It’s 1666, and inside a bakery on Pudding Lane a fire breaks out that sees the path of a developing city change irrevocably. The Great Fire of London raged for three days, destroying most of medieval London and causing £10 million worth of damage. It seems unbelievable these days that a whole city could have almost been wiped out by fire, but as this exhibition shows, the events that unfolded in September 1666 were both devastating and dramatic for the individuals living within the city’s confines. Whilst focusing on the duration and aftermath of this landmark event in London’s history, Fire! Fire! also considers the rebuilding and architectural development of the modern city we know now.
As you walk in there’s a conscious feeling of being transported back to 17th century London, to Pudding Lane, with the creaking beams of wooden houses and silhouettes of residents behind city windows. Walking below 17th century rafters, you can understand how the fire would have spread in the cramped space between packed together wooden houses (the common conception that the fire was caused by thatched roofs is actually a myth as they had been banned years before). Ultimately, a combination of predominantly wooden houses, strong winds fanning the fire across the city and the fact that it struck in the middle of the night, whilst people were asleep, contributed to the fire spreading across the whole of London.
Photo credit: Oil painting of the Great Fire seen from Newgate, c1670-1678 courtesy of Museum of London
The exhibition looks at individual stories of survival across London. Charred ceramic tiles, iron keys and even a waffle iron appear blackened and melted, indicating the sheer power of the fire and the astronomical temperature it must have reached. In response we see examples of some of the artefacts that people desperately tried to save, from tapestries and bed hangings through to virginials (large and valuable keyboard instruments with elaborate paintings on them) – there’s even a story of famous diarist Samuel Pepys’ parmesan cheese, then a highly sought-after item that Pepys buried in his back garden to save from the fire. One of the most important and elucidating elements of the exhibition are the extracts from letters written at the time, describing the devastation the fire caused to people’s homes, families and belongings. From the lamenting words of Lady Hobart as she waits for the fire to arrive in her part of the city through to Robert Flatman’s letter to his brother informing him that despite the ruin of his home, his precious books were safe, the story of the fire is tied together by individual stories amidst London’s burning landscape.
Photo credit: X-Ray of melted iron key from Boltoph Lane, courtesy of Museum of London
Visitors are invited to attempt to control the fire through a series of interactive exhibits, giving us an idea of the scale of the destruction. On display are some of the tools used to (mostly unsuccessfully) curb the fire including leather buckets, fire squirters, water pipes, gunpowder and most strikingly, a wooden fire engine from the 1670s (restored by the museum). Consisting of a large bucket in the middle with pumping arms on either side to move the vehicle and a hosepipe spouting water, it really becomes clear how the city would have struggled with the fire rampaging from house to house.
But as we know, from the burnt remnants of a city sprung a new one. Moving from the red-tinged room with the noise of crackling fire in the background, the focus turns to a new London that has learnt from its past mistakes. Fire insurance was introduced and court orders from the time show us that King Charles II ordered the construction of temporary markets and a fund for those who had lost everything, whilst also condemning the theft of possessions in the chaos of the fire as unlawful. Having commissioned six surveyors to oversee the building of a new London, there are intricate architectural plans that show how the city was to develop into a modern (and significantly more fire proof) London, with mandatory brick houses and more effective city planning.
Photo credit: Sir Christopher Wren's plan for rebuilding the City of London courtesy of Museum of London
From a city in ruins to one of the largest powers in Europe, Fire! Fire! inventively explores one of the defining moments in London’s history. It does a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere of the time whilst offering plenty of interactive exhibitions to encourage children to excavate, discover, and enjoy history. Tying together individual stories of struggle with the nationwide efforts to rebuild the city, Fire! Fire! creates a cohesive narrative with imaginative visuals and fascinating artefacts.
Fire! Fire! runs at The Museum of London until 17 April 2017. Enjoy 50% off the standard ticket price with a National Art Pass. Find out more and book tickets here.
The National Art Pass by Art Fund offers free entry to over 240 museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, as well as 50% off entry to major exhibitions. The scheme supports the work of Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art. Find out more here.
This article was written in partnership with the Art Fund, who have provided the London Calling team with a National Art Pass to explore their affiliated venues and events. All opinions are based on our experiences.