Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Researching the Great Fire of London - Megan Rix

The Great Fire of London happened 350 years ago and raged its way through the city from Sunday the 2nd September until Wednesday the 5th 1666.

When Puffin asked if I’d like to write a story about the Great Fire of London I immediately said yes please. I needed to do lots of research as the details of the Fire and the time period weren’t all that familiar to me. But what I did know about, and very much wanted to write about, were the turnspit, or kitchen dogs, that turned the cooking wheels back then (a bit like a very large hamster wheel attached to a pulley to turn a spit).

Turnspit Dogs

The dogs needed to be quite small to fit in the wheel (itwould be too small for my goldenretrievers - not that I'd ever let my dogs walk in a cooking wheel, often with a bit of hot coal thrown in to keep them moving, forhours on end – horrible.) And the awful thing was when they didn’t use dogs they used geese or small children instead! Geese were supposed to be even better at turning the wheel than dogs. They could keep going for much longer, sometimes as long as twelve hours.

The turnspit dogs were called 'wheelers’ and so common at the time that no one wrote much about them. These hard-working little dogs were considered so lowly, little more than kitchen utensils, that no one thought to keep accurate records of them and there are lots of conflicting descriptions of what they looked like. I wish I could have met one of them but sadly the original turnspit dogs died out when they were no longer needed to turn the wheel any more. We do know that Glen Imaal terriers (like Woofer in my book) claim to be their descendants. I love these terriers’ distinctive ‘sit’ (in the picture).

What little description there is of the turnspit dogs makes them sound very similar to corgis (like Scraps in my book) and Queen Victoria kept retired turnspit dogs as pets. I expect any short-legged, long-bodied mixed-breed dog (like Teeth and Claws in the story) that was small enough to fit in the wheel and willing to work was used.

Walking the Route 
As part of my research I walked the route the fire took sothat I would have a clear idea of its spread andthe journey the canine and human characters in my story needed to make.  The book starts in 1665 and ends in 1666. Busy Finsbury Park area was just Finsbury Fields back then and many people fled through the Moor Gate to Moorfields to escape from the Fire – hard to imagine this busy area as all countryside now.

I also visited the London museum and the Banqueting Hall to get a feel for the opulence of King Charles II's court. King Charles’ love of dogs is very well known and he had quite a few of them that he doted on. Many, although not all, were small spaniels. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is of course named after him.

The King’s Evil

The publisher decided the manuscript was better without the part about the King’s Evil which I thought was a shame as I hadn’t heard of it before. But since the Middle Ages it had been believed that being touched by the King/Queen could cure Scrofula also known as the King’s Evil. There’s a picture of King Charles 2nd getting ready to do just that at the Science Museum:
I’m quite often asked to add or take out bits in my manuscripts and although I tried to see if there were any of the ‘angel’ coins that were originally used it wasn’t a vital part of my story so I took it out.

I hadn't heard of the Frost Fairs that used to take place on the River Thames when it became frozen over before doing my research.  These were huge events with football pitches, stalls, tents and even fires on the ice. One year the ice was so thick an elephant could walk on it.

Clicker Training
When the book was being copy-edited the copy-editor asked about the chickens I have escaping from their cage. She wasn't sure chickens would be able to copy spaniel Tiger-Lily after they've seen her escape. But have you seen the clicker trained chickens? It's amazing what they can learn to do - so long as they know what's expected of them. Someone sent me a video of them performing and I was just amazed. We've long known how well dogs respond to the clarity of clicker training. But horses and even elephants as well as other animals respond very well too. I always think it’s very arrogant of people to expect other species to understand our words when we don’t understand their sounds. Much easier for the dogs and other animals to understand sign language. Much easier for people who are a little deaf, like me, too.

You have to love a job that involves this much research and then you get to write the book and once it’s done head off on tour to talk about it with your dogs – first stop St Austell. J

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