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.