London’s still burning three and a half centuries later

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

Three-and-a-half centuries ago the city of London was ablaze.

A fire, which broke out in a bakery on September 2, 1666, became a major conflagration, destroying an estimated 13,000 homes during the four days it raged.

Smoke billows from a fire that has engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London

Smoke billows from a fire that has engulfed the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London

The fire broke out inside the old Roman city walls mostly inhabited by the poor and middle class. Homes of the aristocratic population living in Westminster were not affected.

In those days deaths of poor and middle-class people mostly went unrecorded and this and the fact that the strength of the fire would have consumed, beyond recognition, those in its wake, was most likely the reason why the death toll was recorded at just six.

As I write this, that’s exactly the number of people, so far, who have been killed in the fire at Grenfell Tower in London’s north Kensington area.

The 24-storey building contained 120 flats, home to a diverse population. Similar buildings of 70s and 80s vintage were built throughout the UK, including Northern Ireland. Clearly, many of these towering buildings are not up to modern-day safety standards.

Grenfell had a multi-million pound makeover, mostly external, recently, with one survivor clear in his mind that the ‘fancy plastic cladding’, as he called it, was added to placate the wealthy residents in a nearby, recently constructed, modern, luxury high-rise.

We won’t know the answers to all the questions surrounding this disaster for a long time to come. Yet the whole episode accentuates the issues of the totally unsatisfactory recent election where one side, Labour, was promising the earth and the moon for the ordinary people, while the Conservatives were promising those very same people more austerity.

The result was a shambles, with the DUP the only people to come out of it behaving with any dignity.

The sight of Sinn Fein rushing off to London to press their case before any TV camera they could find was pathetic.

I suppose their journey was necessary to sign the documentation for the finance they receive from Westminster even though they don’t take their seats.

No other country in the world would pay millions to a political party which won’t recognise or sit in the mother Parliament.

I doubt if anybody in London was listening to them and, anyway, after Wednesday, politicians of all parties were having to take a back seat. Most of them, eventually, will have some explaining to do about how in this day and age, three-and-a-half centuries later, ordinary working-class people can lose their lives in a massive fire in the centre of one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, a fire which clearly should not have happened.

Groups of residents in the past had complained to the local authority about the dangers at Grenfell.

So the first lesson we learn about this episode is, that despite their promises, successive Labour and Tory governments have paid scant regard to the needs of those who elected them.

Three-and-a-half centuries ago the poor working-class were used and abused and had few rights. Some would say not much has changed.

The poor can still die in their homes because politicians are too busy squabbling with each other, leaving important life-saving legislation ignored or put on the back burner.

High-rise flats terrify me. When my son went to Bangor University in Wales 22 years ago, the high-rise student accommodation was appalling (it has now been replaced) and I allowed him to stay in it only because he had a room on the ground floor and a window that opened on to grass.

Such buildings still exist, putting lives at risk. Maybe it’s time voters wrote the manifestos for politicians and not the other way round.