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Step back 350 years and experience the Great Fire of London in 1666

Step back 350 years and experience the Great Fire of London in 1666

2 September 2016 Natasha Sutton-Williams

The Fire! Fire! exhibition at the Museum of London combines sights, sounds and interactive exhibits to immerse visitors in the events leading up to, during and after the Great Fire of London. London Calling talked to curator Meriel Jeater who illuminated us with some of the extraordinary happenings during the Great Fire.

London Calling: What is one of the most unusual stories from the Great Fire?
 
Meriel Jeater: The fate of St Paul’s Cathedral is totally fascinating in lots of unexpected ways. St Paul’s was filled with tombs of illustrious people who had been buried there for years. John Colet was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, died in 1519 and was buried in a tomb in the cathedral. It broke open during the Great Fire and two men discovered his coffin. Out of curiosity they opened the lid and found it was full of liquid. They drank it and said it tasted ‘insipid and ironish’. Then they poked him with a stick. They said his body had the texture of brawn, which is like a meat jelly.
 
LC: Several days into the fire, fire-fighters started blowing up houses with gunpowder in order to save the city. It sounds counterintuitive. How did that work?
 
MJ: They didn’t have particularly good fire-fighting equipment, nothing like a decent fire engine, so the best way to stop the fire was to create a firebreak ie. a gap in the buildings to stop the fire from spreading. They needed to demolish houses that weren’t even on fire to create this gap. When the fire was really raging, it kept overtaking the fire-fighters. They needed to do it much faster, and the quickest way was to blow up houses. They would put a barrel of gunpowder underneath the structural timbers and the whole building would go up. There are descriptions of the houses lifting up a few feet and then collapsing.
 
LC: In the City of London archaeologists have found underground time capsules full of objects dating back to 1666. How did the fire create these hidden treasure troves?
 
MJ: If people abandoned their house, and had things stored in their cellar, it would all get left behind. After the fire occurred you’d have a layer of fire debris on top and that’s what seals it in place. In the exhibition we have various hoards of objects that were left behind in cellars across the city. During the aftermath of the fire, when they were clearing away the rubble, the quickest way to get it done was to push it into cellars, so you have these layers of fire debris sealed underground. Archaeologists call it the fire horizon. There are earlier fire horizons from the Roman period when London was burnt down by a Boudiccian rebellion in AD 60. You get a metre of burnt material from that fire underneath the fire horizon of the Great Fire.


Map showing the progress of the fire, based on the fire map of London, Wenceslaus Hollar, 1666. Copyright The Museum of London.


LC: How do you create the impression for visitors of the exhibition that they are stepping back in time?
 
MJ: We wanted to create a really immersive experience in the exhibition and recreate Pudding Lane. It’s a theatrical imagining because we don’t really know what Pudding Lane looked like. We don’t have any engravings. We wanted to create the bakery where the fire started. It’s not a slavish reconstruction of a 17th Century bakery, we just wanted to give it the look and feel of what it might have been like. Our designers suggested that we go down an illustrative book approach, very much inspired by 17th Century woodcuts, prints and engravings. I was always hoping that you could get a sense of the story of the fire even if you didn’t read anything, that you could experience it visually from the way the design, objects and sounds change as you move through the exhibition.
 
LC: Can you still experience the buildings affected by the Great Fire today?
 
MJ: Yes, you can still walk down Pudding Lane. It’s interesting that they rebuilt London largely on its existing street plan, so you can walk down all those old streets that initially burnt down. There are buildings that were rebuilt as a result of the fire; St Paul’s Cathedral is the most famous one. There are brick buildings they rebuilt after the fire that you can still see. In the City of London you have lots of narrow streets and alleyways once you go off the main roads that really give the feel of 17th Century labyrinthine London.
 
LC: What is your favourite first-hand account of the fire?
 
MJ: Samuel Pepys’ diary is amazing. One of my favourite things from his diary is when he witnesses a cat being pulled alive from out of a ruin, but all its fur has been burnt off.
 
 
Fire! Fire! runs till 17th April 2017 and is accompanied by an illuminating programme of talks and events. Tickets are priced £8 for adults and £4 for children online, with family tickets available. For further information, please visit the website.
 

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