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06 September 2016

London's Burning!

Readers of our previous blog post will be aware that today is the last day of Shakespeare in Ten Acts, the British Library’s popular exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of the Bard.

As the exhibition draws to a close, our attention has turned to the Great Fire of London. After raging for several days, it was finally extinguished on 6 September 1666, 350 years ago today.

Here in Music Collections, we have one particular question in mind: what do Shakespeare, music and the Great Fire of London have in common?

The answer lies in the well-known song "London’s burning":

         London's burning, London's burning

        Fetch the engine, fetch the engine

        Fire, fire! Fire, fire!

        Pour on water, pour on water

Still popular in schools today, the song is often sung in a round, with each singer starting after the previous one has sung one line of text. The words are often considered to be about the Great Fire of London. However, the earliest known notated version actually dates from 1580 and bears the words “Scotland it burneth”. It forms part of the Lant Manuscript, held in the collections at King’s College Cambridge (King's College, Rowe MS 1), and is set to essentially the same music.

Rowe MS 1_item 36

“Scotland it burneth” (King's College, Rowe MS 1). Reproduced by permission of the Provost and Scholars of King’s College, Cambridge


And now for the Shakespeare connection. The song is alluded to in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, Scene 1. Grumio asks Curtis to prepare a warm fire for guests:

        Curtis: Who calls so coldly?

        Grumio: A piece of ice. If thou doubt it, thou may'st slide from my shoulder to my heel, with no greater a run but my head and my neck. A fire, good         Curtis.

        Curtis: Is my master and his wife coming, Grumio?

        Grumio: O ay, Curtis, av; and therefore “fire, fire; cast no water”.

If you’re struggling to remember how the tune goes, here’s a version from our printed music collections for four-part choir arranged by one William Schaeffer and published in 1930. Enjoy!


British Library,  VOC/1930/SCHÄFFER