A new and different story for the Great Fire of London

I was so excited when the Museum of London got in touch.

They wanted me to create a brand new flagship offer for SEND schools: A completely new “Great Fire of London” session.

The commission was challenging:

  • To create a brand new story.
  • Can be delivered by different freelancers and is flexible enough so they can modify it to suit their individual strengths whether this is music, drawing, drama or whatever.
  • Is simple and portable enough to be delivered either at the museum or (more importantly) in schools across London.
  • Is about the Great Fire and historically factual and accurate.
  • Can be adapted easily for groups with varying needs including learning difficulties, profound autism (including students who are pre-verbal) who have behavioral issues, physical disabilities or any combination.
  • It should definitely not be babyish!
  • It expresses something of the Museum of London’s unique archives and collection regarding the Great Fire
  • It has an emotional heart and characters who you care about.
  • It explains something of the fire’s relevance to a modern audience

A Brand New Story. Everyone knows about the Great Fire. It started in Thomas Farriner’s ovens at Pudding Lane and spread through the city. We know about  Samuel Pepys burying his cheese and fleeing to Moorfields. The same essential story is told in all the children’s history books, by all the London museums… by every theatre in education company ever. I’ve told it myself countless times… It is THE Fire of London story. But is it the ONLY fire of London Story?

So I thought about the fire’s relevance to our planned audience.

When I met Hazel Forsyth, the MOL’s curator, she said that the people in London after the fire didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t mention it unless they had to. They got on with their lives and tried to be as ordinary as possible even though they might have lost everything.

This sounded familiar. It was the same during the Blitz. In fact it’s always the same.

There’s something about looking forward and establishing normality which feels universal…  I read Hazel’s authoritative and fascinating “Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker” detailed research describing real 1660s individuals and their lives before and after the fire.  The book led me to Sibbell Theame.

Theame was a shoemaker who employed a journeyman and apprentices. In the 1660s where women were expected to be even more quiet and subservient than they are now, she ran a business, had a trade AND cared for her children, she fought tooth and nail for money, premises and opportunity. She spoke out loudly and insistently to demand what she needed- knowing if she didn’t get it, she and her children would likely die. She also had a boyfriend (she was a widow) and didn’t allow business rivals to publicly shame her for it, though they tried to. Whatever it took to survive in a harsh world!

And then the fire took everything from her. Undaunted she began another business selling beer to students… and the last Hazel was able to ascertain, Theame was attempting to re-start her shoemaking career while also hoping to make and sell gingerbread on the side.

This story seemed perfect for our new project. The clincher was the gingerbread! When making a sensory story, it’s great to be as messy and interactive as possible and what an amazing opportunity to pay with treacle, flour, ginger and cake! (not forgetting a cloth afterwards for the clean up!)

Me and Avni Patel from the MOL made up a hamper of props and I made my own gingerbread scent to a 17c recipe. As you can see, I am obsessed with using really good quality props! When your audience are going to access the story in a sensory way, you better have the very best, most realistic and most effective objects!

We used all the above and also a massive crackly tarpaulin, a ukulele, a bass drum, a gong, a thunderer, water, silk, and the museum’s special replica leather shoes.

Avni helped me to devise a new BSL sign for “The Great Fire of London”. We also had dressing up at the end!

The MOL is offering the new session for special schools right now… so if you would like to arrange for YOUR students to find out about the amazing Sibbell and how she survived the great fire, find out more here.