about the destruction of human life that fire can cause when buildings are constructed without proper supervision. Unless we mend our ways Pakistan could unfortunately, in the future, experience its own version of the great fire and that would be a tragedy for all.

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