Articles

The Great Fire of London 350 years on

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2016 by kmflett

The Great Fire of London 350 years on

greatfire

I’ve had an office, as a trade union officer representing managers and professionals, in the City of London for many years.

The location near Blackfriars Bridge was destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666 and again by the Nazis in 1940. I was not present on either occasion it may surprise some to learn.

But the 350th anniversary of the 1666 Great Fire does interest me both as a professional historian (though early modern Britain is not my period) & as someone who works in the City.

Of course the modern city is nothing like that of 1666 except that many of the street names and to some extent the street layout remains the same.

It’s a pity in some ways that the well organised and fascinating events to mark 1666 in the City fall mainly at the weekend when nearly all City workers are not there (there are limits to agile working in the Square Mile if not elsewhere).

That said the scale model of the City in 1666 on a barge near Blackfriars Bridge (to be set alight on 4th September) is superb and the Domino trails to mark the progress of the fire is an innovative idea. The fire projection on St Paul’s Dome looks great though I’ve only seen that on social media, not usually aiming to be in the office in the hours of darkness (from which I have an excellent view of St Pauls..)

However the Fire, Fire exhibition at the Museum of London at the Barbican runs until April 2017 and is well worth a visit.

Exhibitions at the Museum are always well organised and run and this is no exception. It’s best to book on-line in advance (certainly at weekends) and there is a modest (by City standards) entrance charge.

Fire, Fire gives an excellent impression of the devastation that was caused, what people did as a result and the subsequent rebuilding of the City.

As you’d expect in any modern Museum display there are interactive displays, even down to burnt objects from 1666 recovered from an archaeological dig in 1979 near Pudding Lane which you can touch.

Of course the fire was chronicled mostly by the well to do- Samuel Pepys, Sir John Evelyn and so on. Most inhabitants of the City of London in 1666 would have had, at best, a rudimentary grasp of reading and writing.

The story of Pepys burying a Parmesan cheese (& wine) in his garden in case the fire came is well known. He also records that at least 1 in 3 barges on the Thames taking goods of the well to do to safety contained Virginals (harpischords).

Whether it was the case that only around 10 people died in the fire I think is doubtful though one would have expected reference to burial grounds if significant numbers had perished.

We do know that while the better off got to rebuild their houses- in brick and subject to a payment to the City authorities, disputes were dealt with by special Fire Courts which sat for some years after 1666- the poor were left to camp in tents on Moorfields and the order for this area to be cleared came only 10 years after the fire.

The exhibition also deals with the various rumours about who started the Fire proving that such things exist independently of the Sun and Mail trying to stir them up. Some thought it was the Dutch (England was at war with Holland) some blamed the Jesuits (i.e a plot) and others thought that the City’s water had been sold off (well, yes, right idea, wrong century).

It is of course a world we have lost except if you wander the narrow lanes and courts of the City of London it is a world that in some ways still exists. That is part of the fascination of 1666 now.

 

 

 

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