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4 September 2010

On this day in history: Great Fire of London destroyed St. Paul`s Cathedral, 1666

Tuesday 4th September 1666, was the day when the Great Fire of London wreaked the most devastation. Starting at just after midnight on the previous Sunday at Thomas Farriner's bakery in Pudding Lane, the fire raged for across the capital fanned by strong winds. The Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, delayed the decision to demolish surrounding houses to create fire-breaks, when he finally gave the order the bakery blaze had developed into a fire-storm.

Many thought that St. Paul's Cathedral offered the ideal refuge because of its heavy stone walls and position in an open plaza. As such it became a temporary warehouse for goods rescued from nearby businesses as the fire encroached, including the stock of printers and booksellers of the adjoining Paternoster Row. Unfortunately, the cathedral was covered in wooden scaffolding for the planned restoration work by Christopher Wren, which caught fire on the Tuesday evening. John Evelyn described the destruction of St. Paul's in his diary:

The burning still rages, [...] the stones of Paul's flew like grenados, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse, nor man, was able to tread on them, and the demolition had stopped all the passages, so that no help could be applied.

Mercifully, during the following day the wind dropped and the fire-breaks halted the spread of the fire. By modern estimation, the fire destroyed around 13,500 houses, 87 parish churches, 44 company halls, and other major buildings, including the Royal Exchange, the Bridewell Palace (then used as a prison), and St. Paul's. Rather than refurbish the old building, Christopher Wren was given the task of designing and building its replacement, which stands to this day.

The Internet Archive includes a copy of the 2nd Part of Evelyn's Diary and Correspondence, which includes his account of the fire.

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