It’s 1am on 25th March 1748 and a small fire has started in a wig maker in the City of London. By lunchtime nearly 100 homes and two entire blocks in the heart of the city would lay in ruins.
Quite what caused the fire is not known, but it is known to have started at Mr. Eldridge’s a Perriwig-Maker in Exchange-Alley, Cornhill, and would seem to have raced up the building, as a lodger living on the second floor leapt out of the building to escape.
The fire now at the roof level was able to leap over party walls dividing homes and spread across the tightly packed streets and houses. It later turned out that the use of brick party walls between buildings, a consequence of the Great Fire, had not included the rafters above the homes, in the attic space. It was this gap that the fire leapt through from house to house.
The alarm was spread quickly, and some 50 early fire fighting engines were called from across the city to help. The engines in this time being huge barrels of water with hand pumps.
Mr. Eldridge, his wife and two daughters, and a journeyman perished in the Flames. Mr. Cooke, the merchant who jumped out of the wig maker’s house broke his back in the fall, and died soon after.
Miraculously, no one else died in any of the other homes, and the spread of the fire was contained thanks to the wind direction blowing the flames towards some more solidly built buildings and a wide road that the flames couldn’t leap across.
The actions of the local populace were reported in the Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer as being more about saving their possessions than in fighting the fire. This was not unusual as lodgers didn’t own their homes, and fire fighting on the scale necessary didn’t exist. Much more sensible to grab what you can and escape.
Of course, some people took advantage of the fire to take possessions that didn’t belong to them, and a number of looters were arrested. Also arrested was a soldier who stabbed a man to death after, reportedly, the man refused to assist in containing the fire by carrying buckets of water.
A preponderance of wooden structures, built close together, always made for high fire risk in cities and towns, but people were becoming more aware of how to construct buildings that were less likely to burn down.
After the Cornhill fire, a series of building acts were passed to make buildings less susceptible to fire in the future, culminating in the act of 1774 which is often seen as a defining moment in building safety history.
The fire of 1748 and the rebuilding boom of the 1750s also gave rise to municipal efforts in fire fighting, with more effort on installing turncocks in the streets and having better fire fighting equipment. Fire insurance also took off in the time, with most houses covered by fire insurance by 1750.
The destroyed area was rebuilt after the fire and largely retained its layout which survived until Victorian times.
In the days following the 1748 Cornhill fire though, some early accounts reported that as many as 160 homes had burnt down, but this was later cut to around 80-100 homes destroyed in the flames.
That’s a pale shadow of the roughly 13,000 homes destroyed in 1666, which is probably why this fire of a mere hundred homes or so, which in any other city would be its founding myth, is in London, a forgotten footnote in it’s long history.