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The Day Parliament
Burned Down

Report 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 pieces of 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 Turner
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 disbelief.  It 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.

Julie Rashbrooke

Related Links (open in new windows):

Caroline Shenton's website
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 2013)