Channel 5’s innovative series about the 1666 fire of London, The Great Fire: In Real Time is a real treat. Using recently discovered evidence, Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, Dan Jones and Rob Bell retrace the route of the destructive fire, providing a detailed minute-by-minute rundown of events, whilst telling the stories of the ordinary Londoners who were affected by the growing inferno.
How did you conduct the groundbreaking research for the show?
Quite a bit of it is making contact with the scholars who are working at the cutting edge of the field, and gathering their work together. We also looked at PHD theses, as it’s not necessarily the stuff that’s out in the public sphere. It was very hands on.
What was your favourite find in the archives you explored?
Shoemaker Sibbell Theame’s trade token. It was awesome to hold it and have that contact with her. There were also the tobacco pipes that were visibly damaged by the fire, which were really revelatory. It was also fascinating to look at at how many people possibly died – after all, it’s new information that a historian wouldn’t necessarily know without this investigation.
Why did you choose to focus on Sibbell Theame, Robert Vyner, and Joshua Kirton?
We wanted to get a cross-section of society. Robert Vyner was one of the wealthiest bankers in the land, and a close friend of Charles II. You’ve got his perspective from his mansion in Lombard Street. Joshua Kirton, the bookseller, is a middling sort of person. With Sibbell Theame you’ve got someone who has a profession, she’s a working woman – but she’s relatively lowly, and doesn’t have a lot.
Geographically, they’re from different parts of London – for instance, Sibbell thinks she’s going to completely escape from the fire. It was about getting diversity, but doing so through the three characters. They epitomize how the fire affected people. Seeing it from the human perspective brings it to life – otherwise it’s all statistics.
Who’s your favourite?
I’ve got a soft spot for Sibbell Theame. It’s partly because she’s such a troublemaker. There were all these stories about her getting in trouble with the authorities. Yet she still manages to negotiate – all credit to her!
What light do you think the show will shed on the extent of the fire damage?
Although the devastation wrought by the fire was huge, I think since people were scrabbling to get rid of their stuff, it shows they could get out of the way of the fire. It burned relatively slowly, so they could see it coming.
However, there were slums and shanty towns next to the river, with warehouses full of hemp, rope and tar (things that would have gone up quickly). The actual mortality rates might well be higher, because the people that died may not have been officially registered as being in London at the time. They were poor, and were in the buildings that burnt quickly. As viewers can see from Rob’s experiments with fire, poorer buildings were more likely to go up in flames. I’ve come away having my mind changed about how many people I think were killed. We can’t put a figure on it, but it seems likely to be many more than we think.
What do you think the wider impact of the fire was on London?
Unless a person was very wealthy and could get everything they owned away, they were going to find their buildings razed and their possessions lost. They’ve got to start from scratch and build themselves up again. It’s interesting to think about what that meant for society as a whole. The Great Fire devastated thousands of people, so it must have done something to their collective mentality – as the terrible event in Manchester has recently shown.
Do you think people today would react any differently?
We talked to a psychologist about this. People froze; they just stood there and let things burn, because they were paralysed by trauma. But then there were others running around like headless chickens. I think what we believe has changed over time, but I’m not convinced human nature has fundamentally changed. We all like to think we’d be perfectly calm and collected, but actually if we’re not trained to be then maybe we would panic just as they did.