One of the most popular exhibits in the Museum of London is the model of the Great Fire of London. It’s something that people often ask me about, even if they haven’t visited the Museum for many years – they want to know whether we still have it on display as it was one of the most memorable aspects of their visit. Few people realise that the model could be viewed as an artefact in its own right as it is so old. In fact, it is 100 years old this year!
The model was made for the London Museum in 1914 by J. B. Thorp, whose company still exists today as Thorp Modelmakers Ltd. It was delivered in the autumn of 1914 and, within a couple of weeks, was fitted with revolving electric lamps to create the illusion of flickering flames. It remained part of the London Museum displays throughout the museum’s various moves to different venues.
In December 1976, the Museum of London opened (after the merger of the London Museum and the Guildhall Museum) and the Great Fire model was put on display in the new museum. It had improved lighting effects and a dramatic soundtrack including fire sounds and a reading of Samuel Pepys’ description of the fire by Michael Horden, which were provided by the BBC. The ambitious renovations to the model meant that it wasn’t finished until 4am on the day that the Museum of London opened!
The exhibit continued as a visitor favourite until December 2006 when it had to close for three years during building work to create the Galleries of Modern London. In the meantime a temporary exhibition, London’s Burning, told the story of the Great Fire and its aftermath. We discussed moving the model into the temporary exhibition space but this proved impractical – the model is actually huge (it’s over 4 metres long from front to back) and is very delicate. Moving it would have been costly, very complicated and would have risked damaging the aging display. The model was boarded up in its original location to protect it and a new video was commissioned for London’s Burning instead of using the model. The video included readings of eyewitness accounts, not just from Samuel Pepys but also from Thomas Vincent and John Evelyn, and told the story of the fire day-by-day.
In February 2010 the model re-opened in its newly refurbished War, Plague and Fire gallery, this time with the video projected into the ‘sky’ above it (see video above!). Fibre optic lights replaced the old light bulbs and the lights were timed with the video to show the fire spreading across London. A bigger window was installed in front of the model to give a better view for visitors. These improvements gave the model a new lease of life. It’s wonderful that an exhibit created a century ago can have such an enduring appeal, and, with some care and attention, continue to be relevant to modern audiences.
You can see more objects relating to the Great Fire on Collections Online.