The Great Fire of London burned savagely for four days in September 1666. When it finally went out, the city rose from the ashes and was quickly reborn, or so the usual story goes. Historical and archaeological evidence tells quite a different story of the aftermath.
This week, London marked the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London by setting alight a 120 foot wooden replica of medieval London and floating it down the Thames to give the hundreds of spectators a glimpse of what Londoners would have seen as the Great Fire raged through the city 350 years ago.
For four days in September 1666, a firestorm raged through the city of London. A series of unfortunate events caused the fire to rapidly become uncontrollable, and it went on to lay waste to a huge portion of the capital.
The summer had been long, dry and hot, making the wooden buildings that made up the majority of the city the perfect kindling for a fire. As the fire broke out, unusually strong winds fanned the flames and swept embers into the air and onto other houses, setting new buildings ablaze faster than the rudimentary fire services could put them out.
Panic and rumours spread almost as quickly as the flames themselves. People began to blame the French and Dutch for starting the fire in an act of terrorism (the fire broke out during the Second Anglo-Dutch War and England had recently been responsible for some unsavoury acts of warfare abroad). Many believed the Great Fire was a plot concocted by the pope to wreak revenge on the country. Mobs lynched innocent foreigners, misguided vigilantes sprung up everywhere and eventually the military had to intervene.
On paper, the Great Fire of London can be seen as a tragic tale with an ultimately happy ending; the scale of the destruction was immense, but afterwards, the city was rebuilt in brick and stone, with improvements to its sanitation and defences against fire. Landmark buildings such as Saint Paul’s Cathedral were constructed, and the fire only killed a handful of people. Some have even argued that ultimately, the fire saved lives, as there were no further outbreaks of plague in the city after the fire, possibly due to the fact that overcrowding of buildings was reduced, and that it killed off many of the rats and fleas that spread the disease.
Remarkably, three centuries later, and archaeologists and historians are still discovering evidence about the fire, and starting to challenge some of these commonly held beliefs about the disaster. They argue that the happy-ending story told in schools fails to take into account the chaos and tragedy of the aftermath of the fire, and that the connection between the end of the plague and the Great Fire is over exaggerated.
For example, we’re taught that despite the massive scale of the destruction, only six people died, although reports do vary, but six is a commonly quoted number and most reports have the total number of fatalities in single figures. But this idea is being challenged, and archaeologists and historians have suggested that it’s possible that only relatively wealthy deaths were reported; that the poor who lost their lives would most likely have gone unnoticed or at least un-noted. But the idea that only a handful of people died in the fire also fails to take into account the people who died from exposure, hunger and disease in the refugee camps that were a direct result of the fire.
What’s more, few people are aware of the refugee camps that sprang up at Moorfields, Westminster, Islington and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Tens of thousands of people were displaced, their homes razed to the ground and they were given little or no compensation to help them to get back on their feet. While the wealthy were able to rebuild relatively quickly, historians have shown that thousands of Londoners were left destitute, displaced and homeless, still living in refugee camps more than eight years after the fire was put out.
Eventually, an order was released to clear the camps, and it’s unclear as to what happened to the thousands of people that had no where else to go.
When Time Team excavated at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, they were digging on a site where those left homeless by the fire had set up a refugee camp. They found evidence of temporary structures, as well as medieval pottery that had probably been left by people using the fields as a camp during the mass evacuation of the city.
The Museum of London also holds hundreds of artefacts, from pottery to artists impressions, from the fire – many of which are currently on show in its Fire! Fire! exhibition. Many of these artefacts reflect the violence of the fire itself, and give us a small glimpse into what it was like inside the inferno as it burned. The heat from the fire melted iron keys into their padlocks, warped and twisted roof tiles until they folded in half and even bubbled the ceramic glaze on household plates.
We may never know exactly how the fire started, or what happened to the thousands of Londoners who lost everything and spent the next eight years living in refugee camps around the city. But we can keep doing archaeology, and find artefacts that help us to understand and reflect on one of the most defining moments in the history of London.
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