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Friday, September 2, 2022

London fire - this day 356 years ago !!

Prabhu Deva shot to fame in that ‘oorvasi, oorvasi – take it easy policy’ song .. .. no insurance Policy that !! and in the background would be ‘LIC building’.

Think Insurance ~ Think LIC – was the caption of those days.  In old Tamil movies -  if Hero or Heroine were to land up in the metropolis running  away from their village – they would land up in Train (Egmore railway station) – for sure, you get to see – Beach, Central Station, red coloured Pallavan Transport (PTC) buses running in Mount Road and then there was that skyscraper (!) ,...... the tall 14 storeyed LIC Building........... LIC  marked the transition from lime-and-brick construction to concrete columns in the region. The building was unveiled in 1959  the building was unveiled in 1959 by the then-Union Finance Minister Morarji Desai.

On 11 July 1975, In July 1975, a major fire incident occurred in the building and raged for couple of days.   The whole city grappled to fight – there was problem of onlookers, fragments of glasses, winds from the sea and more.   There was paucity of water too though Coovum of those days was a different one with flowing water – not what you see now.     Simon Snorkell, the tall fire engine used in quenching,  became such a household name and was seen in couple of RD Parades too. 

For us Insurance was different – it was General Insurance – me joined Oriental when it has just shed ‘fire & general’ to become Oriental Insurance Co Ltd – and in my office I could see old stationery with name ‘The Oriental Fire & General Insurance Co Ltd’.

“Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle!” wrote John Evelyn in 1666, “mine eyes … now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame.” The conflagration he witnessed from 2-5 September destroyed much of the medieval metropolis, swallowing 400 streets, 13,200 houses, 87 churches, and 44 livery halls.  Many of the City of London’s most iconic buildings were consumed: St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Exchange, Newgate Prison, Christ’s Hospital, even Whittington’s Longhouse, one of the biggest public toilets in Europe, in the Vintry. Evelyn was aghast at the destruction of so much of the medieval centre: “London was, but is no more”.   By the time of the fire, only a quarter of London’s population actually lived in the walled city, compared to three-quarters a century earlier. The growing eastern suburbs like Wapping and Stepney were left unscathed – as were much of Holborn, the Temple, western Fleet Street, the Strand, and the emergent squares of the West End.

The Great Fire of London was a major conflagration that swept through the central parts of London from Sunday, 2 September to Thursday, 6 September 1666. The fire gutted the medieval City of London inside the old Roman city wall. The death toll is generally thought to have been relatively small, although some historians have challenged this belief.(this day – 356 years ago !)

The fire started in a bakery shortly after midnight on Sunday, 2 September, and spread rapidly. The use of the major firefighting technique of the time, the creation of firebreaks by means of demolition, was critically delayed due to the indecisiveness of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth. By the time large-scale demolitions were ordered on Sunday night, the wind had already fanned the bakery fire into a firestorm which defeated such measures.  There were  rumours of suspicious foreigners setting fires. The fears of the homeless focused on the French and Dutch, England's enemies in the ongoing Second Anglo-Dutch War; these substantial immigrant groups became victims of street violence. On Tuesday, the fire spread over nearly the whole City, destroying St Paul's Cathedral and leaping the River Fleet to threaten Charles II's court at Whitehall.  The battle to put out the fire is considered to have been won by two key factors: the strong east wind dropped, and the Tower of London garrison used gunpowder to create effective firebreaks, halting further spread eastward.

The social and economic problems created by the disaster were overwhelming. Flight from London and settlement elsewhere were strongly encouraged by Charles II, who feared a London rebellion amongst the dispossessed refugees. Those years, there was no organised Fire Brigade and fire fighting was at its primitive stage.  People used leather buckets, axes, water squirts and whatever they had.  Houses were ordered to be pulled down to stop the spread.  The Navy used gun powder to blow up houses and create space to stop the fire spread.  The cost of destruction was put at   £10m, at a time when London’s annual income was only £12,000.   The Duke of York  took control of efforts to stop the fire,  summoned militias to help the fight and stop looting.  The streets were jammed with carts of fleeing Londoners.Many people were financially ruined and debtors' prisons became over crowded.  A small benefit was that the black plague was eliminated by the burning down of diseased, rat-infested properties.  The new city was planned by Christopher Wren and rebuilt using stone over the following 30 years.

Once the fire was beaten, the attention turned to the question of blame.  Hysteria raged and frightened fingers fell on foreigners.    Charles travelled to Moorfields to address those rendered homeless and to declare that fire had not been started by foreign powers or subversives but was an “Act of God”.  By the end of the month, a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to investigate the fire.  A French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators. His colleagues claimed he was unbalanced and the details of his confession changed as flaws were continually unearthed.  He was hanged at Tyburn.

According to the BBC report  The Parliamentary committee reported in January 1667 that 'nothing hath yet been found to argue it to have been other than the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and the season so very dry'. Yet with Farynor declaring - as expected - that his ovens had been completely extinguished on the night in question, the committee was as widely believed as the Warren Report, and the cause of the fire became the grassy knoll of late seventeenth century conspiracy theorists. In 1678, during the Popish Plot, Titus Oates declared that Jesuit priests were to set fire to the city, prompting a Commons resolution declaring that 'the City of London was burnt in the year 1666 by the Papists... to introduce arbitrary power and Popery into this Kingdom'.

Perhaps the fire in its wake caused people to think of protection of their property more and the need for Insurance was felt more, helping the cause of Lloyds and other Insurers. 

With regards – S Sampathkumar
2nd Sept 2022.


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