The Great Cheese Mystery
This is a specific variant on the ‘Digging up a Mystery’ activity – in this case the mystery is ‘How did the Great Fire of London start?’ but, interesting though that investigation is, starting with a much more puzzling title like ‘The Great Cheese Mystery’ is, well, much more puzzling and intriguing for pupils. As with other ‘Digging up a mystery’ activities this is all about motivation and curiosity, stimulating students to ask questions and maybe a sense of wonder. And, oh yes, it’s good for developing students’ understanding of how we find out about the past through a variety of sources.
Instead of beginning with the Fire (or even the plague) we start with a scene in a garden and the teacher’s task is to take on the role of Samuel Pepys – but he’s not scribbling in his diary. He’s digging.
You may wish to bring in a spade as a prop – and you need to have a piece of cheese hidden about your person, ready to reveal it as the thing you are searching for. At a later stage you’ll need the mystery cards which provide pupils with the clues they need to work out why Pepys had buried his cheese and why the Fire started. A set of clue cards is provided below.
Your role is to explain to your pupils what you’re doing and lead them into guessing what you’re looking for. Your script need only be brief and could go as follows:
‘My name is Samuel Pepys. I live in London and this is my garden. I don’t normally do any digging myself – I’m far too important for that – but I’m trying to find some things I buried the other day.
It’s been a terrible few days. When I realised my house was in danger I rushed home and buried some of my most valuable things in the garden. I thought they’d be safe under ground. It’s tiring work digging them up again. I need a rest. Just to give me a breather, see if you can guess what I buried.’
Now you can get ideas from the class – maybe get a couple of them to make a list on the board. Respond in terms of that’s a good idea or I don’t have one of those. After the list has grown and the class is running out of ideas – start digging again and after a moment discover your cache of goodies – and this is where, by sleight of hand, you pull out one of your most prized possessions – a lump of parmesan cheese!
Now move on – ask students why they think Pepys buried his cheese – and what else did he bury?
Answers - Pepys buried wine and his papers with his cheese on 4th September 1666. On 3rd September, dressed in his nightgown, he’d already removed his most valuable belongings – silver plate, money and his ‘best things’ by cart, to the safety of a friend’s house at Bethnal Green.
Now for the causes of the Fire. Pupils can approach this as a mystery to develop their thinking skills. A good guide to using mysteries can be found in Peter Fisher’s excellent book Thinking through History (Chris Kington Publishing.) This approach means focussing on the methodology and process as much as on the content. Yes, it’s an interesting topic with lots of contemporary resonance, including the scapegoating of foreigners and the execution of a hapless lad who confessed to starting the fire – but look for the transferable thinking skills – can pupils begin by hypothesising, plan an approach to the cards, discuss how certain they are about their conclusion, explain how they went about their task and identify what aspects of this they’d like to remember to use next time they undertake this kind of mystery. There’s far more to this than a piece of cheese but that piece of cheese provides a different and intriguing, motivating start.
And you can then go on to discover what happened after the Fire. A really good activity is for pupils to act as town planners, reconstructing London after the fire. They have to grapple with issues such as how to feed the refugees, how to fund the rebuilding, should the new houses be in wood or stone etc. One of the attractions is that they can compare their conclusions with the actual decisions and results. Pupils may also bring some knowledge of how we cope today with natural disasters, resulting from, for example, floods and create useful links between the past and the present.
Clues for the Great Cheese Mystery
You may wish to amend the detail to meet the needs of your classes and you need to decide how many cards to give out at once. You could start with just 3 for each group and ask them to think of an explanation based on those cards e.g. use A, F and K to focus on the outbreak in Pudding Lane and create a strong early hypothesis or A, B and C to show a greater variety of ideas (and include a red herring). Then feed in the rest of the cards two at a time or in greater numbers, depending on how you wish to challenge the class.
A. The fire began on 2 September 1666 in the house and shop of Thomas Fariner who lived in Pudding Lane. Fariner was the King’s Baker.
B. In 1666 England was at war with Holland. Many English people also thought that the France and Spain would soon declare war on England.
C. 13,200 houses and 87 churches were destroyed in the fire.
D. The captain of the Swedish ship told the court that his ship had not arrived in London when the fire began.
E. Robert Hulbert, a Frenchman, confessed that he had started the fire by throwing a fireball into Thomas Fariner’s house. Hulbert was put on trial, found guilty and executed.
F. Fariner’s shop was full of wood for keeping his ovens burning throughout the day. He said that he had checked the ovens before he went to bed and the fires were all out.
G. The weather at the end of August 1666 had been very dry. A strong wind began blowing on 2nd September and continued for three days.
H. Many foreigners were arrested to save them from attacks by crowds.
I. The houses in Pudding Lane and all the streets nearby were made of wood. The streets were very narrow and the roofs nearly touched each other across the street.
J. 200,000 refugees fled from London and camped in the fields outside the city.
K. Fariner was woken at two o’clock in the morning by one of his servants. All the downstairs rooms were on fire so Fariner, his wife and daughter and the servant climbed out onto the roof and escaped across their neighbour’s roof. One servant was left behind and was killed.
L. As the fire spread, crowds attacked anyone they thought was a foreigner. Shops owned by foreigners were looted.
M. At his trial, Hulbert said that he had met a mysterious stranger in Sweden. The mystery man had brought Hulbert to London on a Swedish ship and then took him to Fariner’s house and given him the fireball to throw through the window. Hulbert did not know the man’s name and he was never found.
- What differences did it make approaching this topic through the mystery of Pepys digging in his garden instead of other approaches? Was this simply about initial interest or did this have a deeper effect on how students thought and tackled the topic?
- Were you able to bring out transferable skills e.g. hypothesising, planning the process of the investigation, working as a team?
- What impact did this activity have on students’ understanding of evidence and how we find out about the past in History?
- When else in your course can you use this Mystery-style activity?
Helpful reading for teachers is Adrian Tinniswood's book:
By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London