Originally published July 2020.
How did the Great Fire of 1666 shape London’s architectural history?
At this time of year, we are inundated with nostalgic images of a Victorian Christmas set in a Dickensian London where the real horrors and poverty of that age are banished from the chocolate box imagery. Which makes me wonder what details of the architecture of the London we are endlessly rebuilding today will be romantically remembered by generations to come.
This question came to mind on a recent day when I survived a frenetic few hours with my family retracing the Great Fire of London. We took in Pudding Lane, the Thames Embankment (formed long after the fire), Cornhill, Cripplegate, Ludgate, Newgate, Smithfield, Cheapside (so much history in a name) and St Paul’s. Unless you are an archaeologist cutting through the layer of scorched earth (yes, apparently this happens), the fire is signified by what arose after and not that which survived. Indeed, within the fire’s boundaries nothing survived as more than ruin. Without the fire’s boundaries, somewhat inevitably in a trading city focused on transaction rather than history, that which survived was soon deemed outmoded, by both fashion and new regulations, and unceremoniously removed. The city as was was no more!