‘Fire, Fire!’: my review of the Museum of London’s excellent new exhibition about the Great Fire of London

I thought the Museum of London’s ‘Fire, Fire!’ exhibition (about one of the worst disasters ever to befall the U.K.’s capital: the Great Fire of 1666) was excellent. The layout of the exhibition alone is ingenious: you enter through a dark passageway closely resembling a London street of that period, furnished with original windows and wooden brackets, including an original 1600s window from Lovat Lane in the City of London. Walking down this passageway, you really do feel as though you’ve travelled back in time and are wandering around 17th century London, as you glance through the windows of the houses and see people going about their daily tasks.

Reaching the end of the passageway, you arrive at Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane, where the fire is supposed to have begun (although to this day, there is no hard evidence of this). A portable oven from the 1600s takes pride of place and a number of other objects discovered from that time are also on display, including an original Hearth (Fireplace) Tax record for Pudding Lane, from which we learn that each home/business owner had to pay an annual rate of two shillings per each hearth in their possession. Thomas Farriner himself had five hearths in his bakery – although he insisted that all bar one, which was “just smouldering”, had been extinguished before he and his family went to bed.

The Great Fire

It is at this point in the exhibition where you begin to hear the crackling of the flames – and trust me, the sound effects, coupled with the highly effective lighting, are very convincing indeed.

Leaving Pudding Lane, you encounter a number of contemporary accounts of the Fire: diaries, letters, books, letters, newspapers, paintings and drawings – all full of fascinating insights and conveying only too clearly the fear and helplessness felt by Londoners as the Fire took hold of their city. Bear in mind, this is a city already traumatised by illness: the Great Plague had swept the capital, and the country, just one year previously.

Help was not nearly as forthcoming as it should have been. As the conflagration wiped out home after home and street after street, London’s Lord Mayor – who on initially hearing about the Fire stated he didn’t think it would spread – dithered, seemingly incapable of making any kind of decision. It was left to King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York, to swing into action and organise the fire fighting efforts, galvanising soldiers, Navy officers and ordinary London citizens into action. Working desperately to control the conflagration, they undoubtedly saved very many lives. They also managed to save the Tower of London, by blowing up the houses nearest to it with gunpowder – although a number of other historic buildings, including St Paul’s Cathedral, perished.

In the meantime, rumours swirled: did the Fire signify a foreign invasion; was the city under attack (Britain was currently at war with The Netherlands); maybe this was a Catholic plot, organised against what was now a predominantly Protestant city? Or was God punishing Londoners for their ungodly ways? No one knew what to believe or where to turn for authentic information.

Ultimately, the Great Fire raged for four days. One quarter of London was razed to the ground; 13,000 houses, 87 churches and 436 acres of the city were destroyed. In total, 100,000 people lost their homes. The consequences were so desperate for those affected (remember, in those days home insurance simply didn’t exist) that the king launched a national fund-raising scheme to which every citizen was strongly encouraged to donate.

The exhibition dispels a number of myths around the Great Fire. It was not exacerbated by most of the houses in London having thatched roofs; on the contrary, those had been banned from the city more than 450 years previously. Nor did the Fire “wipe out” the previous year’s Plague, which by then had more or less run its course.

Historians now believe that a number of factors combined to bring about the catastrophe. Many of London’s houses were built from wood, the Fire began at night, when most of the city’s residents were asleep, narrow streets meant that the Fire could spread more quickly – and an incoming storm wind fanned the flames. Warehouses full of oil, tar, coal, brandy, hay and rope caught fire instantly and the houses located between them were not pulled down as quickly as they should have been. A lack of fire engines and water compounded all of the above.

To this day, we are still learning about the Fire’s causes and consequences. Burnt debris continues to be discovered, helping archaeologists to understand why the fire spread as far and fast as it did. Some of this debris is on display in the exhibition and believe me, makes for fascinating viewing. Bed hangings, keys, padlocks, cutlery, melted roof fragments, burnt wood barrels and bricks, singed floor tiles and burnt plates – all sorts of everyday items have been uncovered.

The exhibition is particularly strong in demonstrating the long-lasting consequences of this horrific event. Detailed records made at the time remain – and these, too, are on display. The ramifications of the Great Fire were numerous: homelessness, looting, corrupt landlords pushing up rents in the unaffected areas of London – many thousands of Londoners suffered as a consequence.

It took around 40 years to rebuild the city. In the end, despite the many different plans put forward, the rebuild was closely modelled on how London had looked previously, as this was believed to be the quickest and simplest model to follow. The architects’ drawings and committee notes form the concluding part of the exhibition and are well worth a look.

Finally, we could all take a leaf out of Samuel Pepys’ book. Upon hearing about the Fire, and that it was heading his way, the celebrated diarist took the time to bury his wine and his Parmesan cheese in his back garden before departing London for safer surroundings. A man after my own heart.

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