The Great Fire of 1834

Parliament on fire in 1834

In 1834, the Exchequer was faced with the problem of disposing two cart-loads of wooden tally sticks. These were remnants of an obsolete accounting system that had not been used since 1826. When asked to burn them, the Clerk of Works thought that the two underfloor stoves in the basement of the House of Lords would be a safe and proper place to do so.

Parliament on fire in 1834

On 16 October, a couple of workmen arrived in the morning to carry out his instructions. During the afternoon, a party of visitors to the House of Lords, conducted by the deputy housekeeper Mrs Wright, became puzzled by the heat of the floor, and by the smoke seeping through it. But the workmen insisted on finishing their job. The furnaces were put out by 5pm, and Mrs Wright, no longer worried, locked up the premises.

Fire!

At 6pm, Mrs Wright heard the terrified wife of a doorkeeper screaming that the House of Lords was on fire. In no time, the flames had spread to the rest of the Palace. It was a great sight for the crowds on the streets (who were kept back by soldiers) and a great opportunity for artists such as J.M.W. Turner who painted several canvases depicting it.

Both Houses of Parliament were destroyed along with most of the other buildings on the site. Westminster Hall was saved largely due to heroic fire fighting efforts, and a change in the direction of the wind during the night. The only other parts of the Palace to survive were the Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen's and Westminster Hall.

Did you know?

Exchequer tally sticks were used as a medieval method of accounting. Split in two on issue of a debt, when confirmation of payment was made, the parts were married up again.

Art in Parliament

View images from the Parliamentary Art Collection of the fire and its' aftermath.

Also within Living Heritage

Learn about the buildings in and around the Parliamentary estate before the Great Fire of 1834

Explore documents in the Parliamentary Archives relating to the 1834 fire