Lon­don’s burn­ing

Michael Mur­ray-fen­nell gets close to the flames in the 350th an­niver­sary year of the Great Fire

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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