Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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