As we come to the close of the week of Great Fire celebrations throughout the city, we can still learn about this incredible moment in London’s history with a visit to Fire!Fire! at the Museum of London.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, September 2nd, 1666, fire broke out at the bakery of Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane. But this wasn’t to be a typical fire, it was a fire that went on to consume the city of London unabated for four days. The event was immortalized in history as The Great Fire of London.
On the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire, the city has put on various events to commemorate this important piece of London’s history. The Museum of London launched its own commemorative affair with Fire! Fire! an interactive exposé of the events of the Great Fire, its aftermath, daily life in eigteenth century London, and ongoing archaeological research.
The exhibit starts off in Pudding Lane, with an animated backdrop showing the night the fire started in Thomas Farriner’s bakery. Moving into the main exhibit area, visitors can flit freely from place to place to get a better look at pieces of daily life in eighteenth century London that show how people lived before and after the fire, alongside objects that were discovered by archeologists.
Some of the more interesting objects on display show how people fought fires 350 years ago. There is a fire engine from 1678 alongside an animated screen demonstrating how it was used. There were also leather buckets waterproofed with tar that were used to toss water onto the flames, as well as fire hooks to pull down burning buildings.
The exhibit addresses other points that are often overlooked, such as the insurance boom after the Great Fire. The museum has original documents from the first insurers on display. Prior to the Great Fire, homes were not insured and many Londoners had no way to recover the value of their goods or prove their losses. The insurance industry took off after this disaster and became a lucrative trade within the city.
There is also a fascinating collection of proclamations issued by King Charles II (1630-1685) asking Londoners not to loot, and documents demonstrating assistance by provisioning Londoners who were homeless as a result of the fire. Charles II managed to raise £16,400 (£2.4 million in today’s money) from church-going Londoners in a national day of fasting and repentance on October 10, 1666.
The Great Fire: Who Was to Blame?
Lastly, Fire! Fire! tries to answer the age old question: What, or who, caused the fire? It looks at the myths that were floating around at the time, like the idea that it was caused by Catholics trying to wrest England back from Protestant clutches. The exhibit has a few anti-Catholic objects on display, such as books depicting the Pope evilly fanning the flames of the fire.
As for who started the fire? Angry Londoners found their scapegoat in Robert Hubert (1640-1666), a Frenchman who falsely claimed to have started the fire even though he was not even in the country until two days after it started. He was tried, and eventually hanged for the crime at Tyburn on October 27, 1666.
Another theory circulating at the time was that the Great Fire, along with the Plague of 1665, was divine retribution for the sinfulness of Londoners. Charles II was known for his lavish court and flamboyant style and it was believed that the fire was punishment for the immorality and hedonism that flourished under his reign. Charles II himself believed that the fire was just punishment and ordered a national day of fasting to atone for London’s sin.
The Museum of London has done a great job of mixing of modern interactive features for children and adults. You can rebuild the city with wooden blocks, dress up as eighteenth century Londoners and take pictures, see original written accounts from the time of the fire while listening to them read aloud, or look at artefacts under a microscope and see what archaeologists discovered. You can even play a video game and try to save the city by choosing your firefighting weapon and put out as many fires as possible. I didn’t fare terribly well in that, but it was a good bit of fun! The exhibit is an immersive learning experience and retells the story of London’s Great Fire in a captivating and creative way.
Want to learn about more about London’s Great Fire? Visit the Museum of London’s Fire!Fire! exhibit on now until April 17, 2017.
£8-12 for adults
£4-8 for children