The Great Fire: A City in Flames

Written by Ann Turnbull
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

London, September 2nd, 1666. Ten-year-old Sam loves his dog, Budge, and enjoys working for the jeweller, Mr Giraud, but the eleven-year-old André Giraud makes his life a misery. It’s Sam’s own fault. Before he lived with the Girauds, Sam used to taunt André for being French and lame. Now the tables are turned.

It’s been a hot, dry summer. When Sam is woken by the church bells signalling fire, he’s not surprised. There are often fires in London’s old timber houses. They are usually soon extinguished; but this fire is far more dangerous.

Rumours spread that it’s the work of foreigners, and the Girauds are French. André and Sam are sent to deliver a valuable necklace to a wealthy merchant in the city, and told to return home immediately (Mr Giraud’s house is threatened by a mob) but Andre can’t resist seeing what’s going on and orders Sam and Budge to come with him.

It’s one thing to watch a dangerous fire from a safe distance, and quite another to escape when it gets out of control. The fire raged for four days, and Ann Turnbull dextrously follows each twist and turn of events as the danger escalates and new disasters befall. We feel the Girauds’ panic and desperation as their home and workshop is lost. I liked the scene where they are camping in the fields outside the city wall, their belongings piled up around them.

The author is very good at getting across the terrifying actuality of the Great Fire: the effects of smoke and the dangers of falling timber as Sam and André struggle to escape from a burning house, for example. And it’s good that Sam and André are finally able to put aside their mutual hostility, and work together. Children of seven plus should enjoy this book.