Parliament, Politics and People Seminar: Caroline Shenton

Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the History’s Commons, 1832-68 project and one of the Victorian Commons bloggers, reports back from the second ‘Parliament, Politics and People’ seminar of the term, given by Caroline Shenton earlier this week.

The ‘Parliament, Politics and People’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research recently heard an extremely interesting talk from Caroline Shenton of the Parliamentary Archives on ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’, the subject of her recently published book from Oxford University Press. Caroline’s illustrations, which ranged from depictions of nineteenth-century fire engines to masterpieces by J.M.W. Turner, brought to life the dramatic events of Thursday 16th October 1834. On that day the medieval heart of the old Palace of Westminster was devastated by the most significant fire to take place in London between 1666 and the Blitz. The blaze, caused by the burning of tally sticks in the furnaces under the House of Lords, was so ferocious that it could be seen from Windsor Castle. Having prevaricated for many years about the need to replace the cramped House of Commons chamber, MPs had the decision made for them. The veteran Radical Joseph Hume had been among the most prominent advocates of change, and a member of the large crowd which came to watch the fire declared that ‘Mr. Hume’s motion for a new House is carried without a division’.

As well as providing fascinating insights into the layout of the Palace of Westminster before the fire, Caroline gave a gripping account of efforts to fight the fire, showing the problems caused by lack of co-ordination between the different forces which turned up to assist. Chief among these was the London Fire Engine Establishment, formed in 1833, which was joined at the fire by its mascot, a dog named Chance, who was something of a celebrity. The volunteers who undertook the physically demanding task of pumping water for the engines were paid in beer. Despite the confusion, Westminster Hall was saved from the flames, and public records were evacuated from the building by horse and cart, although many documents perished in the flames. It was this gap in the parliamentary archives which originally prompted Caroline’s interests in the events of 1834.

Caroline concluded her talk by outlining some of the consequences of the fire, which had a major impact on London’s visual landscape. The Lords and the Commons found themselves in temporary accommodation for the next 15 years while a new palace was built around them. The fire sadly proved the point of those who had been lobbying for greater care and attention to be paid to the storage of public records, and prompted the passing of the Public Record Office Act of 1838. The fire was also followed by calls for the creation of a public fire brigade for London, although these took longer to bear fruit. A less obvious but highly intriguing effect of the fire was that the nation’s standard weights and measures were badly damaged, and had to be recast, although suggestions that this might be an opportunity to adopt decimalisation were not pursued.

K.R.

As well as Caroline’s excellent book, you can also read Dr Philip Salmon’s blog on the fire for the Victorian Commons.

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