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Plague and Fire: 1665-1666

During 1665 and 1666 London suffers a devastating series of natural disasters. The early months of 1665 are one of the famous cold spells of the 17th century, often referred to as a little ice age. The Thames freezes over, making possible the usual festivities on the ice. But ordinary Londoners suffer the obvious miseries of extreme cold.

The thaw brings something worse. In April there are the first signs of an epidemic of plague. Ever since the Black Death there have been regular recurrences of the plague in European cities, and London has had outbreaks as recently as 1636 and 1647. But this one seems unusual. In the last week of June as many as 725 Londoners die of the plague. By September the deaths in one week rise to more than 7000.

By the time the plague dies down, in the following winter, at least 70,000 (and probably as many as 100,000) have died - more than one in seven of the city's population. The court, parliament and the rich have abandoned London in the early summer. It becomes a place of macabre deserted streets. Bodies of victims lie in the open for two or three days awaiting burial in plague pits. Where infection strikes, people are locked inside their houses until forty days have passed since the last death.

In February 1666 Charles II returns to Whitehall. The bells of the city peal out. The rich rapidly follow his example. But just seven months later, one September night, a fire begins in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane.

A fire in a baker's shop seems not of great signifance ('Pish!', exclaims the Lord Mayor of London when first informed of the problem, 'a woman might piss it out!'), but a strong wind rapidly spreads the flames in a city of narrow streets and timbered houses. During the following day Samuel Pepys watches from a boat in the Thames the terrifying progress of what he calls 'a most horrid malicious bloody flame'.

Over four days the flame spreads through nearly 500 acres of the town, destroying 87 churches (including old St Paul's cathedral) and 13,200 houses. Miraculously, only nine lives are lost.

The only blessing of the fire is that it destroys the conditions which bred the plague. And London recovers with extraordinary speed. A tax on coal is levied to pay for new public buildings. Citizens are issued with planning guidelines for the reconstruction of their houses, with the permitted height varying according to the width of the road.

Private houses and shops are mostly rebuilt by 1672. By then work is also well under way on the city's churches, in an extraordinary effort undertaken by a single architect.

Shortly after the fire Christopher Wren is appointed 'surveyor-general and principal architect for rebuilding the whole city', with special mention made of St Paul's and the parish churches.

It is an opportunity of a kind rarely given to any architect. Wren's designs for the new London, in addition to his great domed St Paul's (completed in 1710), include thirty-six halls for the city livery companies, the tall Monument commemorating the fire itself, and more than fifty parish churches - famous for the imaginative and varied designs of their steeples, which give distinction to London's skyline until much damaged by bombs in World War II.

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