A massive rebuilding programme took place after London’s Great Fire in 1666 and took about fifty years to complete.

Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711
Christopher Wren by Godfrey Kneller 1711

The Great Fire destroyed three-quarters of the medieval city within one week, creating a damage bill estimated at nearly £10 million.

The ground was too hot to walk on until the rains began on 11 September. The winter rains finally extinguished embers still smouldering and the pervasive black dust finally settled, although Samuel Pepys noticed some ruins were still smoking as late as February 1667.

The Exchequer moved to Nonsuch, near Greenwich, whilst other government departments soon found temporary offices. Shopkeepers in the Royal Exchange were rehoused in Gresham College and reopened for trade in December.

About 200,000 Londoners escaped to the open fields of Islington and Highgate. Most found permanent shelter within four days whilst many camped out in Moorfields or other open spaces with their few meagre possessions.

Others stayed with friends and relatives in the suburbs whilst some travelled further afield to other cities, or immigrated to the colonies in America, the Caribbean or St Helena.

Some returned to what remained of their homes and built little brick and timber sheds among the ruins.

A Beautiful New City

Christopher Wren immediately worked at rapid speed on his draft plans for rebuilding London—determined to bring his ideas before the King as soon as possible.

John Evelyn's plans for rebuilding London - John Evelyn
John Evelyn’s plans for rebuilding London

John Evelyn also produced a similar elegant city plan within days. He was a gifted amateur with a cosmopolitan knowledge of European urban planning whilst Wren added more flair and a deeply thought-out sense of how a modern city should function.

Evelyn also suggested removing tradesmen’s premises which smelled, including butchers, chandlers and fishmongers!

Wren emerged the front runner in the race to design a new city. Charles II was so enthusiastic when he produced Wren’s proposal at a Privy Council meeting.

John Evelyn (1620–1706) in 1651
John Evelyn (1620–1706) in 1651

Six Commissioners for Rebuilding were appointed in October 1666—Wren, Roger Pratt (architect), Hugh May (royal official with architectural experience), Robert Hooke (Gresham College’s Professor of Geometry and Royal Society member), Peter Mills (city surveyor) and Edward Jerman (city man). They faced the most challenging and exciting opportunity in urban design history.

The Rebuilding Act—passed in February 1667— imposed strict rules for building in brick and stone, compulsory down-pipes and gutters, and banned overhanging storeys. Many streets were widened, whilst the 13 September Proclamation forbade the creation of alleys and lanes unless they were absolutely necessary.

The late 1660s promised to be a golden age for the building trades. Tradesmen were encouraged to come to London whilst the closed-shop rules were relaxed, with the promise of high wages. Charles II promised a beautiful new city as soon as possible with no dodgy workmanship.

The authorities were keen to ensure prices and wages didn’t spiral out of control. Written tenders were invited from anyone willing to supply timber, brick, lime, stone, glass, tiles, slates and other building materials.

Rebuilding progressed at a remarkable rate. Public buildings were given priority. The Old Bailey Sessions House was the first to be rebuilt. The Exchange was in use by September 1669 and finished two years later. Newgate Prison was completed by 1671.

St Paul’s Cathedral

Charles II in the robes of the Order of the Garter by Sir Peter Lely
Charles II by Sir Peter Lely

Wren designed and rebuilt 51 of the churches destroyed by fire. Many were never rebuilt, but parts were reused as rubble in foundations and walls, including the crypt in St Paul’s.

Charles II liked Wren’s original plan for rebuilding the cathedral so Excavations began as over 46,000 loads of rubble were carted away.

However, others, especially the clergy, didn’t share the King’s enthusiasm. The Dean of St Paul’s, William Sancroft (later Archbishop of Canterbury), and the Chapter preferred a more conventional cathedral plan which could be built in easy stages, as taxes on coal were increased to raise funds.

So Wren returned to the drawing board and created at least three different designs. They were rejected as “too Catholic” or “too foreign”. His final design combined the traditional with classical detail and the foundation stone was laid on 25 June 1675.

Wren's final design for St Paul's Cathedral. - Christopher Wren
Wren’s final design for St Paul’s Cathedral

Such a masterpiece with the existing technology of the time took thirty-six years to complete. Wren regretfully removed the ruins of Indigo Jones’s west portico in 1688. The choir was finished for a celebratory service in 1697, the dome completed in 1708 and the cathedral was declared finished in 1711.

Wren was knighted for his services in 1673.

The Monument

The Monument, designed by Wren and Hooke, was built as a memorial to the Fire and stands 202 feet (61 metres) high. It was completed in 1677, recording the City’s destruction and rebuilding, and the inclusion that the Fire was a popish plot. (These details were removed during James II’s brief reign, but they were replaced during William III and Mary II’s reign. The offending words were finally removed after the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed in 1830.)

The Monument to the Great Fire of London designed by Sir Christopher Wren
The Monument to the Great Fire of London designed by Sir Christopher Wren

Sources

Fisher, Carol, Rebuilding After the Great Fire of London, All Info About London, 2002

Hanson, Neil, The Dreadful Judgement: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, Doubleday [Transworld Publishers], London, 2001

Picard, Liza, Restoration London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997

Schama, Simon, A History of Britain: The British Wars 1603-1776, Volume 2, BBC Worldwide Ltd, London, 2001

Schofield, John, London After the Great Fire, British History In-Depth, BBC

Tinniswood, Adrian, By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London, Pimlico (Random House), London, 2003

© 2010 Carolyn M Cash

This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 15 May 2010.

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