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London's Burning - Museum of London (preview)

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION that follows Londoners’ experiences of the Great Fire, London’s Burning, runs until December 31, 2009 at the Museum of London.

In the early hours of Sunday, September 2, 1666, the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Bludworth, was raised from his bed to inspect a fire in the City. Distinctly unimpressed, he declared “a woman could piss it out” before returning to his slumber. Five days later only a fifth of the City of London remained standing, as the fire which elicited Bludworth’s disdain took hold of the city and very nearly destroyed it.

London’s Burning – the Great Fire of London 1666 tells the story of the most famous disaster in London’s history through the voices of those who lived through it.

Focusing on eye-witness accounts, London’s Burning reveals the personal side of the tragedy: Samuel Pepys rescuing his bags of gold at 4am in his nightshirt; Elizabeth Peacock and her three children being left with “not so much as a stool to sit upon”, and the boys of Westminster School who helped fight the fire.

The exhibition also explores why a fire, which claimed less than ten lives, scarred London as surely as the Great Plague which claimed 100,000 only the year before.

A dramatic video installation will not only transport visitors back to the streets of 17th Century London and let them experience how a bustling city, full of merchants, traders and craft workers, collapsed into ruins, but also let them hear from Londoners left to pick through the debris of their lives. The gallery contains interactive displays and questions, allowing children to engage with the story and think about how the fire changed the lives of Londoners and the city they lived in.

A wide range of contemporary objects bear testimony to the strength of the fire and the desperate and futile efforts made to quell the blaze. A 17th century oven matching the likely culprit for the fire’s origin in Pudding Lane is on display, next to the hopelessly ineffectual fire fighting equipment of the day.

The panic which enveloped the city’s residents can be read in these paltry squirters and hooks, which would have been utterly useless against a furnace which reached some 1000°C. Archaeological finds from a building which stood two doors down from the origin of the fire on Pudding Lane give a physical record of an episode which literally scorched itself into the fabric of the city.

London’s Burning also tells of a city’s remarkable survival, how London responded to the fire and rebuilt itself. The blame, recriminations, scapegoating and summary justices are all here. As are the plans for new beginnings, designed by Christopher Wren and others, cast aside by financial imperatives. But these sit side by side with moving artistic responses to the Great Fire, and the legislative procedures that were its legacy.

Meriel Jeater, exhibition curator, says: “The exhibition highlights the personal tragedies within the disaster that affected not just London, but the whole country – the woman who, while rescuing an apron full of chickens from the flames, was attacked by a mob who thought she was an arsonist carrying fire balls, or Robert Hubert, the disturbed scapegoat for the fire, who was hung before the official enquiry declared him innocent.

These stories, and many more, show how people dealt with the fire in some of the most dreadful and the most heroic ways.”

Venue: Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN.

Telephone: 0870 444 3852.

Times: Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5.50pm; Sunday, 12pm to 5.50pm; last admission 5.30pm.

Admission: free.