With an ever-growing population and little in the way of sewers, London was an unsanitary place. Offal was left to rot outside butchers’ premises and open drains carried human waste through the streets. In the winter months the city was wrapped in a thick fog as a result of coal fires being burnt in every house for heating and cooking. Little attention was paid to a few fatalities around the Covent Garden area in April 1665, the victims experiencing a high fever and delirium, swellings on the body and haemorrhages under the skin. In May there were seventeen such deaths reported in London and its suburbs but in June this had risen to over two hundred each week and the authorities began to take emergency action. By September over seven thousand died within a single week, the epidemic finally petering out by February of 1666. For months the city became a quiet and eerie place, with markets closed and people forced to stay within their homes as much as possible. Workshops were closed because coal boats no longer arrived at the quays with the necessary fuel.
According to the contemporary Bills of Mortality sixty eight and a half thousand people died of the Great Plague of 1665 although the actual number was probably between eighty and one hundred thousand, almost a quarter of the city’s population. In the new year of 1666 such deaths were in decline and the last reported case was at Rotherhithe in 1679. It was the last major plague of its kind to reach London.
The following year, in the very early hours of Saturday 2nd September 1666, a fire began at the premises of a baker in Pudding Lane in the City. Sparks blowing in the strong wind that night spread the blaze along neighbouring wooden properties, made dry by the hot summer. The Mayor was summoned but he decided it was not serious enough to create a fire-break by demolishing adjoining houses. “Pish! A woman might piss it out” he famously exclaimed. The fire continued through the night and by eight o’clock in the morning three hundred houses had been destroyed. Hour by hour it spread to warehouses along the river filled with inflammable materials and even London Bridge began to burn. The conflagration continued to spread throughout the following day, devouring ever more of the City. Home-owners and business people frantically moved whatever possessions they could carry by hand or cart.
When King Charles and his brother, the Duke of York, heard of the disaster they sent a message offering the assistance of guards from their barracks at Whitehall Palace but the Mayor still felt it was not serious enough for troops to enter the City. Having seen the disaster with his own eyes from the safety of the royal barge Charles decided he must over-rule him and ordered the Coldstream Guards to give assistance in the fire-fighting.
Efforts were nevertheless haphazard and ineffective and the fire went on to spread throughout Sunday, carried onwards by the continuing strong wind. It reached Cheapside on Monday afternoon and the Royal Exchange that evening. On Tuesday evening the conflagration reached the mighty St.Paul’s Cathedral, which burned through the night. By then the Duke of York had taken command of fire-fighting efforts, with military engineers using dynamite to create fire-breaks. On Tuesday night the wind died down and changed direction and the fire-fighters were finally able to bring the blaze under control.