At 6 o’clock on the evening of 16 October 1834 the old House of Lords burst into flames. By 3 a.m. most of the Palace of Westminster was a burned-out wreck. The Lords and the Commons, the Law Courts and the ramshackle mess of medieval offices, kitchens and houses which made up the Palace had gone up in smoke. Only Westminster Hall remained intact. It had taken roughly 500 minutes to torch over 500 years of English history. This disaster forms the subject of Caroline Shenton’s book.
The crowd hailed the fire as retribution for the cruel Poor Law Act of 1834. Victims of social care cuts perhaps feel just as incendiary about parliament today. But this was no Guy Fawkes plot, and there was no hint of arson. The fire was caused by a cockup: as Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, said, it was ‘one of the greatest instances of stupidity on record’. The stupidity, however, was systemic — the fire started in a way that seemed to encapsulate all the failings of the old regime which Melbourne and the Whigs were pledged to sweep away.
At 6.30 on the morning of the fire, two workmen began to burn two cartloads of wooden tallies. Tallies were a relic of medieval government — small sticks, notched to mark sums of money and split in two so that one half was retained in the Exchequer as a receipt. Incredibly, tallies were still used for government accounting until the 1820s, but by 1834 they were obsolete. Rather than make a bonfire, which was judged too risky, the palace overseer ordered the workmen to burn the tallies in the furnaces beneath the House of Lords, which heated the chamber above.
No one supervised as the workmen piled the tallies into the furnaces, stoking the flames to such a heat that they melted the copper flues and the House of Lords filled with smoke. Responsibility for supervising the House of Lords belonged to a housekeeper, but this was a sinecure, and the person who received a salary for the job appointed a deputy who actually did the work. On the day of the fire, the woman on duty was acting as a tour guide, as she depended on visitors’ fees for her pay. Security in today’s Houses of Parliament may seem a tad over-zealous, but this loose arrangement of sinecures and deputies was astoundingly casual. Though the housekeeper noticed the smoke in the chamber and the growing heat of the floor, no communication took place between her and the workmen below.
The blaze was the most spectacular since the Great Fire of 1666, and a crowd of hundreds of thousands flocked to marvel at the flames lighting the night sky. Attempts to dampen the roaring inferno by squirting water from primitive pumps were pathetically ineffectual.
The one man who did understand the theory of fire-fighting was James Braidwood, the Scottish head of the London Fire Engine Establishment and the hero of Shenton’s account. Arriving just as the fire threatened to attack Westminster Hall, Braidwood took charge. ‘D—n the House of Commons,’ cried the Whig Lord Althorp, ‘let it blaze away; but save, oh save the Hall!’ Braidwood positioned his fire engines inside the Hall and, while bystanders manned the pumps, his officers climbed out onto the roof and trained their hoses onto the seat of the blaze in the approved fashion. Miraculously — helped by a sudden change of wind — Westminster Hall was saved.
Parliament buildings in flames are of huge symbolic importance. The burning of the Reichstag in 1933 signalled the demise of Weimar Germany’s short-lived democracy and the rise of Hitler’s dictatorship. The burning of Westminster, on the other hand, symbolised the end of old corruption and beginning of modern politics. The old House of Commons occupied the colourful medieval chapel of St Stephen’s, which Wren had converted into a sober wooden box. It was desperately cramped, sweaty and overcrowded. The 1801 Act of Union with Ireland had brought 100 Irish members, and there was room for only half the MPs to sit, wedged tightly together in a space which measured no more than 33’ x 48’. The 1832 Reform Bill swept away medieval franchises, and this seemed to make St Stephen’s all the more anachronistic.
Reforming politicians were already agitating for a new House, and the fire made this inevitable. Pugin, who was amongst the crowd, was thrilled at the ‘glorious sight’ of cheapskate structures by Wyatt going up in flames. ‘What a chance for an architect!’, Charles Barry is reputed to have said as he stood watching the fire. Barry got the job, and built his massive new palace — Gothic revival on the outside, dull regularity within — on the site of the old.
Barry razed most of the ruins, with the result that we have completely forgotten the previous building. The strength of Shenton’s book is that it gives us a true sense of the riches that were lost with the fire. Even Pugin’s picture-book Gothic in the House of Lords was no match for the real thing: the painted chamber of Henry III had been among the wonders of medieval Europe.
Almost all the papers and parchments of the House of Commons were destroyed, which, says Shenton — who is herself an archivist and Clerk of the Records of the Parliamentary Archives — was one of the greatest archival disasters the UK has known. Records, which were stored in odd places all over the old palace, were hurriedly thrown out of windows, trampled and pilfered by the crowd, scattered and charred and soaked by water from the fire engines. One consequence of this holocaust of medieval documents was the establishment of the Public Records Office in 1838.
Shenton has organised her account around the day of the fire, so that all the action takes place in the 24 hours from 6 a.m. on 16 October. Her microscopic research on the individual protagonists has enabled her to reconstruct almost every minute of that dreadful day. No one has written about the burning of Parliament before, and this vivid, superbly researched book is a definitive account of one of the greatest cockups in English history.