I recently watched with interest as a giant 1666 model of London was set ablaze. From the comfort of my sofa and the incredible clarity of HD television, I marvelled as a 400 ft long wooden model was engulfed in flames.
Of course some may see this as a completely pointless exercise and waste of lottery funding or whatever body underwrote the project; however as a spectacle it clearly impressed the crowds along the Thames. Perhaps more importantly, as a social historian and genealogist, the whole exercise gave some insight into the drama which unfolded over four days in September 1666. As the cameras panned across the model from end to end and zoomed into show the intimate moments of destruction, the true horror of what the people of London faced 350 years ago, was vividly brought to life. The conflagration claimed St Pauls Cathedral, the Guildhall and some 10000 homes, before finally waning on the 5th September as the wind which had whipped the flames along so ferociously, began to abate.
Of course 1666 was along time ago, but it's not difficult to imagine the hardships inflicted on the displaced population of London. There was of course no method of support for people facing difficulties and though some initiatives were made to help people in distress, much suffering must have ensued in the days, weeks and months following the disaster. Imagine for a moment your own loved ones facing homelessness and potential starvation. Today of course we have the means to help and certainly we would stand ready to help our own families faced with such trials and tribulations, but consider for a moment our ancestors. Is it possible your forbears could have been caught up in the unimaginable terror of the Great Fire? They may be ancestors, but they are family ancestors! Where they part of the packed population surrounding Pudding Lane where the fire started or where they part of the packed masses in St Pauls Cathedral, praying for divine intervention to save them? It may not be possible to determine what your ancestral Londoners were doing at the time of the fire, unless they were part of the aristocracy or administrative authority, but we may be able to place them there and possibly where they lived.
Wouldn't you like to know?