A Moment in London’s History – The Great Fire of Southwark…

Think of fire in relation to London and the events of 1666 no doubt spring to mind. But London has had several other large fires in its history (with a much higher loss of life), including during the reign of King John in July, 1212.

The fire started in Southwark around 10th July and the blaze destroyed most of the buildings lining Borough High Street along with the church of St Mary Overie (also known as Our Lady of the Canons and now the site of Southwark Cathedral) before reaching London Bridge.

PICTURE: Guido Jansen/Unsplash

The wind carried embers across the river and ignited buildings on the northern end before the fire spread into the City of London itself (building on the bridge had been authorised by King John so the rents could be used to help pay for the bridge’s maintenance).

Many people died on the bridge after they – and those making their way south across the bridge to aid people in Southwark (or perhaps just to gawk) – were caught between the fires at either end, with some having apparently drowned after jumping off the bridge into the Thames (indeed, it’s said that some of the crews of boats sent to rescue them ended up drowning themselves after the vessels were overwhelmed).

Antiquarian John Stow, writing in the early 17th century, stated that more than 3,000 people died in the fire – leading some later writers to describe the disaster as “arguably the greatest tragedy London has ever seen”.

But many believe this figure is far too high for a population then estimated at some 50,000. The oldest surviving account of the fire – Liber de Antiquis Legibus (“Book of Ancient Laws”) which was written in 1274 and mentions the burning of St Mary Overie and the bridge, as well as the Chapel of St Thomas á Becket built upon it – doesn’t mention a death toll.

London Bridge itself survived the fire thanks to its recent stone construction but for some years afterward it was only partly usable. King John then raised additional taxes to help rebuild destroyed structures while the City’s first mayor, Henry Fitz Ailwyn, subsequently apparently joined with other officials in creating some regulations surrounding construction with fire safety in mind.

The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.