On the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire, Imogen Robertson visits the Museum of London’s dedicated exhibition.
London is thick with the memory of flames this month. As you might have noticed given the flurry of events, programmes, talks and books currently available, it’s 350 years since the Great Fire tore through the city destroying eighty-seven churches, one cathedral and more than ten thousand homes over the course of three days. To mark the anniversary the Museum of London has a gorgeous and thoughtful exhibition running until April 2017 which I can highly recommend, particularly if you are looking for an engaging way to introduce the fire to younger family and friends.
The visual design is gorgeous. It’s based on contemporary woodcuts which ironically gives it a fresh and modern look, and makes great and imaginative use of shadows, silhouette and sound. The children who were there when I visited were completely engrossed, watching the projections of flames and great woodcut curls of smoke playing across the walls, as well as dressing up as 17th century fire-fighters. I found plenty to enjoy there too, even if I thought people might look at me funny if I tried on the helmet. The exhibition is perhaps light on the squalor of those narrow streets, the terror which must have consumed the population as the fire burned, and some of the violence which followed but that’s fair enough given it’s aimed at a family audience and there is enough material on display for adult visitors to draw their own conclusions.
You enter through a narrow passageway with overhanging jetties and peer through the windows at 17th century Londoners going about their business on the eve of the fire, then emerge into Thomas Farriner’s bakery to watch the fatal spark leap from his oven. In the next room you can see the flames eating away at a map of the city before entering a series of galleries show-casing the museums collection of images, accounts and artefacts. Here you can handle burnt tiles and bricks as well as hearing extracts of letters, and peer at the first newspaper report of the fire, knowing the press which printed it was consumed the same day.
There is also an excellent final section which looks at the aftermath of the fire. Maps and images show a London which might have been, a fascinating slice of counter-factual, and the various rumours and conspiracy theories which circulated while the fire was still smouldering are examined and put in context. I did not know that Robert Hubert was hanged at the end of September after he confessed to starting the blaze as part of a Papist plot. On display is the cracked marble plaque proclaiming his guilt which was not permanently removed from the Monument of London until the 19th century, even though within months the official cause of the fire was accident compounded by a long dry summer and high winds.
There are a series of talks aimed at all ages during the exhibition, and I’m delighted to say I’m chairing one of them, ‘Fire! Fire! Fact and Fiction’, on 19 September. Curator Hazel Forsyth will be talking about the material culture of the period and what the wreckage left by the fire teaches us, historian Alex Larman will set the fire in the context of the political turmoil of post-Restoration, post-Plague London, and novelist Andrew Taylor will discuss how it has inspired his new book The Ashes of London, an explosive beginning to a new series of historical thrillers. Do come along. We’ll try and be gorgeous and thoughtful too.