Fire! Fire!

John Westbrooke visits a 350th anniversary exhibition about one of London’s greatest disasters

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The Great Fire of London has always been a popular section of the Museum of London; and now the museum is staging a full-scale exhibition to mark the 350th anniversary of one of the capital’s most memorable calamities.

Though it has plenty of hard history, with illuminating artefacts and documents, the Fire! Fire! exhibition is designed to be family-friendly, with games and costumes for kids to try out, microscopes to investigate relics, a model city to rebuild, and an interactive Minecraft game.

It all began on Sunday September 2 1666 (in the old Julian calendar ­– it would now be called the 12th) when a spark from an untended oven at Thomas Farriner’s bakery set his house on fire. By the time it burnt itself out on September 5, 13,000 more homes had been destroyed and much of England’s largest city was a smouldering ruin.

The start of the exhibition shows how this happened by recreating what Pudding Lane, home to the bakery, probably looked like: little more than an alley, in which upper storeys are progressively jettied out over the street until facing ones are almost touching. It was all too easy for the flames to jump from one building to the next, and to the one over the road as well; they even crossed the Fleet river.

When the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, came to look at it, he notoriously responded “Pish! A woman could piss it out”, and went home. But London was nothing like the size it is now, and four days was enough for a quarter of the area between the Tower and Fleet Street to be destroyed. Visitors can watch its progress projected, whimsically, on to a giant loaf of bread.

Cramped wooden houses weren’t the only problem. As the city’s foreign trade grew, all sorts of flammable imports were increasingly being stored in basements and warehouses ­– tobacco from America, brandy from France ­– along with the wood, canvas and tar used in building the ships that imported them, and the gunpowder old soldiers kept at home.

Firefighting wasn’t much use. One of the star exhibits is a hand-pumped fire engine, constructed soon after the fire and now much restored. It weighs half a ton and would have been able to squirt six pints of water at a time about 15 feet, meaning it would scarcely have got into a narrow alley, let alone close enough to a hot fire to douse it.

Just how hot it was (maybe 1500°C) is shown by other archaeological exhibits: iron that has melted and fused, roof tiles folded in half, even some corroded waffle-making tongs. Molten lead from the roof of St Paul’s ran down the streets, making the pavement too hot to walk on, while the stones in the walls exploded. The fire became a firestorm, intensifying as it sucked in fresh oxygen to feed on.

What was needed was to demolish houses as a firebreak. Bloodworth didn’t want to do it, fearing he would have to bear the cost of rebuilding them (there was no insurance then). Finally, King Charles II put his brother ­– later James II ­– in charge, and even went to the front line to handle buckets of water himself. Firebreaks were made, the strong east wind dropped, and the worst was over by Wednesday.

Some Londoners blamed terrorism. A possibly mad Frenchman named Robert Hubert claimed that he’d been put up to it by the Pope and was promptly hanged, even though he’d been at sea at the time. When the Monument was built to commemorate the disaster, a plaque on it blamed him and “the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists”. It’s now held by the museum and is on show here.

Others saw it in religious terms too ­– indeed, preachers and visionaries had foretold it. Foreign newspapers in the exhibition show that Catholic Spain thought God was punishing England for being Protestant, and Protestant Holland thought it was for burning a Dutch town the month before.

Christopher Wren was among those who wanted London rebuilt more rationally, with straight, wide streets. Designs for some of the proposals can be viewed here, but the city fathers, anxious to resume normal life, stuck with the old street plan, requiring only that new buildings be of brick. In fact reconstruction took a decade or more, while church bells were silent and rocket grew in the ruins. Wren had to be content with rebuilding St Paul’s and 51 parish churches.

Remarkably, only half a dozen people were said to have died, the first being Farriner’s maid. This seems unlikely. Many may have died among the tens of thousands of refugees forced to camp out in Moorfields. Many may simply have been vaporised in the flames. People, especially poor ones, weren’t well documented in those days.

Relief funds were set up ­– you can see a receipt for 53 shillings and ninepence from Cowfold in Sussex – and raised £16,400, though Bloodworth’s successor as mayor, Sir William Bolton, embezzled £1800 of it. But the cost of the fire, even then, was estimated at £10 million.

London had had many fires since Boudicca first razed the Roman city in 60AD; one in 1212 was said to have claimed 3000 lives. There have been more since, notably the Blitz. And yet it’s 1666 that has lingered in public memory, thanks to the popular press of the day, to the surviving records and letters (many of them included in the show), and to the feeling that this was the beginning of modern London. There was a parliamentary inquiry, which concluded that the conflagration was due to “the hand of God upon us, a great wind, and a season so very dry”, and that seems about ­right.

Fire! Fire! is at the Museum of London until 17 April 2017. Tickets from £8 for adults (concessions from £6.40), £4 for children.