Burning of Parliament
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament is the popular name for the fire which destroyed the Palace of Westminster, the ancient home of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, on 16 October 1834. The blaze, which started in two overheated chimney flues, spread rapidly throughout the medieval complex and developed into the biggest conflagration to occur in London since the Great Fire of 1666, attracting massive crowds. The fire lasted for many hours and gutted most of the Palace, including the converted St Stephen's Chapel (the meeting place of the House of Commons), the Lords Chamber, the Painted Chamber and the official residences of the Speaker and the Clerk of the House of Commons. Westminster Hall and a few other parts of the old Houses of Parliament survived the blaze and were incorporated into the New Palace of Westminster, which was built in the Victorian Gothic style over the following decades.
The fire was caused by the destruction of tally sticks. Treasury officials had ordered in 1724 that the sticks' use be discontinued by the now-literate clerks of the Exchequer; however, the sticks remained valid and were not completely abolished until 1826. A device for keeping records of contracts for the illiterate brought about the destruction of both Houses of Parliament,[page needed] Charles Dickens mocked the episode in an 1855 speech to the Administrative Reform Association:
...it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? ....The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who lived in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; we are now in the second million of the cost thereof....
The responsibility for disposing of the tally sticks fell to Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works at the Palace. He decided against burning them on a bonfire out in the open, as he feared such an action would upset the neighbours. The decision was made to burn the sticks in the underfloor coal furnaces that heated the House of Lords chamber. On the morning of October 16, Weobley assigned the task to two Irish labourers from the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong. The work went on all day; witnesses recalled seeing both Cross and Furlong throw great handfuls of sticks onto the fires, despite the risk of the burning wood overheating the copper-lined brick flues, which coincidentally had not been swept for over a year. Weobley, already well aware that the archaic jumble of buildings that made up the old palace presented a major fire risk, had warned the two men not to overfill the furnaces or stoke the fires too high but his instructions were ignored.
The first indication that something was wrong came that afternoon when the on-duty housekeeper at the palace, Elizabeth Wright, was showing round two gentleman tourists. They complained that the House of Lords chamber was full of smoke and noted the exceptional amount of heat coming up through the floor. Nonetheless neither Wright nor anyone else pursued the matter any further. Cross and Furlong clocked off in the late afternoon, having completed their task. Mrs. Wright locked up the Lords chamber at 5pm. Within an hour it was discovered to be ablaze. It is believed the over-stoked furnaces heated the flues to such an extent that their copper linings collapsed, causing the exposed brickwork to heat up, and igniting the timber joists that supported the stone floor of the chamber above. This allowed the fire to spread to the vast range of combustible wooden and fabric furnishings inside the Chamber itself.[page needed]
The fire was one of the biggest conflagrations seen in London since the Great Fire of 1666, and an enormous crowd flocked to Westminster to witness the spectacle, including Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, and many of his cabinet. Firefighters belonging to the London Fire Engine Establishment, the newly professionalized service under James Braidwood, arrived at the scene but, realizing they would be unable to stop the fire spreading around the palace site, concentrated on saving Westminster Hall. The House of Commons chamber, housed within the former St Stephen's Chapel, soon caught fire and Westminster Hall was under threat. Heroic efforts by firefighters and civilian volunteers, who dampened the Hall's great 14th century hammerbeam roof with water, prevented it from catching fire and ensured its survival. The fire was eventually brought under control; but not until most of the old Palace had been destroyed. Along with Westminster Hall, the only other surviving remnants were the Jewel Tower, St Stephen's Cloister and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which was located directly beneath the destroyed Commons chamber.
The English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) painted the burning of the Palace of Westminster from memory, having witnessed it at first hand.
The British standard measurements, the standard yard and standard pound, were both lost in the blaze. Also lost were most of the procedural records for the House of Commons, which dated back as far as the late 15th century. All of the actual Acts of Parliament survived, however, as they were Lords' records stored in the Jewel Tower at the time of the fire.
Yet while the fire was regarded by many as a national tragedy, it was also the occasion for ribald songs, jokes and much celebration amongst those who bore grievances against the political establishment. 'Oh, What a Flare Up!' was published (c. 1838).
The Palace of Westminster was rebuilt according to a design by Sir Charles Barry with Gothic Revival detailing by A.W.N. Pugin. Though Dickens deplored the cost, the building is one of the most familiar landmarks of London.
The story of the 1834 fire was retold in The Day Parliament Burned Down by Caroline Shenton, which book won Political Book of Year in 2013.
- Gunpowder Plot, the failed attempt in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament
- Whitehall Palace, burned down in 1698
- List of historic fires
- Dantzig, Tobias (1967), Number: The Language of Science, New York: Free Press
- Dickens, Charles (1884), "XXII. Administrative Reform, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Wednesday, June 27, 1855", in Shepherd, Richard Herne, The Speeches of Charles Dickens [1841-1870], Picadilly, London: Chatto and Windus, p. 170
- Shenton 2012.
- Blackstone, GV (1957), A History of the British Fire Service, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 118–19.
- Halliday, D (1986), Fundamentals of Physics, et al (2nd ed.), London: John Wiley & Sons, p. 5.
- The Rambler's Flash Songster, nothing but out and outers, adapted for gentlemen only, etc, London: West, c. 1838?, pp. 32–4 Check date values in:
- Shenton, Caroline (2012), The Day Parliament Burned Down, Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0199646708.
- Parliamentary Archives about the fire (podcast), London, Eng, UK: Parliament.
- "The fire", The Guardian (report) (Manchester, UK), 18 October 2006.