I’m sure you’ll all agree that it’s about time we had another Secret London history lesson; so grab yourself a cuppa and make yourself comfy. Today’s topic of choice, I hear you ask? The Great Fire of London, of course – well, the first person to discover it.
The Great Fire of London started on September 2, 1666 (357 years ago, almost to the day) in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. It destroyed more than 80% of the city over the course of five days and burnt down 13,200 houses, but chances are you already knew that. What you may not know however, is that new research conducted by Professor Kate Loveman and the Museum of London has identified exactly who it was that first witnessed the fire. Part of the story that, until now, has been fairly unclear. Interesting, right?
Despite there being plenty of eyewitness reports of the fire, including famous diary entries by John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, some key details about what happened at the very start of the fire have never been resolved. Who exactly was in the bakery that night? And who first raised the alarm about the fire The Museum of London has announced today that new information from letters, pamphlets, and legal and guild records has been combined to to show that Thomas Dagger (Farriner’s journeyman and servant) was the person that discovered the fire and initially raised the alarm.
Reports differ on who was inside the bakery when the fire started but a letter from the MP, Sir Edward Harley, gives the most detailed account. Harley wrote that Thomas Farriner’s ‘man’ was woken after 1am ‘with the choke of the smoke’. Previous sources have made no mention of the unnamed man (who escaped with Farriner and his daughter out of an upper window after raising the alarm) but new information gained means that this ‘man’ can now be identified, for the first time, as Thomas Dagger.
The research undertaken for the museum’s new site in Smithfield (which opens to the public in 2026) will lead to exciting new ways to tell and teach the story of the Great Fire. The Museum of London’s popular Great Fire of London display will be reimagined, putting the stories of real Londoners at the forefront of a newly designed, interactive space at the new site.
Kate Loveman, Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Leicester, said: “It was fascinating to find out more about what happened on that famous night. Although most of the evidence about the Farriners is well known to historians, Thomas Dagger’s role has gone unrecognised. Unlike the Farriners, his name didn’t become associated with the fire at the time. Soon after the disaster, he merges back into the usual records of Restoration life, having children and setting up his own bakery. His is a story about the fire, but also about how Londoners recovered.”
The research was funded by a project, Reimagining the Restoration, which has developed exciting new teaching resources on the Great Fire. These resources are now available on the Museum of London’s website for teachers and children who want to explore life in the 1660s.
A key aspect of these new teaching resources is materials which show children, women, people of colour, and deaf people at the time of the Great Fire of London. The project aims to give teachers new and interesting ways to teach the Great Fire and to give learners a sense of place and ownership over their history, and thus sparking interest in the 17th century.
Further information about the research on Thomas Dagger can be found here.
The new Great Fire of London teaching resources developed for the museum can be found here.