Today I went to one of my favourite schools to do a new workshop. We did the Great Fire of London, an exciting workshop for KS1. Working with extremely young children is one of those fun things in life. They are enthusiastic, over excited and often unable to keep to the point. Whilst we were dramatically exploring 17th century London one little boy put up his hand to tell me that his nanny was in heaven.
During the last week or so I have been researching the Great Fire of London and trying to think of ways to explain and immerse the children in the 17th century. Obviously there are many things in history that we just can not tell children about. Which is right and proper until they are adults and they ask you why you left out all the good bits when they were at school! And some things can be hidden whilst others are too wonderful not to be shared. One of our activities was making wattle and daub. We made the hurdle and then used airdrying clay to represent daub. “Of course, children, they did not really use air drying clay… they used PIG POO!”
On a serious note the Great Fire of London is one of those really terrible disasters. It was so awful at the time that the French King was moved to offer to send food and aide to London. As I read the accounts from the time I reflect that the only comparable description that I have heard is the description of the Coventry Blitz by a man who watched it from Baginton. I remember one person saying that they were in a train and saw the sky red with fire. He asked the guard what it was and the Guard replied that it was Coventry. At its height the Great Fire of London could be seen from Oxford.
London had endured fires before and it struck me that it was strange that they dealt with this one so badly. The Mayor gave no leadership and left the city on the first day, the people ran keen to protect their own property rather than deal with the fire and so many laws and ordinances had been ignored and not enforced which made this fire trap, a fire trap with fire traps inside it. The Romans knew the importance of preventing fire and forbade thatch, smithing and other fire related professions in their cities as did Charles II who repeatedly passed laws and comment on the dangerous nature of the slums of the city of London. The reasons for this are that Royal authority was suspect after the Civil Wars. The city of London had been an important Parliamentary stronghold and the magistrates were old enough to have served in the war against Charles father. It is probable that they were not going to be told what to do by this jumped up poodle keeper. It is probable that this was the reason the Mayor rejected the help of James soldiers. The idea of Royalist soldiers marching through Parliamentary London was incredibly dangerous. Second the slums of London were growing very quickly and needed cheap materials to build. There was no central planning and the medieval city expanded upwards creating tenements that met over the street and put dangerous industries in the centre of a tinderbox dry city.