In the early 17th century, London was a dangerous place to live. Disease and danger ruled the streets, people had different ideas, notably concerning medicine. The city had firm social divisions. In the middle of the 17th century, London’s population was around half a million people. At the time it was one of the largest cities in the world, and second only to Paris, in Europe. At the time, there was a very distinct class system in London. If you were upper class, you would live in stone houses, wear expensive fashionable clothes, have an education, have access to healthcare and eat decent food and drink clean water.
However, the majority of people weren’t so lucky and were lower class. Lower classes would often share a room with a dozen people, wear rags, have no education or access to healthcare, eat minimal, rotten leftovers and drink dirty water. London was a booming city. Three important factors led to its success. It was (and still is) the centre of government, the Monarch and upper classes wished to be situated there. The river Thames was another key factor, allowing goods to come in and out of London. It was a prime location for the upper classes, who wanted to be associated with the King and government.
Typically, lower class people would have worked as servants, traders, dockers, builders or in a factory. Prostitution was also common. Very little was known about health and hygiene in the 17th century. People were not aware that disease was spread by germ. Peoples attitudes to disease were different – many thought it was sent by God or other various superstitions. For the lower classes, any washing would have been done in either the Thames, or public washing areas which weren’t significantly cleaner than the Thames. Many worked in the street and then ate without washing their hands.
Shockingly, butchers threw animal guts out in the streets to rot. Any dead animals were left the same way. Most shockingly of all, human waste was just thrown out onto the streets. It is no surprise that diseases spread quickly. In 1665 the “Black Death” plague spread through England killing around 100,000 people – a fifth of London’s population. It is thought that it was brought over from mainland Europe and spread by rats. It is not suprising that throughout the 17th century, fires were quite common in London. Hazards were everywhere.
In the 17th century, only the upper classes could afford stone houses and so the majority of houses in London at the time were made from wood, and hence flammable. To add to the risk, many houses had a thatched roof. This meant that if the houses caught fire, they would quickly go up in flames. Streets were extremely narrow and often houses were so close together that you could shake your neighbours’ hand from your window. The consequences of one house setting on fire would be disastrous, as soon a whole row would be up in flames.
English writer John Evelyn described London as a “wooden, northern, and inartificial congestion of Houses”. As if there was a need to add further hazards to London’s streets, tons of gunpowder was left over from the English Civil war. London in the 17th century was very dangerous and diseased place. People knew little about the causes of things – such as disease. Another example being that small fires happened all the time and people did nothing to minimise the risks. Consequently, the Great Fire of London was inevitable.