Here are some maps of the London that could have been after the Great Fire – and the one we actually got

A map of the City of London by Wenceslas Hollar, with the light area north of the Thames showing the extent of the area destroyed in the Great Fire of London, 1666. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

It’s 1666 and an incompetent baker managed has just managed to burn down London. After the Great Fire, all that remained of 13,200 houses and four-fifths of the City of London, including St Paul’s Cathedral, was a charred tangle of rubble.

A young William Taswell, who witnessed the old cathedral burn down from the other side of the Thames, recorded in his memoirs that it “blazed so conspicuous as to enable [him] to read very clearly an edition of Terence which [he] carried in [his] pocket”.

The part of London destroyed. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But the smoking hole in London offered the city planners of the age a unique opportunity. Here they could rebuild the capital from scratch, creating the model city with none of the Medieval hangups of its previous incarnation. When the monarch of the day, King Charles II, offered his support for a radical redesign, the planners lined up to remake the city.

The various designs put forward unanimously agreed on a grid system for this new London. Draughtsman Richard Newcourt proposed a rigid grid with churches in squares: a proposal that despite being utterly ignored for London’s rebuild, was later adopted for Philadelphia, USA.

The Newcourt plan: click to expand. Image: City of London/London Metropolitan Archives.

Christopher Wren, most famous for his post fire rebuild of St Paul’s Cathedral, had his own ideas. He envisaged long wide streets radiating out from plazzas – a plan reminiscent of today’s Parisian boulevards, but which predated Haussmann’s remodelling by 200 years. He also proposed to build a huge terrace along the river Thames, lined with the halls of the various city companies
 

The Wren plan. Image: Getty.

The reason that none of these best laid plans actually came to fruition is that actual Londoners got in the way. Around 65,000 people had been made homeless by the Fire: they couldn’t wait for the slow, top-down planning process to produce somewhere for them to live and work.

The comprehensively remaking of the city hoped for by the powers-that-be would have required the complete overhaul of property rights. This would have just taken too long for the 80 per cent of City of Londoners who needed to get on with their lives, who just wanted to rebuild their homes and restart their buildings. So the grand plans were abandoned: the rebuilding was instead hashed out by the landowners on a plot-by-plot basis.

Of course, it would have been mad to rebuild the city with all the same flaws that allowed the fire to spread so easily in the first pace, so some rules were imposed. The 1667 Rebuilding Act determined that all new buildings were required to be built predominantly from brick, rather than wood, and that upper floors were no longer allowed to jut out over lower ones. The roads were also made slightly wider, to make it harder for the fire to jump from block the block.

Apart from this London grew back in roughly the same shape as it had burned down Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map of the City shows the same mass of confused and winding streets that were there before the Fire. And Wren’s dream of a terrace was blocked, as thrifty Londoners setup their riverside businesses.

Ogilby and Morgan's 1676 map. Larger version here. Image: British history online.

He still got to leave his mark with the towering St Paul’s Cathedral and the fifty-one churches built under his direction, mind you.


So the question is: did London miss an opportunity presented by the Great Fire’s destruction? Leaving the rebuilding to happen organically rather than through top down planning allowed for a quick restart to city life. Also, the final product worked; this was a city that would finance a global empire in the following years, and which never again saw fire on the same scale.

 No, we don’t have swanky boulevards – but London survived and rebuilt. If you’re still wondering whether it all happened in the right way, just take a walk down Fleet Street. You may not find an answer, but you’ll at least find enough pubs to help you forget the question in the first place.  

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Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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