Today (July 11) in London History – the worst fire in British history

The worst fire in British history took place in Southwark and on London Bridge on July 11, 1212. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

You go back 810 years this is what happens. And hardly surprising, as that’s nearly 300,000 days ago.

It’s like looking through a telescope at a star a jazillion miles away, it’s jerking around, it won’t hold still, it’s a bit blurry.

Well, what that translates into in this bit of London history is, first of all we’re not even sure whether the event in question happened in 1212 or 1213. Nor for that matter, is the exact date known: best-educated guess is today, July 11th. But July 10th is also a candidate, as is July 12th.

Anyway, we’ll plump for today. Toni Mount, in her book, Everyday Life in Mediaeval London, gives us as good an account as we’re likely to get. She reminds us in the first instance that this was the deadliest fire in not just London history but British history. Some 3,000 people are said to have died. That would be about 7 and a half percent of the city’s population. The equivalent of nearly 640,000 people dying in a fire today.

Hardly surprising then that for centuries the now largely forgotten July 1212 fire – if it was 1212 – was known as the Great Fire of London. 

Time – centuries of time – and an event that got started in Pudding Lane on September 2nd, 1666 pushed the 1212 fire to near oblivion in the popular imagination. Even though – if the figures are accurate – the 1212 fire was about 500 times deadlier than the 1666 fire that for 350 years now has held the title The Great Fire of London.

Unlike the 1666 Fire, we don’t know exactly where or how the July 1212 fire got started. Again, it’s like looking at an event through a telescope from a great distance away.

Suddenly, somewhere there in Southwark there were flames. Flames that got real big real fast. Flames that were out of control. 

The church of St Mary Overie was destroyed. The church that stands there today we know as Southwark Cathedral. And what a history St Mary Overie has. Shakespeare’s youngest brother is buried there. John Harvard was baptised there. The cathedral has in its possession a fire-blackened stone said to be the last physical remnant of the 1212 fire. 

Much of Borough High Street was destroyed. Remember, the buildings were wooden. They were highly flammable. They were packed close together.

Which was also the case with London Bridge itself. That was the famous London Bridge – it was brand new at the time, just three years old – standing on its 19 arches and lined with houses and shops and two chapels. It was very crowded in normal, day-to-day circumstances. And that normal-sized crowd became a heaving, surging mass because of people both escaping the fire and others wanting to get onto the bridge to rubberneck, to watch the disaster.

And then it happened. The fierce winds carried sparks to the north end of the bridge.  It caught fire. The passageway across the bridge was at best a narrow, dark, crowded alleyway. It was a death trap. People were crushed to death. They died from smoke inhalation. They burned to death. Those who were near enough to the gaps where there were no houses jumped. 

Most of them drowned. Or died from the impact. Boats beneath the bridge tried to rescue people. Many of them capsized. 

All of the houses on the bridge were destroyed. As was one of the chapels. Our historian tells us that afterward burnt bodies – often reduced to human-sized piles of ashes – were found in the wreckage of the buildings. The bridge was still usable as a means of crossing the Thames but for years it was at best a partial ruin. For a generation or more there was no money to rebuild the houses and shops. 

If only hindsight could be foresight. London’s response was to ban thatched roofs. For a time. A classic instance of regulation that came too late, of a good idea that someone should have thought of and acted on before July 11th, 1212. 

Grim tale, isn’t it. Smoulders in the imagination even from a distance of more than 800 years.  

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, there’s a lot going on at Southwark Cathedral. Talks, organ recitals, choir concerts. And of course there’s our wonderful guide Rick Jones – the former Chief Music critic for the Evening Standard, and still the Secretary of the prestigious Critic’s Circle – Rick’s a musician and a performer as well as a writer, critic and illustrious Blue Badge Guide and, yup, he does a spellbinding  Shakespeare walk – entertaining and informative, the platonic ideal of what a walking tour should be –anyway, yes, does a very special Shakespeare walk that starts from the entrance of Southwark Cathedral. It goes every Saturday at 10.30 am. Go to and type the word lute and the name Rick into the little search engine on the website and hey presto you’ll have all the particulars to hand. Rick will be just outside the entrance to the cathedral playing his lute when you pitch up. What fun. How special is that? So yes, that’s of course the cherry on the sundae of this Today in London recommendation. And look, don’t just take it from us. Here’s a review of the walk written just last month.

Rick Jones will take you through The Bard’s London with the lightest touch of an Elizabethan minstrel. This tour began at Southwark Cathedral where we treated to the gentle strains of his lute, seated by Shakespeare’s alabaster monument. (Even Ophelia’s fresh rosemary ornamented the statue’s hand – a modest garland gathered from the nearby herb garden.) Every detail of this tour is well-considered and marvellous. Rick fills your walk with amusing anecdotes and interesting tit-bits of history, pointing out landmarks as you walk in the footsteps of our greatest poet. This tour guide didn’t get his ‘blue plaque’ badge for nothing, it has been one the highlights of my trip to London. If you get the chance, just go!

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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