The Great Fire of London: What vision rose from its ashes?

London's burning

When the Great Fire of London broke out in 1666, it was so large the smoke could be seen in Oxford. It raged for four days, destroying 80 per cent of the city. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that “with one's face in the wind, you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops.”

But as London’s medieval heart lay smouldering, some saw a golden opportunity to break with the past and create a modern, magnificent city. They began making plans for a revolutionary new London.

The fire in figures

The great fire started in Pudding Lane on 2 September and spread rapidly westwards towards Fleet Street. It almost reached the Tower of London in the east.

A new vision for the city

The fire broke out during a time of great upheaval in Britain, with old certainties shaken by the English Civil War.

A new intellectual elite was emerging, made up of men keen to share ideas and scientific discoveries. They believed London’s medieval structure with timber fronted buildings, network of alleyways and open sewers no longer reflected the ideals of the age. The fire provided a rare chance to create a modern capital.

Steeped in mathematical knowledge and the writings of the ancients, like Roman architect Vitruvius, they imagined a spacious, well planned city to rival the splendour of ancient Rome.

Men of science

With the embers still burning, London's intellectuals finalised their plans for the city. The most famous of these came from Royal Society members John Evelyn, Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke.

Hooke designed a regimented grid-iron plan, inspired by the cities of the ancient world, while Evelyn and Wren imagined a city of piazzas, with St Paul’s Cathedral and the Royal Exchange at its heart.

A meeting of the Royal Society in Crane Court circa 1660
A meeting of the Royal Society in Crane Court c1660. Image courtesy of Mary Evans.

WATCH: London's lost city

Sadly for the men who dreamt of progress, Wren's brave new city was rejected. Citizens didn't want to surrender their plots of land to his vision and refugees from the fire, camping out at Moorfields, were facing starvation. The King decided to restore London along its original medieval plan but gave his architects the opportunity to embark on some innovative architectural ventures.

The plan favoured by the King belonged to Christopher Wren.

Watch the clip below to see what it would have looked like.

CLICKABLE: Can you see Wren's vision today?

The map below shows the area of London affected by the great fire.

Click or tap on the hand to discover how the city changed and which iconic buildings arose from the ashes.

Learn more about this topic:

Guy Fawkes: Why do bonfires still burn 400 years on?
document
How did slave-owners shape Britain?
document
Why should I care about 1066?
document