7 Other Great Fires of London

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Shortly after midnight on September 2, 1666, a fire broke out in the basement of a bakery in the area of Pudding Lane in central London. With the timbers of the city’s buildings all bone dry thanks to a summer-long drought, the fire quickly spread, so that by the time it burned itself out three days later on September 5, the Great Fire of London had destroyed more than 13,000 houses, three city gates, the entire Royal Exchange building, and almost 90 churches—including St. Paul’s Cathedral—while an estimated 80,000 of the city’s inhabitants had been left homeless. Surprisingly, there are believed to have only been a handful of fatalities as a direct result of the fire. But even more surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time London had been burned to the ground.

Throughout history, the city of London has been all but destroyed by fire on more than a dozen different occasions—usually accidentally, sometimes deliberately. As William Fitzstephen, a 12th century cleric and writer, once put it, “the only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools, and the frequency of fires.”

1. BOUDICEA GETS HER REVENGE // CIRCA 60 CE

After the death of her husband Prasutagus in the mid-1st century CE, lands that should rightfully have passed to the ancient British queen Boudicea and her daughters were instead claimed by the invading Roman Empire. Before then, Boadicea’s tribe, the Iceni, had been allied with the Romans, but the entire affair soured that relationship.

Enraged, Boudicea sacked the Roman city at modern Colchester and marched her army on towards London—or rather, to the newly founded Roman settlement of Londinium—and burned it to the ground. So total was Boadicea’s destruction of the city that archaeologists working the capital today can still identify a noticeable thin layer of red-brown oxidized ash on the site occupying the original settlement, and Roman coins melted together by the extreme heat have even been found along the muddy banks of the Thames.

2. THE HADRIANIC FIRE // c.122 CE

After Boadicea’s rampage, Londinium was speedily rebuilt and flourished for the next 60 years—until, according to archaeological evidence, it burned to the ground a second time sometime after the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in the early 120s. Known as the Hadrianic Fire, precisely what caused this second destruction of the city remains a mystery, and debate continues as to whether it was accidental or a deliberate act of war.

3. ANGLO-SAXON ENGLAND // 1087 CE

According to Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, devastating fires broke out in London in 675 CE—when the first wooden cathedral dedicated to St. Paul was destroyed—and in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, and 1087, when “the greater part of the city” was destroyed. According to records, St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed again in 961 and a third time in the 1087 fire.

4. THE PENTECOST FIRE // CIRCA 1135

On Pentecost—Sunday, May 26—1135 (or thereabouts), another devastating fire broke out close to London Bridge, possibly, according to some reports, in the home of the Sheriff of London, Gilbert Becket (father of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket). One chronicler said that St. Paul’s was destroyed in this fire, but most historians say that it survived. Much of the rest of the city fared less well: The fire all but destroyed the original wooden-frame London Bridge, as well as homes and properties across a 1.5-mile stretch of land along the banks of the river.

5. THE GREAT FIRE OF SOUTHWARK // 1212

On July 10, 1212, a fire broke out in the borough of Southwark on the southern end of London Bridge. The bridge itself had only recently been rebuilt—but this time, the bridge had been built from stone, and its main structure withstood the flames. The wooden shops and houses that King John had permitted to be built along the length of the bridge, however, fared less well. Strong winds pushed the fire northwards along the bridge, trapping dozens of people either trying to escape or trying to extinguish the flames. According to one 17th century account:

An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.

As many as 3000 people are said to have lost their lives in the so-called Great Fire of 1212, but other accounts suggest that that number may be exaggerated. Whatever the true scale of the disaster, prior to 1666 this was the worst fire London had yet faced.

6. A HAPPY ACCIDENT // 1633

A relatively small fire broke out, again on London Bridge, in 1633, destroying 42 buildings and spreading along the bank of the river as far as the end of Thames Street, roughly half a mile away. Houses and properties destroyed in the 1633 blaze took a long time to be replaced, and many were still awaiting reconstruction when the Great Fire broke out in 1666. But fortuitously, it’s thought that this stretch of undeveloped land acted as a firebreak, and prevented London Bridge from being destroyed all over again 33 years later.

7. THE RATCLIFFE FIRE // 1794

On the afternoon of July 23, 1794, an unattended kettle of pitch boiled over in a barge yard in Ratcliffe in north central London, and the resulting fire eventually spread to a nearby barge filled with saltpeter, one of the raw ingredients of gunpowder. The immense explosion scattered burning debris across a vast swathe of the city, destroying more than 450 buildings—mainly industrial warehouses and timber yards—and leaving 1400 Londoners homeless. The so-called Ratcliffe Fire of 1794 saw the worst destruction of the city of London between 1666 and the Blitz of the Second World War.

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

When Queen Victoria Employed an Official Rat-Catcher

Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell
Wikimedia Commons // Rebecca O'Connell

Victorian England was infested with rats. Rodents were in your basement, your sewers, your garden, your pantry, your parks, your pipes—and it was a huge problem. An untold number of rats crippled crops, spoiled food supplies, clogged drains, and, of course, had helped spread a plague that killed about 60 percent of Europe’s population. (Though gerbils may deserve some blame, too.)

Residents resorted to a handful of techniques to stop the critters. Farmers were known to catch rats and strap bells around their necks, or singe their fur, hoping a horde of jangly burnt rodents would scare fellow pests away. It didn’t. “Rats are everywhere about London,” said a man named Jack Black, “both in rich and poor places.”

Black would know. He was England’s royal rat-catcher.


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“Rat-catcher” may not be a job you see at Career Day anymore, but in Victorian England, it was a popular and sometimes lucrative career. According to author Barbara Tufty [PDF], a decent rat-catcher could earn “special privileges” if he caught at least 5000 rats a year, or about 13 rats a day. The job was so common that rodent-chasers in England established their own professional rat-catcher guilds. The occupation even inspired a popular folktale: The Pied Piper was a rat-catcher.

During the Victorian era, Jack Black was the king of the rat-catchers. The official “rat and mole destroyer to her Majesty,” Black got his start doing government work as a young man after he noticed London’s royal parks were spilling over with rats. (Literally: They had gnawed through the bridge drains.) His talent for catching rodents proved unmatchable, and he was eventually appointed by Queen Victoria to the post of supreme rat-catcher.

Black strolled around London with the swagger and audacity of royalty while maintaining the appearance of a court jester. He wore a homemade uniform of white leather pants, a scarlet waistcoat, a green topcoat, a gold band around his hat, and a sash emblazoned with metal rat-shaped medallions, which he had made by secretly melting down his wife’s saucepans.

Ever the showman, Black ambled around the city with a cart full of rats and peddled a homemade brew of varmint poison. After finding a crowd, he would set up a small stage, open a giant cage of rats, and reach inside. The rodents would jump onto his arms, scurry over his shoulders, and scamper from one hand to the next. The crowds oohed and ahhed—Black was rarely bitten. (Whenever a rat did sink its teeth in, Black treated his wound by visiting the local pub and having some “medicine,” a.k.a. stout—although if the bite was really bad, he would make sure to clean the wound.)

After luring a crowd, Black would begin hawking his poison to onlookers. “I challenge my composition, and sell the art of rat-destroying, against any chemical ray-destroyer in the world, for any sum,” he’d bark. “I don’t care what it is. Let anybody, either a medical or druggist manufacturer of composition, come and test with rats again me.”

After a pleasant afternoon selling rodenticide, Black would descend into London’s basements and sewers with a legion of ferrets and dogs to catch more rats. Black had trained the ferrets to sniff out vermin, while he trained the dogs to track down the ferrets in case they got lost or stuck in a sewer pipe, according to Lapham’s Quarterly.

Black tried using other animals to catch vermin. He trained a badger, two raccoons, and a monkey, but most of them couldn’t compete with dogs and ferrets. “I’ve learnt a monkey to kill rats,” he said, “but he wouldn’t do much, and only give them a good shaking when they bit him.”


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Black didn’t kill every rat he caught, though. He often kept them alive and bred them for sport.

Nineteenth-century Europeans have an unfortunate history of enjoying animal bloodsports: Monkey-baiting (Can a monkey armed with a stick fight a dog?); fox-tossing (Who can throw a fox highest in the air?); and goose-pulling (Can you decapitate a goose while riding a horse?) were just a few. During Black’s time, rat-baiting, in which dozens of rats are tossed in a pit with a dog, was one of the most popular pastimes in London taverns. The bloodsport was so beloved that the government taxed the rat-killing dogs. London’s premiere rat pit owner, Jimmy Shaw, bought 26,000 live rats each year from rat-catchers like Black.

But Black also bred rats for gentler reasons. He knew that some people wanted rodents as pets—and that some folks would pay handsomely for an equally handsome rat—so he began breeding “fancy” rats. Whenever he discovered a rat-of-a-different-color, he’d take it home for “ladies to keep in squirrel cages.”

Black was proud of his fancy rat-breeding skills. It’s rumored that he bred rats for the Queen and the author Beatrix Potter. He claimed that “I’ve bred the finest collection of pied rats which has ever been knowed [sic] in the world.” Which is probably true. The American Fancy Rat & Mouse Association says Black “can be credited as the originator of the first true domestic rats.”

But Jack Black’s legacy may dig even deeper: The first white lab rat—bred in Philadelphia—was descended from an albino rat that may have been bred by the rat catcher.

There’s no way to be certain, but as Robert Sullivan writes in his book Rats: Observations on the History & habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “I like to think that all the great scientific achievements that have been made in the modern scientific era as a result of work with laboratory rats are ultimately the result of the work of Jack Black, rat catcher.”

You can read more about Jack Black in Robert Mayhew’s 1851 classic oral history of everyday Londoners, London Labour and the London Poor—the fun starts on page 11 [PDF].

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