Thursday, May 23, 2013

Changing the Face of London - the Great Fire of 1666

by Regina Jeffers

The development of new standards and statutes after The Great Fire of 1666 changed London forever. The years following the fire saw the building of St Paul’s Cathedral, along with numerous other churches. Public buildings and domestic buildings introduced new standards of design, many still enforced today.

After the fire, Sir Matthew Hale drew up An Act for Rebuilding the City of London. Compiled jointly by City authorities and the Privy Council, this Act was a comprehensive statute. An earlier Act, the Fire of London Disputes Act 1666, had set up a court to settle disputes arising from buildings destroyed by fire. This Act regulated the rebuilding as well as authorizing the City of London Corporation to reopen and widen roads, making the anniversary of the fire a feast day and erecting the Monument. A duty of one shilling on a tonne of coal was imposed to pay for all these measures.

Technical advisers, comprised of the City’s surveyors (Robert Hooke, Edward Jerman, and Peter Mills) and the Principal Architect, Sir Christopher Wren, were charged with rebuilding of the City. According to W. G. Bell’s The Great Fire of London, Wren’s efforts were centered on St Paul and other churches. The initial plan to rebuild the City included:
1.    The need to raise funds to rebuild the public (NOT the private) buildings by levying a duty on coal
2.    The limited standardization of the buildings, chiefly when it came to fire resistance
3.    Forethought regarding the previous deficiencies in the City’s layout

The most obvious improvement to the streets was the development of King Street and the conversion of Queen Street from a narrow lane to a street, which would hold horse-drawn traffic. These two changes provided easy access from Guildhall to the Thames.  Guildhall is the only stone building not belonging to the Church to have survived the Great Fire. It is a building off Gresham and Basinghall streets, in the wards of Bassishaw and Cheap. It has been used as a town hall for several hundred years, and is still the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London.

The standardization of the building styles proved more beneficial. The Act was the first time such measures were taken. The City divided the four categories:

Neither more nor less than four storeys’ houses were permitted on ‘high and principal streets.’
Three storeys’ houses on ‘streets and lanes of note.’
Two storeys’ houses on ‘by-lanes.’
Houses of ‘the greatest bigness,’ which “did not front the street but which lay behind, with courtyards and gardens” were limited to four storeys.

Houses were to have walls of brick or stone, but the Act went as far as setting thickness of the walls at various heights, as well as the timber scantlings and the ceiling heights of the various floors. For the larger houses, a first floor balcony was required, with a ‘pent house’ below, which protected pedestrians from rainfall. The exteriors were left to the owners’ tastes. There were plenty vagaries of taste displayed.

Although the City struggled to finance its part of the rebuilding, private wealth prevailed. According to Bell, by the spring of 1668, 1600 houses were under development. In 1670, fourteen churches broke ground. By the time Ogilby and Morgan produced their large-scale map of London in 1677, the City was well on its way to new greatness. The original map is 8 feet 5 inches by 4 feet 7 inches in 20 sheets.

In 1894, the British Museum granted permission to the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society to make a reduced copy of the source. An excellent source for viewing the individual sheets of the map is British History Online. The map’s authors surveyed every corner of the City with each individual house noted. In addition, John Strype gives those interested in this time a compete catalog of every street, lane, alley, court, and yard in one square mile of the city. His observations are recorded in Strype’s 1720 edition of Stow’s Survey. To each noted structure, Strype includes personal comments describing the area in which the item sat, in such terms as “indifferent good” and “a pretty open place.”

Public buildings fell into two categories:

The various guildhalls were “regular City architecture.” These stood some distance from the street, with small courtyards and gardens. Master craftsmen built the majority of these establishments, and several survive, most notably Skinners’ Hall and Vintners’ Hall and Apothecaries’ Hall.

The Vintners’ Hall likely existed as early as the 12th Century and received a Royal Charter in 1363. The Vintners Hall is situated by Southwark Bridge, in Vintry ward. The Worshipful Company of Skinners is one of the Livery Companies in London. It was originally an association of those engaged in the trade of skins and furs. It has evolved into an educational and charitable instution, supporting the Tonbridge School and several others.

The Apothecaries’ Hall is based in Blackfriars. The building, originally part of the Dominican priory of Black Friars, was called Cobham House prior to its purchase by the society in 1632. The original building was destroyed in the Great Fire. A new hall was built on the same site in 1672 to the design of Edward Jerman; an “Elaboratory” was included at the time for the first ever large-scale manufacture of drugs.

Sir Christopher Wren’s “brilliance” is displayed when one looks upon its churches. While the house and buildings rose no more that forty feet, Wren’s fifty steeples dominated the skyline. With its spiritual history of the 17th Century firmly instilled, St Paul’s easily outshines the others.

Wren had earlier made a journey to Paris in 1665, where he studied the architecture of the city, as well as the drawings of Bernini, the great Italian sculptor and architect. He made his first designs for St Paul’s upon his return, but the Great Fire changed his plans. He submitted his plans for rebuilding the city to King Charles II, although the plans were never adopted.

With his appointment as King’s Surveyor of Works in 1669, Wren had a presence in the general process of rebuilding, but was not directly involved in the designs for houses and guildhalls. Although each did not represent Wren’s own fully developed design, he was personally responsible for the rebuilding of 51 churches.


Regina Jeffers loves all things Austen and is the author of several novels, including Darcy’s Temptation, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy and Second Chances: The Courtship Wars .

Her website is:

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