The Great Fire Of London

350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1666

Emma Adams and James Weston Lewis (author and illustrator) Wayland (publisher)

‘In the depths of the night on 2nd September 1666,

 something stirred in London that would change the city forever…’

‘The Great Fire of London’ is both a powerful and beautiful depiction of the historic event.  This visual retelling of one of the most well-known disasters in London’s history is a fitting commemoration of the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire.  A delicate balance between non-fiction and narrative, it takes the historical facts and weaves them into a spellbinding story.

‘Only a day after the first flames had escaped the oven, the Great Fire was unstoppable.

 It raged through the city … By evening, the flames burned so brightly that night looked like day,

 and ash fell from the sky like snow.’

Adams’ writing begins by setting the scene: London in 1666, a very different place to the city we know today .Through her words, we can see the conditions the people of London lived in, feel the ferocity of the spreading flames and meet some of the influential people associated with the events. The story of The Great Fire is carefully crafted, pausing in its chronological retelling to describe the city before and after the flames took hold, as well as introducing the reader to Samuel Pepys (and his very famous diary)  and Tom Farriner – the accidental fire starter.  Rather than the story ending with the dying embers of the fire, it continues on to show the gradual rebirth of the city.  The reader can see how the city and its inhabitants change and develop: the rebuilding of London and some of its most famous buildings and the beginnings of the city’s fire brigade.  I particularly like how extracts from the Samuel Pepys’ diary are sprinkled throughout the text, adding an authentic voice to the retelling.

The striking illustrations take the reader on a journey as the fire spreads: from the first spark from the baker’s oven on Pudding Lane to the licking flames that fed on the dry wooden frames, thatched roof and pitch that made up the city’s buildings.  The careful use of colour brings the fire alive on each page. Through Lewis’ enchanting illustrations, the reader watches as London burns to the ground before gradually being rebuilt again. 

This would be a dazzling starting point to lessons about ‘The Fire of London.’  Children will be completely absorbed into the book by its atmospheric and detailed illustrations and the story that stands alongside it. It also fits perfectly with any study of London’s changing architecture and the conditions that many people lived in during this time in British history.   Further investigation of Samuel Pepys’ diary would highlight the importance of primary evidence in the study of history, as well as opening the doors to other significant events: The Great Plague and the coronation of Charles II. Towards the end of the book is a map showingthe area devastated by the fire.  Children could use this as an opportunity to do their own map work, comparing historic maps of London to modern ones as well as finding the buildings and areas that are mentioned in the book: St Paul’s Cathedral, Monument, Pudding Lane, Guild Hall, London Bridge, Islington and Highgate (this could be a perfect excuse for a school trip to London too – Yay!).  In addition to this, circumstances surrounding the fire, how quickly it spread and its devastating impact would be an excellent opportunity to learn about combustion and fire safety.  People who lost their homes in The Great Fire would have lost everything, just as people now who are affected by natural disasters – earthquakes, flood and forest fires – also do.  However, the people of London learned much from the terrible devastation of the fire, lessons that changed the city, its buildings and laws forever.  An interesting point for exploration and discussion would be whether any positives can ever come out of or be learned from such disasters.

‘The Great Fire of London’ is a stunning picture book and the perfect introduction to an important part of British history: an event that scarred the city of London, changing it forever.