Today (June 22) in London History – the “other” Great Fire of London

It’s the great fire of London nobody’s heard of but was 1) terrible and 2) transformative. It got started on June 22, 1861. 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.


Everybody’s heard of the Great Fire of London. 

What most people haven’t heard of is its alter ego. The other Great Fire of London. It’s the dark side of the moon.

But we’re going to go round there. Take a look at it. As conflagrations go, well, it was certainly in the same league as – challenged comparison with – the famous 1666 Great Fire of London.

And we’re going there today – get your bunker gear on – your boots and overalls and turnout jacket and helmet – we’re going there today because June 22nd is the anniversary of the other Great Fire of London. It broke out in a warehouse in Tooley Street, in Southwark. Near Guy’s Hospital, just on the other side of London Bridge. Hemp had apparently caught fire in the warehouse and just took off. That first spark? We don’t know for sure. It may have been someone smoking. It may have been spontaneous combustion. The fire spread to nearby warehouses. Warehouses that were packed to the rafters with combustibles such as cotton, tallow, sugar and salt-petre. The London Fire Engine Establishment brigade turned out in force – 14 fire engines in total. Plus the river fire engine. That massive response wasn’t equal to the task. Everything was against them. It was low tide, the river was too shallow, the river fire engine couldn’t draw water from the Thames. The heat was so terrible the river fire engine had to beat a retreat.

The fire burned completely out of control for two days. And what was described as an underground lake of fire was still burning 12 days later. When it was full-on the fire could be seen from 15 miles away. The flames towered a hundred feet up into the sky.

Buildings up to a quarter of a mile away from where it had started were destroyed.

The damage was estimated at £2 million pounds. That’d be about 20 billion pounds in today’s money.

Four wharves – Chamberlain’s Wharf, Cotton’s Wharf, Depot Wharf, and Hays Wharf were completely destroyed. Four sailing boats and numerous barges went up in flames.

Two weeks later a London newspaper took stock of the losses there in the warehouses. It said, 

23,000 bales of cotton had gone up in flames. 30,000 packages of tea. 900 tons of sugar. 300 tons of olive oil. 8800 casks of tallow. 427 cases of castor oil. And as for the traditional English breakfast, “the large quantity of bacon, about 2,000 bales, either consumed or consuming in the burning ruins has augmented the price and placed dealers in a very awkward position, not a bale of fine bacon being left in the market.”

The newspaper report said, these losses “form but a few amongst many of the goods consumed or now at the mercy of the devouring element.”

So when you go down to Hay’s Wharf today, what you’re seeing is what was built to replace what the Great Tooley Street Fire had devoured. 

Finally, the human cost. The greatly admired Superintendant of the brigade James Braidwood lost his life. He was in close, giving his firemen their brandy rations. A burning wall collapsed on him. Killed him and one of his firemen.

And it was a close-run thing for London insurance companies. Insurance premiums shot up by 50 to 100 per cent.

On London Walks we stress, over and over again, the past is so important. It shapes the present. The second Great Fire of London – the June 1861 Tooley Street fire – sparked – if I can dare to use that verb – the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. London’s modern fire-fighting establishment.

And from Today in London History we race – like fire engines – to Today in London. The recommendation. Has to be a visit to the London Fire Brigade Museum. And as for our extra thread, which debuted yesterday, a tip on how to do London or how to make sure you don’t get done, if you’re a visitor – a quick follow-up to yesterday’s tale about the wave of phone snatching in London. It’s our impression that there’s less mugging in London – you’re not going to have someone pull a knife on you and demand that you hand over your wallet – precisely because the phone snatching pickings are now so rich. I mean if you make a show of flashing your Rolex you could be inviting unwanted strong-arm attention but otherwise probably not. A quarter of a million people on Oxford Street, probably 200,000 of them are going to have their phone out. It’s a gold rush for London thieves. So take comfort in the fact that your chances of being mugged with a threat have probably gone from one in 50,000 to one in 100,000. But have some awareness of your surroundings when you get that phone out – pick a spot that’s not in the open. Phone snatching – it’s the new pick pocketing. 


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 can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished, distinguished 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 blockbuster 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 what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. 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 we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… 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. Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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