Reconstruction and the fire of 1834

Watercolour drawing showing the interior of Westminster Hall during the fire of 1834

Major restorations were made to Westminster Hall from the 1740s onwards, revealing much about changes in attitudes to historic buildings. For most of the 1740s, the hall's hammer-beams were supported by props because of the poor state of the roof.

Slate rather than lead roof

No repairs were made until someone decided to sell the lead from the roof to defray the cost of the work and replace it with Westmorland slates.

To the Treasury's dismay, removing the lead revealed such extensive decay that the repairs cost nearly twice as much as estimated. The Hall has been roofed with slate ever since.

Rebuild

In 1818, John Soane declared the north facade to be in a dangerous state of dilapidation and completely rebuilt it between 1819 and 1822. He was nevertheless instructed to adhere strictly to the original style of architecture wherever practicable, indicating the reverence already felt for the Hall.

Between 1834 and 1837, Sir Robert Smirke removed the wall refacings inside the Hall and substituted a layer of Huddlestone stone which forms the facing today.

Purbeck stone floor

He also lowered the floor to the level of a Purbeck stone floor (discovered by excavation and believed to be of Richard II's time), and laid the present York stone paving.

During these works, on 16 October 1834, the Hall survived one of the greatest threats it had ever faced, when a fire broke out in the Palace of Westminster. Two underfloor stoves used to destroy the Exchequer's stockpile of tally sticks had ignited panelling in the Lords Chamber.

Devastating fire

The interior of Westminster Hall during the fire of 1834

When the fire engines arrived, the House of Lords was already destroyed and the Commons was ablaze. By then, the flames had also spread close to the wooden roof of Westminster Hall.

The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, quickly directed efforts to douse the roof with water, which saved the Hall although much of the rest of the Palace was lost.

The fire fighters in the Hall were aided by scaffolding which had been erected for repairs, the thickness of the medieval walls and a slight but sufficient change in the direction of the wind during the night.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

John Soane
Robert Smirke
Richard II
Lord Melbourne

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.