Buckets, barrels and bravery: The Great Fire of London in objects

By ally davies on 5 Sep 2014

Fire bucket

Imagine: the fire is nearing. You can feel its heat on your face and hear the shouts of those around you who are fleeing, arms loaded with possessions, not stopping to help the efforts to stave off the fire’s advance. Some people are fleeing over rooftops, others desperately filling the streets. But you’re determined to help- it’s what’s expected of a good citizen. It’s 1666 and there is no organised fire brigade, so you know that the only chance of slowing the fire comes from local people like you doing your bit.

You can see people using axes and fire hooks to pull down buildings in an attempt to create gaps which the inferno can’t jump, and you muck in, seizing one of the leather buckets stored in the church and attempting to staunch the flames with water. You’re lucky- unlike many of the cracked leather buckets used by others, yours has been well looked after, perhaps by the owner who has carefully painted their initials onto it: SBB. It serves you well as you hurl bucket after bucket of water towards the crackling flames.

Fire bucket with 'SBB' initials

Fire bucket with ‘SBB’ initials


But it’s a hopeless battle- you know that the streets around you, near the end of Pudding Lane where you stand, are lined with warehouses piled high with flammable goods, and the air is already heavy with the smell of burning rope and oil. You realise with horror that the cellar below you, stacked with barrels, will only serve to increase the fire’s ferocity. Panicking, you drop the leather bucket, and it rolls away and slips down into the burning cellar. You turn, coughing at the dense smoke as the flames reach the barrels below, and you run for your life.


Remains of one of the wooden barrels excavated by archaeologists in the cellar of a shop on Pudding Lane.

Perhaps that’s how it happened, perhaps not- we’ll never know for sure. But what we do know is that 308 years later, in 1974, Museum of London archaeologists found a charred leather bucket in a burnt cellar at New Fresh Wharf. This site at the end of Pudding Lane, a short walk from the museum, would have seen the full force of the fire. On looking at the damaged bucket, still bearing the painted ‘SBB’ and the remains of a date (1660 or 1666), it’s hard not to imagine the experiences of the person who might have used it.

This is the hope of a new project from our colleagues at the British Museum, setting out 100 objects to use in teaching history in schools. The Museum of London’s fire bucket is one, and as with all the objects included, it links to key topics within the new history National Curriculum (in this case, the ‘significant events beyond living memory’ section for key stage 1 students, aged 5-7). Education minister Nick Gibb, speaking at the project’s launch, noted that lessons taught using objects in this way ‘will help bring to life the history pupils are being taught in the classroom’. Museum lovers among us have long appreciated the value of objects in giving thrilling human insights into familiar histories, so we’re delighted to be part of this exciting project.

Do take a look at the bucket on the 100 objects site and in our own Collections Online, and read more about the fire in our handy pocket history which gives a potted overview (as well as disproving some Great Fire myths!). And best of all, teachers and students learning about the Fire of London through our leather bucket can come and see it, in the flesh, on display in War, Plague and Fire. You can almost smell the burning as you look at it…

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