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Remembering the Great Fire

This day 356 years ago saw the outbreak of a fire that would change the world. How we build property, the layouts of towns and cities and most of all the need for some sort of organised fire protection. 

“Firefighting” itself has been around since the first human created a fire. They quickly had to work out how to also extinguish and control it. Records, research and actual evidence shows that early fire starters knew exactly what they were doing. Surrounding a fire with rocks and cleared foliage to contain it. And in the exact same way a dinosaur becomes a fossil, we’re able to see the chemical reaction of the aftermath from water being poured onto a hot fire to extinguish it. 

Early Romans had fire watches, people with dedicated jobs to solely watch over a city for the outbreak of fire. Sounding a bell if a fire was spotted. To be honest, no different to the fire alarms we all know of today. 

Following on from London's great fire, people started to take more care in building property. Keeping space (a fire break) in between buildings, using better stronger materials to build and most of all, organised groups with the dedication of firefighting. 

Early fire brigades would have been run by volunteers, over time many people started to pay insurance companies for protection of their home and goods from fire. This swiftly lead to the creation of insurance fire brigades. Organised groups of people with equipment ready to tackle a fire at a moment's notice. During the Victorian era, insurance fire brigades started to fade away as towns and cities created their own fire brigades, as a service available to all. 

Stepping back to the great fire itself. There’s still a lot we’re learning about. Including the number of people who actually lost their lives due to the fire. With the outbreak of the plague followed by the fire and the lack of record keeping of population, we have had to work mainly from word of mouth after the incident. But think about it… if a full family lost their lives in the fire, who would still be here after the fire to tell this story. A whole family line could have been easily lost with no record of them ever even existing. The class system could have also had a bearing upon who was and was not recorded. It’s nothing like today where everyone who is born has to be registered. Some families were completely unregistered. We believe the actual body count was around 6 people in total but again with the sheer heat of the fire, some building remains were non-existent never mind a human body. 

We’ve all grown up with the story of the Great Fire but even though it’s one of the most talked about, incidents such as the Blitz caused more damage and death than the great fire itself. The fire service we know and love today have developed and are still developing with the growth of the towns and cities. The higher the building the taller a fire engine needs to reach, the more technology develops such as electric cars, the fire service are always fighting to stay on the safe side.

A lot of people would probably say that one of the biggest changes to the fire service is ‘rescue’ becoming a ‘fire & rescue’ service shows how the role has changed but again that’s not actually new. Even if large historical incidents like the Great Fire and the Blitz. They always have ‘rescued’. 

It’s a changing world we live in. Such a fire as the one in 1666 could have been fully avoided with modern smoke and fire alarms. Social media would have been full of information, photos and videos, informing people of the incident as it was happening. Just imagine trying to evacuate a full city today. Rationing supplies trying to survive, not knowing if your family survived or even have anything to return to. 

Not many people talk about this side of the incident… imagine, amongst all the chaos and confusion people were entering properties and taking for themselves. Stealing! Profiting from others loss and misery. Even if your home did survive the fire, you were most likely to return and find that it had been robbed. Some people say it was a battle of survival, some people simply took advantage of the incident. Rightly or wrongly… 

NESM is an emergency services museum, so we are always looking into every story. Hospitals and an Ambulance Service did not exist in 1666 but did you know carts and sheets of wood were used to carry the injured away from the fire (just like an ambulance today) AND on the other side of the river a “hospital” was created to treat the injured. A mass of tents were erected in safe places to care for such people along with the homeless while the City rebuilt. 

As we step into September and the start of a new school year, on this day we launch the start of our new research and historical resources on our website. Starting with the story of the great fire and early brigades. This new free online resource showcases some of our museum collection, historical content and research along with free activities to do at home or in school.

Get your school involved! The Great Fire is one of our most popular full day workshops we hold here at the museum, with a jam packed day out for your class at the museum including workshops, hands on activities and time to explore the timeline of our emergency services through the museum itself. A visit to the museum will provide the opportunity for all to step back in time and come face to face with museum objects and vehicles all while being inside our Victorian combined Police, Fire and Ambulance Station. 

Slightly further away from the museum itself? We’ve created “Topic Takeover” days where our team will bring hands on learning and controlled chaos directly into your school for the full day, anywhere in the country! Join our team as we bring history to live in a truly jam packed day in your classroom!

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