Reliving the Great Fire: historian Kate Williams live-tweets the 1666 London blaze

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Historian and television presenter Kate Williams is live-tweeting the Great Fire of London.

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Since Monday Williams has been retracing the events of September 1666, when St Paul’s Cathedral, the Guildhall, the Royal Exchange and more than 13,000 houses were devastated by fire.

Tweeting with the hashtag #GreatFire Williams has been recreating the five-day blaze, drawing on witness accounts from John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, and schoolboy William Taswell.

But in an interview with historyextra, Williams explained she had not planned to live-tweet the fire.

“I have been using Twitter for about a year, and I often tweet ‘on this day in history’,” the historian said.

“On Monday I tweeted that on 2 September 1666 the Great Fire of London broke out in Pudding Lane. I wrote that a family fled over a roof but the maid remained, and someone tweeted me asking ‘what happened to the maid?’ and it went from there.

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“I did not have any plans to live-tweet the fire, I just had such a good response to my initial tweet. I realised people were really interested, and so I carried on.

“It grew out of nothing; it’s really thrilling. It makes me smile that people are tweeting me with questions they could easily find out the answer to themselves.

“People’s interest motivated me. I cannot really believe how many people have been in touch.”

The historian continued: “I like the fact I’m in the moment.

“Without wanting to sound pretentious, it makes me more caught up in the emotion of the story.

“I’m thrilled that it brings a sense of fear; a sense of peril and not knowing what is happening.

“It gives that immediacy and fear that people at the time must have felt. I’m feeling it too.

“The story took me over – after a television interview on Tuesday I carried on tweeting until 4am. 

“I couldn’t sleep while the fire was raging – so much happened at night. But then people on Twitter started telling me ‘Stop! Go to bed!’ I didn’t want people to think I was weird, so I stopped.

“I hope I didn’t freak out any of my followers!”

Asked whether live-tweeting could be considered a new way of bringing historical events to life, Williams said: “I think it’s really interesting. Lots of teachers have been tweeting and telling their students to follow me.

“There’s nothing I love more than telling a story. It could be an exciting tool.

“The only problem is I’m used to having a lot of words, and a lot of 17th century documents are written in quite a prolix way, so condensing it to 140 characters while making sure it makes sense is difficult. 

“But it’s quite a good discipline challenge for me.”

Asked whether she would live-tweet again in the future, Williams said: “I think I have got to.

“My new book Josephine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon comes out in November, so perhaps I’ll live tweet Josephine and Napoleon’s first meeting and the divorce.

“As for the Great Fire, I will keep going – I’m responding to demand, so if people tell me to stop I will stop.

“And of course as the fire starts to wane I’ll tweet less.”

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Kate Williams is due to attend our History Weekend in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. There on Saturday 26 October she will present a lecture on Josephine Bonaparte, entitled ‘Josephine Bonaparte: Mistress, Empress and Collector’