Scorched remains of a tomb, wine jars and goblets, and charred floor tiles from where the fire started to go on display
On 3 September 1666 the London Gazette just found room to add one paragraph of breaking news: a “sudden lamentable fire” was blazing in London, having broken out in the small hours of Sunday morning. The edition went to the printers early on the Monday morning, and that afternoon the Great Fire of London reached the newspaper offices and burnt them to the ground.
A new exhibition at the Museum of London marking the 350th anniversary of the worst fire in the history of the capital includes the scorched remains of a tomb from Old St Paul’s cathedral, wine jars and goblets from the Lord Mayor’s cellar under Guildhall, a locksmith’s stock fused into lumps of rusty iron, charred floor tiles from a cellar two doors from the baker’s shop where the fire started, and some battered real lumps of stone, clay and metal which the public can handle.
In Pudding Lane, the narrow street of timber buildings, the shops and cellars around Thomas Farriner’s bakery – where the maid, who may have been too tired to rake out the ashes properly from the oven, became the fire’s first victim when she was too scared to climb out a window onto a neighbour’s roof – were stuffed with flammable material including brandy, oil, and tar.
“It was really the worst place in London for a fire to start,” curator Meriel Jeater said.
A few objects saved as the panic stricken citizens fled with anything they could carry – by the time the Gazette broke the news, the price of hiring a cart had gone up to £20, the equivalent of several thousand pounds – are also on display, including a charred bible, a beautiful pair of bed curtains, and a half finished piece of embroidery which would never be completed.
The exhibition includes a recreation of the narrow lane, with the smells of bread and scorched timber, and an ominous background crackle of flames. “We wanted to make it atmospheric and immersive without making it too frightening for school children,” Jeater said.
A week later when the Gazette got another edition out, more than 13,000 houses, 87 churches, St Paul’s cathedral and hundreds of shops, pubs, and businesses lay in sodden ashes, and 100,000 people were homeless. Most of the poorer citizens were camping out in shanty towns in the suburbs, and some would still be there eight years later. The king launched a subscription for the homeless, and the little village of Cowfold in Sussex send 53 shillings and nine pence.
Some profited by the disaster, wandering the smouldering ruins looting at will. In the ruins of St Paul’s the 150-year-old tomb of Dean John Colet burst open, revealing a coffin full of liquid, which two men tasted and judged “insipid”, and poked the body with a stick reporting that it felt like brawn.
In the aftermath the city was desperate for somebody to blame. A 10-year-old boy claimed to have started it as a prank, but fortunately for him was not believed, and a French watch maker who also claimed to have started it was judged mad but hanged anyway. Divine judgement on the sinfulness of the citizens was also blamed, and a stone plaque put at the bakery site in 1681, blaming Roman Catholics, was only removed because the number of people stopping to read it was causing traffic jams. The Dutch said it was an act of God in revenge for British troops looting and burning their town of West.
The exhibition puts the blame squarely on Farriner’s bakery, and includes a site map drawn for the commissioners in charge of rebuilding the city, which has the firm inscription “Mr Farriner’s grounde where the fyer began”.
Farriner insisted for the rest of his life that all his five taxed hearths and one oven had been properly raked out before he went to bed, but Jeater is having none of it. “On balance, yes, whoever was actually to blame there, it started in the bakery, all the evidence points in that direction,” she said.
Original source: The Guardian