To fetch out the fire: reviving London, 1666

Within five years of the Great Plague killing over 100,000 people and European wars impoverishing the capital, London would face another devastating blow.


September 1666, a small flame in a bakery quickly sparked an inferno that would engulf the city, lasting just under five days and subsequently destroying one third of the city. The Royal College of Physicians was among the many made homeless from the fire. Its building on Amen Corner was lost along with most of its precious collection items. The ‘Fetch out a fire’ exhibit looked back at how the fire was born, its destructive path and the College’s unique story of recovery, rising like a phoenix from the ashes.  

A sketch of London before and after the Great Fire of 1666.

The exhibit followed the fate of the physicians as they battled the plague, suffered overwhelming loss and almost complete ruin, managing to emerge into new hope for the future. Objects from the RCP museum, rare books and archives collections were among the items on display.  

The 1666 Great Fire of London was the final calamity for a city weakened by more than three decades of destruction. The exhibit discovered the fascinating story of the razing and rebuilding of the RCP in the heart of a city engulfed by firestorm. It followed the story of London’s 17th century physicians as they were divided by war, battled with plague and were almost ruined by flames, only to emerge with a magnificent new home designed by Robert Hooke. The surviving 17th century collection included medical remedies and potions, fascinating archives, silver, rare books and our stunning collection of portraits, including some that survived the fire and have the scars to prove it...

When moving through the exhibit, visitors were introduced to items like the Nuremberg iron chest, a locked chest filled with the college’s treasures that was robbed in 1665 leaving the college bankrupt. An Antimony cup and case on display provided insight to life at the time, where many people would rely on the assistance of unlicensed healers, apothecaries, surgeons or self-care and family remedies for the relief of symptoms. Antimony cups were used in the home for self-care treatments. They probably inspired the expression ‘to kill or cure’. If used correctly, they caused purging by vomiting or stools, a treatment for a wide range of ailments. If not, the toxic draught was fatal.

An oil on canvas painting loaned from the Society of Antiquaries, showed the moment that the fire spread to St Paul’s Cathedral. Miraculously, only 6 people officially died during the fire, as shown by a collection of the yearly bills of mortality. More deaths are almost certain, but people were not required to notify them, and some people may have been cremated and never found 

After the fire, the streets of London were filled with suspicion and accusations. People wanted someone to blame for the fire, and they turned on practically everyone. A royal proclamation by Charles II on display declared that Wednesday 10 October was a ‘Day of Solemn fasting and humiliation, to implore the mercies of God’. 

Great fire of London By kind permission of The Society of Antiquaries of London