Today in 1834 a huge fire swept through the old Palace of Westminster, destroying most of the medieval buildings. Caroline Shenton, of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster and author of ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’, has written a new article for the ‘Explore’ section of our website to mark the anniversary. Here is an extract from her article on the events of that dramatic night:
Complaints from MPs about the state of their accommodation had been rumbling on since the 1790s, and reached a peak when they found themselves packed into the hot, airless and cramped Commons chamber during the passage of the Great Reform bill. Unable to agree on a solution for new accommodation, in the end the decision was made for them. The long-overdue catastrophe finally occurred on 16 October 1834. Throughout the day, a chimney fire had smouldered under the floor of the House of Lords chamber, caused by the unsupervised and ill-advised burning of two large cartloads of wooden tally sticks (a form of medieval tax receipt created by the Exchequer, a government office based at Westminster) in the heating furnaces below. Warning signs were persistently ignored by the senile Housekeeper and careless Clerk of Works, leading the Prime Minister later to declare the disaster, ‘one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record’.
At a few minutes after six in the evening, a doorkeeper’s wife returning from an errand finally spotted the flames licking the scarlet curtains around Black Rod’s Box in the Lords chamber where they were emerging through the floor from the collapsed furnace flues. There was panic within the Palace but initially no-one seems to have raised the alarm outside, perhaps imagining that the fire – which had now taken hold and was visible on the roof – could be brought under control quickly. They were mistaken. A huge fireball exploded out of the building at around 6.30pm, lighting up the evening sky over London, and immediately attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The fire turned into the most significant blaze in the city between 1666 and the Blitz, burning fiercely for the rest of the night…
‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’ is available from Oxford University Press.