Michael Murray-fennell gets close to the flames in the 350th anniversary year of the Great Fire
ASMALL paragraph in the London Gazette of monday, September 3, 1666, noted, almost in passing, that a fire had broken out in the City of London in the early hours of Sunday morning. It ‘continues still with great violence,’ reported the twice-weekly news sheet. The same day, its printing house, in Blackfriars, was consumed by the flames. Soon after, the disaster would be making headlines— some grieving, others gloating —across England and Europe.
Copies of these newspapers are on display in a new exhibition at the museum of London marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire. It opens with a loose re-creation of Pudding Lane, the fire’s ground zero, creating a sense of the narrow timber-framed medieval street, the tops of the jettied upper storeys almost touching the houses opposite. Small wonder how easily the fire spread.
‘I have seen bells and iron wares melted, glass and earthen-pots melted together, as if it had been by a fire of fusion,’ wrote one observer and it is the charred, warped and disfigured household objects uncovered during various excavations that most vividly bring home the intensity of the fire. although the death toll was miraculously low, the fire-blackened statue of William Hewett from St Paul’s— the arms just stumps—serves as a reminder of the effect of the fire on human flesh.
Faced with such an out-of-control force—fed by the City’s stores of oil, tar, rope and brandy and fanned by an east wind—the tools available to the firefighters were pitiable. On display are a leather fire-bucket and tall, slender fire hooks, designed to pull buildings down and stop—or at least, slow —the fire’s progress, plus a fire squirt (its very name hardly imbues confidence).
That the Great Fire was eventually contained was thanks to a drop in the wind and the leadership of Charles II and, in particular, his brother, the Duke of York (over-riding the dithering Lord mayor). The final toll included more than 13,000 houses, 87 churches, 52 Livery Halls and of course, St Paul’s Cathedral, where embers alighted onto roof timbers. ‘We are all undone. The City is down,’ wrote Lady anne Hobart in a letter to her cousin.
Inevitably, the blame game started. Thomas Farriner, in whose bakery the fire began, was very keen to shift the guilt elsewhere. at a time when England was at war with Catholic France and Holland, many argued that the fire was a Papist plot and others were convinced it was God’s punishment on a sinful city. a member of the government committee investigating the causes dismissed these allegations as ‘frivolous’.
The exhibition concludes with a look at both the lessons learnt and the legacy of the Great Fire, from the emergence of fire insurance to the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, including Sir Christopher Wren’s design for the cathedral’s new dome.
This is an exhibition aimed at families, with a multimedia approach. a graphic timeline shows how events unfolded over the week, spreading flames are projected onto a map of the City and a recording of a rumbling, crackling fire provides an atmospheric soundtrack. The result is that visitors can all too easily imagine how it would be Top:
Samuel Rolle’s 1667 book about the Great Fire reveals fascinating first-hand details of the catastrophe
The blaze as seen from Newgate. Above: A singed floor tile from Monument House