To Fetch Out the Fire’: Reviving London, 1666 a Beastly Year

Detail- Fire of London, Anglo Dutch School c1666 (c) Society of Antiquaries
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Receipt book ‘Onions’, photography by John Chase, courtesy Royal College of Physicians, London

‘Horse dung, hens’ droppings, cat’s foot, pig fat, eggs and plain old red onions’, are ingredients integral to potions, poultices, salves and ointments produced by following a myriad of extraordinary recipes from seventeenth century books and herbal medical texts.

They were used to treat burn victims of The Great Fire of London in 1666 and will go on display in a new exhibition ‘To Fetch Out the Fire’: Reviving London, 1666 on show from September 1, 2016 to December 16, 2016, at The Royal College of Physicians museum, London.

On loan from The Society of Antiquaries of London will be a magnificent oil painting completed in the aftermath of the fire in the style of the Anglo-Dutch school. It reveals the old St Paul’s Cathedral engulfed by flames and the sky consumed by smoke, turning day to night. Conservation revealed the dark, brooding image caused a later artist to mistake the work for a nighttime scene and so he added a moon and its reflection in the river.

Detail- Fire of London, Anglo Dutch School c1666 (c) Society of Antiquaries

Fire of London, Anglo Dutch School c1666, courtesy Society of Antiquaries

Today, a blood orange sun has been restored, the vista supporting the testaments of eyewitnesses that the conflagration made midday seem to be as dark as midnight.

Claiming lives, destroying buildings, goods, peoples possessions and livelihoods, the Great Fire of London obliterated virtually every trace of the old medieval city, one that had been six centuries in the making.

The display will mark the 350th anniversary of that terrible disaster, which destroyed some 13,200 houses, nearly 90 parish churches and 50 livery company halls; in total about four fifths of the city.

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls

John Hayls (1600-1679), Samuel Pepys at the time of the Great Fire of London, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

At the time diarist and public official Samuel Pepys was virtually the only person who did not ignore the fact that the fire was gaining a great foothold… I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire…

By then it was uncontrollably leaping from roof to roof, and so he went on a long and torturous journey on foot to the old Palace of Whitehall, so that he could alert King Charles II and his court.

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Receipt book ‘Conserves and Burnes, photography by John Chase, courtesy Royal College of Physicians, London

The archives of The Royal College of Physicians contains numerous texts. Its thirteenth to nineteenth century manuscript collections include rare medical treatises, domestic medical recipes and medical reports on public figures and royalty amongst numerous treasures.

Artifacts that evaded the destruction will be integral to the show, including a stunning assembly of portraits; some bearing the scars to prove the fire touched them.

Emma Shepley, senior curator, museum of the Royal College of Physicians, said

“By the time of The Great Fire, the Royal College of Physicians had been in existence for almost 150 years. Yet the College, like so many of the city’s institutions, had been weakened by the terrible events of the mid 17th century. Civil war had inflicted casualties and divided members along political lines, more recently plague had wrought devastation on London, killing perhaps a quarter of the population and, through looting, deprived the College of many of its precious treasures.

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Herbal book, antimony cup, cauterising iron, apothecary jar, photography by John Chase, courtesy Royal College of Physicians, London

“Already facing bankruptcy and strife, the destruction of its home, ravaging of its priceless library and removal of its source of income by the flames that raged through the city in September 1666 could have finished off the Royal College of Physicians forever. But it didn’t. Instead, London’s medical community revived the injured, rebuilt its headquarters and the profession emerged resurgent. It’s a remarkable tale, and in many ways a metaphor for the indomitable spirit of London as a whole. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to tell the story today, on the anniversary of The Great Fire, drawing on our remarkable collections that survived this cataclysmic series of events. ”

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Receipt book ‘Take new hens dung’ photography by John Chase, courtesy Royal College of Physicians, London

This exhibition will open a window onto the world of organic medicines, seventeenth century style, when mountebanks abounded and one remedy it seems was as fatal as another. Quacks were also innumerable, and in no way were they hampered by the thought of any sort of ethical code.

Long heralded by ‘visionaries’ as a year of disaster when hell fire and damnation would rain down on sinful Londoners, 666 being the number of the beast in the Bible’s book of Revelation, the Great Fire reinforced the puritanical claim, that divine retribution would be enacted on that day of ‘dreadful judgment’

The year before in London the mainly illiterate population, who grew these stories verbally, had been totally ravaged by the abominations of the plague, which also killed thousands and thousands of people. The Great Fire was a calamity of the greatest proportion.

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Receipt Book ‘To fetch out the fire’ photography by John Chase, courtesy Royal College of Physicians, London

Sarah Backhouse, exhibition curator of ‘To fetch out the fire: reviving London 1666’, said

“At the Royal College of Physicians we are incredibly fortunate to be in possession of a collection that spans more than five centuries of London’s history, including good times and bad. The middle part of the 17th century is remarkable as it was both the best of times, for the spirit of intellectual curiosity and advancement, and the worst, for the human misery inflicted by war, plague and fire.

On February 28th 1667 Pepys noted: ‘…I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep a-night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning, through thoughts of fire’.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

To Fetch Out the Fire: Reviving London 1666
Royal College of Physicians
01 September to 16 December 2016

The exhibition and museum are open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm and there will be a program of events.

Admission is Free

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