The 1666 inferno destroyed most of the walled inner city dating back to Roman times — a bustling, congested maze of tightly-packed wooden houses. It forced London to rebuild anew from the ashes.
Now the city is looking back to when it lay in ruins — with a few shuddering sights to remind Londoners of the peril faced by their predecessors.
The London’s Burning programme of events commemorating the disaster culminates in Sunday’s torching of a 120-metre (394-foot) long wooden replica of old London — moored in the River Thames to prevent the fire from spreading again.
“It will look spectacular,” said Helen Marriage, director of creative events company Artichoke, which is staging the London’s Burning programme.
The recreation was built by US ‘burn artist’ David Best and can be watched worldwide on a livestream from 8:25pm (1925 GMT) on Sunday.
City in ashes
The Great Fire of London broke out in Thomas Farrinor’s bakery on Pudding Lane shortly after midnight on September 2, 1666 and gradually spread through the city.
The fire was finally extinguished on September 5, with around 80 percent of the walled city in ruins. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches and Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Only six deaths were officially attributed to the fire, though an estimated 70,000 of the 80,000 residents were forced to flee, most to squalid camps outside the city walls. Various scapegoats were blamed, chiefly Catholics and foreigners.
Robert Hubert, a French watchmaker, confessed to starting the blaze and was swiftly hanged — though he was actually at sea when the fire broke out.
The London of today, with its characteristic English Baroque architecture in grey Portland stone, was built from the ashes of the wooden city, though the old street layout was retained to respect property rights.
The Monument column commemorates the fire near where it started but Pudding Lane itself is now an unremarkable concrete-lined back road.
The new St Paul’s Cathedral, still the centrepiece of the city, was completed 44 years after the Great Fire.
Nick Bodger, head of cultural and visitor development for the City of London, said the capital’s resilience — witnessed again during the 1940s Blitz — helped it rebuild and survive.
“350 years ago, when embers from a baker’s oven sparked one of the most catastrophic events the capital has ever witnessed, London’s economic prowess almost came to a fiery end,” he told reporters.
“A renewed sense of purpose saw the great city we enjoy today rise from those ashes, develop and thrive.”
The Museum of London’s “Fire! Fire!” exhibition contains scorched possessions only just saved from the fire, leather buckets used to fight it and letters telling of the inferno written by people who fled.
It also has burnt items excavated from a Pudding Lane shop, including charred bricks, melted tile fragments and scorched wooden barrels, still black from the blaze.
“It was hugely devastating. It’s the heart of London where most of the major cultural and commercial buildings were,” curator Meriel Jeater told AFP. “People lost their homes, belongings and businesses.”
During London’s Burning festival flames will be projected onto the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and 23,000 breeze blocks arranged as a domino run will be felled to show how the fire spread through the city.
In London’s Inner Temple hall, the scale of events is being visually represented by piles of rice — one grain for each person.
Visitors can compare the numbers of those living in London now and then, and those evacuated from the city with the global number of refugees today.