The Day Parliament
of the lecture
given by Dr Caroline Shenton
on October 22nd 2014
Caroline, a parliamentary archivist, had us gripped
from the start of her talk as she set the scene for us.
The new castellated facade of Westminster's Parliament Buildings,
designed by architect James Wyatt, hid a rambling maze of stairs and
corridors leading to endless rooms and stuffy chambers which had
evolved over the centuries. Even The House of Commons
converted by Sir Christopher Wren gave complaint for cramped and
unsuitable conditions "packed in like herrings"!
On 16th October 1834 two tourists were being shown
round The House of
Lords and commented on how hot the floor was under Black Rod's Box to a
shrug of the shoulders by their guide! Little did they know
that under the floor was a furnace to heat the House of Lords and in it
staff were burning years of tally sticks. These were slender
wood that were used as evidence that dues had been paid to the
Exchequer. Appropriate notches were cut into them relating to the
amount paid and then split lengthways to act as a foil and
counterfoil. A big clear out of these tally sticks was fuelling
the furnace. Ironically, the House had just debated and
banned the use of child chimney sweeps and maybe consequently seem not
to have swept their own chimney to this furnace!
At 5.00pm the furnace was re-stoked with yet more tally sticks and
the furnace room closed up for the
night. The chimney caught light but still went unnoticed.
At 6.25pm an enormous fireball burst out of the building. The
conflagration could be seen from as far as Windsor Castle watched by
the King and Queen. Also Sir Charles Barry, as he
crossed the South Downs from Brighton, is reported as saying: "what a
chance for an architect!"
At 7.05pm James Braidwood, Superintendent of The London Fire
Establishment, is called. He attends with 14 engines manned
by 66 fire fighters. Eventually it was to become all and
any hands to the pumps.
JMW Turner describes the sight as 'awesome and terrible' as he
watches and sketches from a little boat. He later depicts
the scene so powerfully in various paintings.
|Joseph Mallord William
The Burning of the Houses
of Lords and Commons, 16 October 1834 (1835)
Cleveland Museum of Art (Photo: The Yorck Project)
Charles Dickens, then a reporter, watches in
is interesting to note how it must have had a profound effect on him as
he so often puts major fires in his subsequent literature.
At 9.00pm Pugin describes The House of Commons as "going up like a
Roman candle". Fire engines are joined together in a relay
to pump water from one to the next in an attempt to save The
Hall. Everything seems engulfed by flame but people still
bravely risk life and limb in saving valuable records from within.
At 2.00am the Thames Fire Fighting Barge, which could not
previously get close enough due to it being low tide, finally
starts to successfully pump and direct its hoses saving The Law Courts
and Westminster Hall.
Unbelievably no one was killed and rising from the ashes was the start
of the National Archive and the publicly funded London Fire Fighting
Brigade not to mention the Palace of Westminster as we know it today.
Related Links (open in new windows):
Art in Parliament - The Parliamentary Art Collection
Our lecturer, Dr Caroline Shenton
with her detailed published account of this momentous event
(awarded Political Book of the Year