On the day of the fire’s 179th anniversary, the lecture gave a unique insight into the political and social context of the time, through the story of how the fire started and how it changed the face of Westminster forever.
Dr Shenton is currently Accommodation Study Director at the Parliament Archives. This lecture was based on her first popular history book, The Day Parliament Burned Down, published in 2012 by OUP and which won the inaugural Political Book of the Year award.
The day Parliament burned down - Open Lecture transcript
Dr Caroline Shenton, Accommodation Study Director: Thank you all very much for coming here today on the 179th Anniversary of the fire, to hear about the day Parliament burned down.
The 16th October 1834 was for contemporaries one of the greatest events of their lives. It was for them like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana. It was something that they remembered through the rest of their lives and its repercussions carried on into the early 20th Century.
But today this is a largely forgotten event. I think that's because the new Palace of Westminster, the new Houses of Parliament built in its place by Barry and Pugin from the 1840s through to the 1860s onwards, has become so famous as an icon of London - of Britain, indeed - the world over, that really it has obliterated from our memories what was there before.
But the building that was there before, the old Houses of Parliament, is a building worth remembering because this is the structure in which some of the great set-pieces of English History took place. This is where Thomas More, William Wallace and Charles I were tried; this is where the great debates were staged on the Civil War, over Slavery and the rise of Empire; this is the place where the only assassination of a Prime Minister took place.. [interruption]
..So this is the place where these great set-pieces of English history took place - including the assassination of Spencer Percival, the Prime Minister, in 1812. And that's why it's worth remembering. So to start off with I'm going to give you a guided tour around the old Palace of Westminster.
Here is Old Palace Yard: this is the southern end of the current Houses of Parliament today and in the foreground here you can see the Victoria Tower which is where we store the Parliamentary Archives - about 10km of historic records going back to the 15th Century.
But the old Palace of Westminster was situated probably only half way along this enormous western frontage here. It occupied the space here and then back towards the building that we're in now. And it looked like this - so very different.
And at the time this was a very unpopular building because of its design. This facade here was part of the House of Lords, built on the front of what had become a very higgledy-piggledy mass of buildings by the end of the 18th Century. The facade, created by James Wyatt who was at that time Master of the King's Works, got a lot of criticism in the press: they called it the 'cotton-mill' or the ‘factory'. MPs were even less keen on it - they called it a ‘Gentleman's Lavatory’ - and it was thought that the Office of Works created buildings that were really the ugliest imaginable.
At the southern end here we have John Soane’s Grand Entrance, the new Royal entrance that he built onto this chaotic mass of buildings at the end of the 1820s and that was designed to provide a ceremonial entrance into the Palace for the monarchs, George IV and William IV. And here, this block is the House of Commons. The middle floor here is the Commons Committee Rooms and on the top floor there are Bellamy's refreshment rooms, the cafe for MPs where you could get the best chop and claret in London.
So to look at the Northern end of the Houses of Parliament - this is a very popular view - you've got Big Ben (the Elizabeth Tower, as it's been renamed) and you've got two twin towers here - the two square towers at the northern end of Westminster Hall, the northern gable end there.
In 1834 it looked like this, so you can still see the two twin towers and the northern gable end, but this huge building here, what's this? This is the Law Courts. The Palace of Westminster was not simply the main residence for the Monarch from the Middle Ages onwards - it was also both the seat of Government and of the Law. And the Law Courts had met inside Westminster Hall from the Middle Ages onwards.
Then in the 1820s John Soane built this new block onto the side of Westminster Hall to provide much better accommodation for the Law Courts. And one of the interesting things here is just how very close it is to the east end of Westminster Abbey. As you exit Portcullis House and go round to Westminster Tube when you leave here you'll be able to see the Henry VII Chapel - which is what this is - of Westminster Abbey. But in 1834 the Palace was much, much closer to the east end of the Abbey than it is today and that's an important part of the story.
Also important to the story are these red roofed buildings here. These are the buildings of the Exchequer - that's the medieval and early modern Department of Finance. We still have the Chancellor of the Exchequer today, who would be called in other countries: 'Minister of Finance'.
So if we take a cross-section across the House of Commons - the Abbey is this side here, the river is that side - you can see what a higgledy-piggledy mass of floors and corridors and staircases it's become by 1834. Constant additions over the centuries have turned this into a complete rabbit-warren and also an accident waiting to happen. Here we have those committee rooms that I pointed out on the exterior slide, and Bellamy's refreshment rooms here. The southern gable end of Westminster Hall, and there's this block here. This as you can probably see was once a Royal chapel.
This was once a chapel of the medieval palace, known as St Stephen’s. What happened at the end of the 17th Century was that Christopher Wren, then Master of the King's Works, put in a ceiling here and a floor here to turn a wonderful gothic chapel - one of the most important buildings in later medieval Europe - into a much smaller space, so that the Commons could meet there more comfortably.
The Commons had met inside St Stephen’s Chapel since 1548 when Edward VI handed this part of the building over to the Commons for its use. If you were a woman in 1834 you couldn't view debates actually in the chamber, in the public gallery here - you had to go up into the attic and look at the MPs’ feet below you by peering through this little ventilation shaft in the ceiling. See the little windows here? That was the only way that women could view debates.
If you were an MP in 1834 you would come into the building really through the back door. There was no ceremonial entrance. You would come in here; you'd go up the steps, up another staircase then down and down then up, up and up. You can see how unplanned the whole thing had become by the late Georgian period. You'd get to this space here which is the Commons Lobby; it was just by this fireplace here that the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval was shot in 1812.
Then finally you'd make it into the Commons Chamber itself which looked like this. So it was a very tight, wooden box. No trace at all of that Gothic Chapel underneath; it was all covered over by wood panelling put in by Wren.
And really from the 1790s onwards MPs had been complaining bitterly about this accommodation: it was stuffy, it was cramped; it was smelly when they were all in there. It wasn't big enough to house all of them - there were 648 of them. Condensation ran down the walls when they were all in there. It just became intolerable, particularly around the debates concerning the Great Reform Bill in 1831 and 1832 - the pitch of complaints really rose and rose. Behind them was an MP called Joseph Hume who arranged for two debates, in 1831 and 1833, proposing that the Commons should find alternative accommodation.
One possibility was that they could break through this eastern wall and out on to the shore line of the Thames beyond. Another proposal was that they should move out of Westminster altogether - go somewhere completely different - like St James’ in the West End which had started to have become very fashionable or even Regents Park, where the Zoo had set up about 5 years previously. Some might feel that that's an appropriate place for the House of Commons to go to! But both these debates got nowhere: Joseph Hume's motion fell on both these occasions.
But on the 16th October 1834 a wag in the crowd was heard to say: "Mr Hume's motion for a new House is carried without division!"
So what caused the fire?
Well, this is the primary cause of the fire here although as we will see there are wider causes as well. These are tally-sticks. Some of you may know about tally sticks, but in case you don't, I’m going to explain what they are. I have a replica here - if I could just pass that around for people to have a look at - make sure it comes back to me at the end please!
What's a tally stick?
A tally stick was a form of medieval receipt. If you are a Sheriff in the Middle Ages you are told by the King to go off and collect taxes in your county and you come to the Exchequer (those red roofed buildings in the slide I showed you) you'd come to the Exchequer twice a year - once at Michaelmas and once at Easter - to hand over the tax that you've collected. And the tally-cutter in the Exchequer offices cuts you a tally. It's a stick about six inches long and it's shaped on four sides. It has the name of the Sheriff on the side, the sum of money that they've paid in and the ends are notched with tiny little slices that indicate the sum of money paid in.
So there's a little hole if it’s a ha'penny, a slice if there's a penny, a bigger slice if it’s a shilling, an even bigger slice if it’s a pound, then ten pounds, a hundred pounds, a thousand pounds and so on.
The tally-cutter then takes the stick and with a chisel and a mallet slices it in two vertically, gives one half to the Sheriff to take a way and keeps the other half for the Exchequer.
The idea is that the Sheriff cannot come back in six months’ time and say: "I paid in five pounds more than you said I did last time."
Because all the tally-cutter would have to do would be to take his half of the tally stick, match it up, or ‘tally it up’ - which is where you get the phrase from - tally it up with the Sheriff's half and show that the two halves of the tally stick match each other exactly and therefore the Sheriff is not telling the truth.
So it was a way of creating an un-forgeable receipt for government income.
Now this was a very common system in accounting in the medieval and early modern period and in fact it was only abolished by statute in 1783, rather incredibly. But even more incredible than that is the fact of Exchequer officials holding their post as ‘sinecures’. For those not sure of what that means, it’s someone who is given a title or a post in the public service; they take the money for that post but they don't actually do any work - they delegate the work to another person.
Because of this sinecure system it meant that tally-cutting carried on in the Exchequer until 1826, which is the date on which the last sinecure post-holder in the Exchequer died. So, incredibly, this seemingly medieval - very efficient but nonetheless very medieval - system, carried on into the 19th Century.
The result was that there are a couple of rooms, large rooms, inside the Exchequer buildings filled with tally sticks in 1834. They really represented the last few decades of that whole tally-cutting process. They'd never been got rid of. Over the centuries in various phases tally sticks had been destroyed - given away to Palace servants or Exchequer servants for firewood. But the last couple of decades’ worth, before the final tally stick was cut in 1826, remained in these buildings.
So, on the 14th October 1834 the Clerk of Works at Westminster, Mr Richard Weobley, received an instruction from the Treasury to clear out these rooms in the Exchequer and make way for a new court. There wasn't room for this new court - the Court of Bankruptcy - in the law courts building so they were going to re-use some space in the Exchequer. The tally sticks had to be cleared and Weobley was put in charge of working out what to do about them.
Instead of giving them away to Palace servants he decided, first of all, to put them in a big bonfire behind these buildings here, between the river and the Exchequer. So that was his first thought. Then he slept on the idea and on the 15th October he came up with an even better wheeze, he thought. The whole bonfire idea was going to attract people pilfering them and would cause annoyance to the neighbours, so he came up with an alternative which in the end caused even more annoyance to the neighbours: that was to burn them in the under-floor heating furnaces of the House of Lords. And I think, speaking as a professional archivist, I would have to say that this is possibly the worst records management disposal decision in the history of the world.
So the labourers began work - this very day 179 years ago - around dawn, starting to load the coal furnaces on the ground floor of the House of Lords with these sticks. The actual chamber of the House of Lords was on the first floor so they were underneath it, and the furnaces had flues that ran up the walls, along the floor above, up through the walls of this chamber here and then out through the roof through chimneys and this was designed to be an under-floor heating system.
It was clear from early on in the day that all was not well: there was a very strong smell of burning and there was little bit of smoke noticed in the chamber. Nobody did anything about it, but things really started to ‘hot up’ as it were by about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when the housekeeper of the House of Lords was showing two gentleman tourists around the building. Because then, as now, Westminster was a tourist attraction: you'd come to the Abbey in the morning and you'd come in to Parliament in the afternoon.
The tourists had come to see, particularly, the Armada Tapestries, which are on the walls here. They're very, very famous works of art and they portray the victory over the Armada and they'd hung in the Lords’ chamber since the early 17th Century. At the public inquiry, which followed the fire, the tourists say they're very disappointed because there is so much smoke in the chamber that they can't see the tapestries.
What's going on? There's an enormous amount of smoke and nobody's doing anything about it!
The housekeeper, who's with them, tries to distract them from their disappointment and she takes them over to this area - this red-curtained area in the corner - which is called Black Rod's box. A pew-type area with a wooden enclosed seat where Black Rod, the queen's representative in what's still a Royal Palace, officially sits during sessions in the House of Lords. The Lords actually isn't in session at the time of the fire - it's due to come back in about 10 days’ time.
So they approach Black Rod's box to have a look but as they get close they feel a strange sensation through their boots. They can't get any further forward because it’s so hot that their feet are burning through their boots. So they back away and the housekeeper shuffles them off to another part of the palace behind this curtain at the throne end.
So, what's going on?
Well, what's happened under their feet is that the intense heat from the very careless burning of these sticks - despite what the labourers said at the public inquiry afterwards, that they'd been very careful. Clearly they were very negligent and were just piling the sticks on as fast as it would go, and it took about 8 hours anyway at that rate - it was a huge job. They piled the wood into the furnaces, the intense heat has melted the copper lining of the brick flues and started to cause a chimney fire and that's why there's the smoke and that's why there's this heat coming up through the floor.
The brick floors themselves have already been compromised over the years because they've been regularly cut open by chimney sweeps. One of the many ironies of the fire - and there are many - is that Parliament has only just a couple of months before the fire passed its first legislation banning child chimney sweeps from going up the chimneys and cleaning them. But the remnants of this practice are still embedded in the fabric of the building because every time the flues are repaired - probably not very successfully - it leaves a big gap for flames and smoke to emerge.
A bit about the housekeeper as well: the actual housekeeper of the House of Lords is a very posh woman called Frances Brandish who, as far as we know, never actually sets foot inside the building – again, this is a sinecure post. She takes the money for the title but doesn't do any of the work. She's delegated the job to a deputy called Jane-Julia Wright. Jane-Julia lives onsite with her family but in fact on the day of the fire she's out visiting relatives. In fact she's left her mother-in-law in charge.
And so it's the mother-in-law who is showing around the tourists. And I think the kindest construction that you can put on the mother-in-law's activities on the day and her lack of interest about what was going on is that she was confused about what was happening but also no doubt because her family is entirely dependent on the tips from the tourists - they don't get any other salary - she's much more concerned with making sure the tourists have a good time and that they're happy rather than investigating any health & safety disaster that might be occurring below their feet.
So the workmen knock-off work about 4 o’clock; they go and have a pint of beer at the Star and Garter pub across the road. The housekeeper shuts up the Lords’ chamber at about 5 o’clock and then everything's quiet for about an hour. At 6 o’clock the wife of the doorkeeper comes back from running an errand and she crosses the darkened House of Lords’ lobby, and as she does so she sees a flickering from underneath the door. She opens up the doors and sees that Black Rod's box is going up in flames: the flames had finally made it through the floor. They've caught on the wooden panelling here and now the curtains. And she screams out: "The House of Lords is on fire!"
And then there's panic inside the Palace for about 25 minutes - they don't know what to do. Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works, runs up onto the roof because small flames are starting to emerge from the chimney above the Lords. He tries to put it out with a bucket of water and that doesn't do any good. And for some reason they don't alert the Commons at the other end of the building; they don't alert, apparently, the outside world at all. But the outside world is alerted about 25 minutes later when a huge ball of fire bursts out of the front here, and up through the roof.
During the research for my book I learnt a lot about fire-fighting theory - more than I thought I would ever need to - and I can tell you that what happened there is a 'flashover'. It's clear from eye-witness accounts that this is what was going on. And for those of you don't know what a flashover is: it’s when you have a fire in an enclosed space - the toxic gases and the smoke rise to the ceiling and then they start to fall and as they fall they heat up all the surroundings in the room, all the furniture and fabrics and so on, and create a great rolling explosive ball.
And it looks like this.
The Palace fire immediately lights up the London skyline. Dusk has fallen and people from across London can see this blaze - a sudden bright light on the horizon - from all the high ground around London: Hampstead, Blackheath and so on. The King & Queen at Windsor don't need to be sent a telegram by horse - they can see it 20 miles away.
Charles Barry, the architect of the new Palace, is travelling back from Brighton over the South Downs by stage coach and as the coach comes over the top of the downs he sees the fire below in London and is supposed to have said – “What a chance for an architect!”
So the immediate response to the fire comes from parish fire engines. Each parish is supposed to have an engine of some sort to fight fires in the immediate area but they're very, very small. At the time, obviously, fire engines are manually pumped – where you attach a hose to the nearest point under the street water main and you draw up the water from the main into the engine by manually pumping it on both sides with a team of volunteers, and the firemen take a hose out the other side and spray the water over the fire. So the parish engines are completely inadequate to the task.
A few private insurance company engines turn up then - there was no public fire brigade at the time in London - but there are just one or two of them. Again, they don't have much impact. So it's only when this man, James Braidwood, superintendant of the London Fire Engine Establishment, gets the call at his headquarters in the City of London at about five minutes past 7 - so we're now an hour after the fire was first spotted inside the palace - it's only when he gets the call that a bit more professional fire-fighters start to come on their way. So the London Fire Engine Establishment was created just a year before the fire and it pooled together the resources of ten private insurance companies into one brigade. It was still private but they had at their disposal far more men and far more engines and far more equipment and expertise.
So he arrives at the scene about another 25 minutes afterwards with about 14 or 15 engines and 66 fire-fighters, and by then the fire has taken complete hold of the House of Lords. You can see in this picture here that it's spreading wildly because the interior of the palace - the flammable materials inside the incredibly old structures, the winding corridors with absolutely no fire protection whatsoever - the whole thing has just gone up.
He arrives just as the House of Lords’ roof falls in and he realises that really the House of Lords was beyond hope. So his decision on the evening is to abandon the House of Lords and try to save areas that have yet to be largely affected, including Westminster Hall and the Speaker's House to the north of the site. Those to the south of the site are generally left to perish - or at least, would be sacrificed if it means being able to save the northern end.
So let’s look at a few pictures of the fire then: this is the view across Old Palace Yard (that first slide that I showed you), the view at around 7.30-8 o’clock. And it's a sensational view. It's a very crude engraving as it’s designed to be handed out to the public in the days after the fire - it's designed to titillate - it's a kind of Sun style, 'GOTCHA!'- type, view of the fire.
The interesting thing from our point of view is you can see how much space has been cleared in front of the Palace by the soldiers, by the police here, designed to give the fire-fighters enough room to fight the fire. But also you have to remember that the government of the time didn't know that this wasn't simply the first stage in a national insurrection. There was a lot of unrest in the country at the time – a lot of agrarian unrest and ‘Captain Swing’ riots in the countryside; there was a lot of unrest around the passing of the Poor Law (Amendment) Act just a couple of months before which created the workhouse system - the notorious system that Dickens railed about in Oliver Twist. And also they didn't know whether this was some foreign power come to ferment revolution in London.
Those of you who like musical films: Les Miserables describes the revolution in Paris in 1830 and the authorities were incredibly nervous that something like this could happen at any time in London. So this is partly what this is showing us.
The same view, but a much better artist now: this is William Heath, a very well known engraver at the time. This is a lithograph, drawn - as it says very proudly on the picture itself – "drawn by him by the light of the flames" - at the south of the Palace.
And this is a fantastic documentary view of what's going on at the fire. You can see the very brisk south-west wind blowing the flames across the core of the Palace that eye-witnesses comment on, on the night. You can see householders hanging out of the buildings here trying to get a better view. Hundreds of thousands of people crowded towards Westminster from all across London to see the fire within half an hour of the fire appearing. It was really difficult to get anywhere near the front of the crowds. All the bridges were clogged, all the roads were clogged - it wasn't possibly for carriages to get anywhere near. But some rich people did manage to elbow their way to the front and we know that they were bribing householders to let them sit on their balconies to get a better view.
You can see how close Westminster Abbey is here to the Palace, which I mentioned earlier, and that's important in terms of the worries again that the authorities had that the Abbey might go up in flames. Also various public records and government records were stored in the chapter house at this end of the Abbey, including the Domesday Book - our oldest public record. There were fears that that might be destroyed as well.
And you can just see in the background St Margaret's church and, again, when you exit here and you go back to Westminster tube you'll be able to see St Margaret’s church just next to Westminster Abbey. It looks tiny here beside Westminster Abbey but it’s actually a really big parish church - big enough in fact for it to have become a repository for salvaged furniture that was being got out of the building before the fire burnt it to pieces.
So, if you look at the central part of this slide now, you can see the fire engines here with the hose going to the street plug under the pavement; the volunteer firemen here pumping the engines. There's a fireman here with a little axe and he's probably about to go into the building to save some treasures; we know that this is how on the night of the fire the great silver maces that today you see on the Table of the House were saved. Whenever you watch Prime Minister's Question Time, you see this great silver stick with a bauble which represents the power of authority by Parliament.
That was saved on the night of the fire by a bunch of solicitors and some firemen shinning up ladders to the fourth floor of the Palace, breaking open the windows and pulling out the maces to save them.
Here you've got a horse and cart, evacuating some books and possibly some documents from the building as well, and this is how personally I became interested in the fire. Because when I arrived at the Parliamentary Archives, in a new job in 1999, one of the first things that I had to be trained on was to tell the public who come into our search room – (and we're open all the year round, anybody can come in and use our services so please come and visit us!) - I had to tell them that nearly all of the Commons records before 1834 were destroyed in this enormous fire.
So it wasn't just a huge architectural disaster, it was a massive archival disaster as well. And I wanted to find out more about it, I wanted to understand more of the history of the collections that we had and I couldn't find out very much. Books about the new Palace of Westminster perhaps devoted a paragraph to the old Palace and a sentence about the fire - nothing else.
So I squirreled about a bit and I found the official report of the enquiry that followed the fire, explaining its causes, and then I found some newspaper accounts describing the fire. And every time I found something I would stick it in a drawer and over about 8 years I kept picking little bits up here and there in a very random sot of fashion. And after about 8 years I'd got an overflowing drawer and I thought – 'I really ought to do something with this' - so I wrote a book.
So that's how it came about really - from my curiosity about the fire. And the book has turned into a micro-history. It's a very detailed forensic ‘CSI Westminster’-type sort of approach to the fire. That wasn't my intention at the beginning but it was really because as I got the answer to one question it opened up a whole lot of other questions. So I kept having to answer more and more questions and so it became a very detailed 24 hour look at not just the burning of the Palace but of the whole social, political and economic context in which it had occurred.
Then we have this final picture here: I don't know if you can make out what that is? A dog! Thank you. Yes, it's a dog. Chance, the fire dog: the celebrity mascot of the London Fire Engine Establishment. If he'd been around today, Chance would have been on the front cover of Hello magazine about every other week - he was really well known at the time.
He was there on the night of the fire. We know that because Charles Dickens - who before he became a novelist was a parliamentary reporter - describes him being there. So Dickens was sitting in the public galleries of the Lords and Commons, taking notes of the debates and then having them published in the newspaper he worked for, the Morning Chronicle. Some of his very earliest works are parliamentary sketches and street sketches - sketches of London life. And in one of them he describes Chance, at the fire - running up and down, barking noisily, making a lot of noise, being a nuisance - and compares him unfavourably to an MP called Mr Hughes-Hughes, the MP for Oxford City, who was running up and down barking and making a lot of noise and being annoying. Rather a typical Dickensian response to Victorian politicians.
Chance was originally a Spitalfields weaver's dog, but he showed a marked tendency to turn up to fires wherever the London Fire Engine Establishment were. So the firemen adopted him and he accompanied them to all of their fires so he really was a big society figure; he was a big figure on the London scene. And, as you can see, Heath painted his portrait here at the fire.
He died – happily, not at the fire - but of natural causes about a year later. And the firemen loved him so much that they sent him to a taxidermist to be stuffed as a memorial. But the taxidermist realised that he'd got a goldmine on his hands because the dog was a total celebrity. So instead of handing him back to the firemen, he pockets the money and then passes him to a travelling fairground who also pay him for having Chance's body on display, and the firemen find out about this and there's a big fight and they grab their dog back - and then finally manage to put him in pride-of-place in their headquarters in Watling Street in the City of London, near St Pauls. And there he stays until around 1880 when he's auctioned off for a firemen's benevolent fund, and we don't know where he is now.
So - if you happen to see a dog that looks like this in a glass case in a junk shop on Portobello Rd or in a boot sale, or something like that, then I'd really like to hear from you!
So the third view across Old Palace Yard: we've seen the sensational view, we've seen the documentary view - this is what I think of as the psychological view. And who better to do this than Turner?
This is a fantastic watercolour - one of several sketches and watercolours by Turner which are now at Tate Britain just down the road in Millbank. It gives you a sense of the overwhelming impression that the fire made on contemporaries.
I mentioned that I couldn't find out much about the fire when I started to research it: one thing that secondary accounts tended to say all the time was that people stood around clapping and cheering because the Houses of Parliament were going up in flames. But actually if you look at the eye-witness accounts of what's going on - and people's personal correspondence about it - that's not really what's going on. There is perhaps a little bit of cheering. People are drunk and so on. There is some clapping. But I came to the conclusion reading people's accounts that they're clapping because this is an occasion that is completely outside their normal everyday life.
Obviously, this is before electricity is available - or electric light; gas lighting is only just coming in on the streets. It's before limelight is available on the stage and really peoples experiences of light shows has been restricted to fireworks at grand state occasions - or perhaps at the Pleasure Gardens like Vauxhall Gardens across the river. So really this huge bay of light, which people commented upon at the time, that 'floodlit' (as we would say today) floodlit the towers of Westminster Abbey - many people commented on the eerie effect of the light and how overwhelming it was.
This was something that became - what we would say today was like - a cinematic spectacle. They would clap when a flame shot up into the air and there were huge flames as I already indicated; sparks running over people's heads and the firemen being incredibly brave. Whenever there was a crash and roofs and walls fell in the whole scene had become objectified and they were clapping as if they were at a theatrical show.
And I think that Turner gives a really good sense of that and he also gives a sense of how terrifying this was for many people. Many people describe this event as sublime - and Turner is an expert in the sublime: the idea that humans are tiny little ants in the wake of enormous elemental forces. That's what Turner specialises in and here he is doing that at the fire.
And many people comment on how awesome the fire is - how 'awe-full' in the true sense of the word. They are terrified by it. They are absolutely struck dumb by the nature of the fire. Some people plainly suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the fire - including the Prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who suffered from depression through his life very badly at times and had many dark moments. His contemporary biographer describes how during his darkest moments he would get flashbacks to the fire and a number of other people showed signs - documented signs - of having this response to the fire.
So I think that's a really interesting aspect of the whole thing as well.
So, by 9 o’clock, the House of Commons was completely perished. It's gone up like a roman candle, in about 5 minutes, at around 8 o’clock. Behind this sheet of flame is Westminster Hall and that causes the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the middle of the evening, to shout out: “Damn the House of Commons - let it blaze away - but save, oh save the Hall!"
And that's what all of the volunteers are doing by the later part of the evening. You can see hundreds of people here on the floor of Westminster Hall: the great Norman feasting hall built at the end of the 11th Century that was the core of the old Royal Palace, with it's wonderful 14th Century hammer-beam roof; one of the masterpieces - perhaps the greatest masterpiece - of English medieval carpentry.
Everybody's desperate to save this iconic building where so much English History has taken place. And what you can see here is people shinning up ladders to get to the windows at the side - to break open the windows to get on to the roof and to take the tiles off the roof to create a fire break. You can see the fire on the opposite side of the window here - we're looking southwards - so the fire is surrounding the building at this end and you can just see some firemen there on the ledge below.
If we just look in a bit more detail there at the centre, the fire engine hoses were not long enough to stretch all the way along Westminster Hall, as it's so gigantic, so the fire engines had to be joined up in relays with their hoses so the water could be piped from New Palace Yard outside all the way down to the bottom end of the Hall. And you can see that here: here's one and there's another one here and they sort of thread their way up to the top of the Hall.
I mentioned about the volunteers pumping the fire engines: James Braidwood would have had at his disposal engines that required 20 volunteers to pump them – really, really hard work. It would have taken a tremendous amount of effort. People would have had to do it in relays of five minutes at a time then have a rest and then go back for another five minutes and once they'd done an hour’s worth of this they were paid in beer.
They got a token to exchange for a pint of beer in the local pubs and one of the aspects of the research I enjoyed doing most was trying to work out how many pints of beer were drunk on the night by volunteers, based on the compensation claims that came in from the local pubs afterwards that had had to shell out for all these barrels of beer!
The firemen were incredibly brave. They took their hoses and three of them stood on this tiny little lead platform outside the south wing of the hall. So all of this is ablaze; they've got the area in front of them completely ablaze as well; they've got just the glass behind them and they're spraying the water over the flames ahead of them to protect the Hall. They're hampered in their activities - both in Westminster Hall and in saving the river side of the Palace (as you can see here it's all completely ablaze as well) - by the fact that the river is at low tide. It’s not as it is today - with a big embankment on either side - there was no embankment at the time.
Charles Barry, when he designed the Palace, pushed the palace out into the river onto, if you like, a concrete pontoon -pushed the whole focus of the Palace much further back. What you can see here are the residences at the Palace and there are gardens here and they had gardens that led straight down to the shoreline.
You can see the river at low tide that was preventing the London Fire Engine Establishment’s super-dooper ‘BMW’ piece of kit from coming up river. This here, which you may just be able to make out - is the great floating engine of the London Fire Engine Establishment: a large mounted engine that could take its supply of water up the river and suck the water up from the river so it had an unlimited supply, unlike those engines on the shore-side that couldn't stretch their hoses into the water.
Because it was low tide it couldn't get up river until about 2 o clock in the morning. It was moored downstream - four miles down the river at Rotherhithe. I mentioned the Turner water-colour earlier: here is a Turner oil. He produced two of his most famous paintings as a result of the fire: this is the first one – a fantastic picture of the fire. You can just see the northern gable end there of Westminster Hall and the towers of the Abbey behind but, from our point of view, what it's also showing us is the tugboat here pulling the floating engine up towards Westminster. A fantastic picture there by Turner. So the engine arrives by about 2 o clock and it makes an immediate difference to the fire-fight for Westminster Hall. So that, plus the bravery of the firemen and all the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers - and a lucky change of wind direction as well - all helped to save Westminster Hall which still survives today.
So Westminster Hall survives; the Law Courts amazingly survived the fire - but the core of the Palace, this grey area here, is burnt away and is largely gutted. So a few ‘before and after’ pictures then:
This is not a photograph; it's a very fine charcoal drawing from just a few years before photography was invented. If only they'd waited a few more years to have the fire we could have had some proper photographs of the interior!
The interior of the House of Commons then: if you just keep your eyes on the three windows at the far end there we'll see what it looked like afterwards. So what's happened here? Those are the three windows; the ceiling and the floor put in by Wren to create that wooden panel chamber have been completely collapsed by the roof falling in and what's revealed is the fantastic 14th Century chapel that was once in the Royal Palace.
This is something that antiquaries at the time absolutely raved about. They felt that this was the true building coming back to life again, shedding all its filthy later accretions, like politics and inferior architects. This is the true medieval palace and this is one of the reasons why Pugin, the co-designer of the Houses of Parliament with Barry, felt that this was an amazing spectacle - you can see people here sight-seeing the ruins.
Another important part of the Palace was the Painted Chamber, so called because it had wonderful wall-paintings on it. It was the bedroom of the King in the original Palace. They had long since been hidden under all the layers of whitewash you can see on the walls here but they were there underneath and at the beginning of the 19th Century they were starting to be uncovered and they were starting to be surveyed. You may just be able to make them out here on this watercolour in the window display: these great gigantic figures of The Virtues and The Vices - biblical scenes - and the huge mural of the coronation of Edward the Confessor as well: all designed to inspire the Monarchs who slept and worked in this room.
Just before the fire it was in use as a court, called the Court of Requests, which is what you can see here. And if you just keep your eyes on the three windows at the far end again, we'll see what it was like afterwards. So again, the roof’s fallen in; any of those paintings that had survived the whitewash have all been burnt away. But what you can also see is that these walls are pretty sturdy - these thick medieval walls in some of the oldest parts of the palace. And they were found to be sound enough to be re-roofed. In fact, this space - the Painted Chamber - became the temporary House of Lords while the new Palace was built up around it, so the Lords could carry on sitting. It was finally abandoned in 1847 when the Lords moved into their new accommodation and was knocked down in 1851.
A view across the rooftops now: that's St Stephen's Chapel again. Next to the chapel had been a cloister for the canons of the chapel and you can just see inside here a little fire crew still fighting the flames with their engine as they burst out. Although the fire was under control by about three in the morning on the 17th October, it actually took five more days to quell it completely - areas kept bursting out in flames and the firemen only left nearly a week later.
What you can see here is that view across the rooftops of the half-ruined cloister. But it still survives today - it's still here in the new Houses of Parliament, buried deep within the Palace, but it’s still there - a very important piece of medieval architecture.
But the whole of this has been gutted. You can just see residences in the Palace here and there were probably about a hundred people who actually lived inside the Palace, and saw the flames coming towards them on the night of the fire. You can just see them peering out of the windows to see the devastation, and some salvaged material here.
So, a view of the Old Palace Yard again the morning after: it looks fairly complete here in this very quick charcoal sketch but what you need to understand is that this is just a shell. There's nothing behind these walls. All the floors have fallen through. It's devastated. You can just perhaps see a ladder going up here: there's another fire crew here the morning after trying to quell the flames inside that committee floor there.
This must have been sketched very early in the morning on the 17th October because we know that, by midday, hoarding has started to go up across the front of the Palace because these stone towers here, as they cooled, started to collapse and endanger the crowd – an equally large crowd as the previous night -who were coming to look at the ruins.
And I do just wonder if this guy here - who's pulling some planks off a cart - if that is the start of the hoarding going up at the front of the Palace.
A little bit more of a look at that central portion: the cotton mill facade again. You can see that the cotton mill has collapsed - it's completely gone - and behind it is revealed the medieval walls of what, in 1834, was the House of Lords Chamber, where the fire first started. Again, these are found on surveying to be sturdy enough to be re-roofed. So that building - the old House of Lords - becomes the temporary House of Commons up until around 1851 when the Commons moves into its new accommodation.
Just a quick view of the devastation from the river side: this is really just to show you what's happened to this building here which is the Commons Library - the whole of the 3 floor frontage of the Commons Library has collapsed in. And I think that may be responsible for the great devastation to the parliamentary records - the House of Commons records - because I suspect quite a few of them were stored in there in1834.
Happily, however, the Lords records survived: the Lords records were in an undamaged part of the palace close to the Painted Chamber and also in the Jewel Tower. Again, if you exit here and head back towards Westminster Tube you may be able to see the Jewel Tower beyond Westminster Abbey. Today it's run by English Heritage - in the Middle Ages it was part of the outside precincts - part of the outside wall of the Palace. It had been detached for many Centuries at the time of the fire but that was where the Lords stored their archives.
So as a result of that we have all the legislation passed by parliament from the late 15th Century onwards: great treasures like the Bill of Rights, the Great Reform Act and Charles I's death warrant, which were all Lords rather than Commons records.
So salvage operations occur very quickly afterwards; there's a big push to clear the site. And nobody dies in the fire amazingly - plenty of people die during the salvage operations however: they fall off walls, walls fall on them, they strangle themselves on ropes; they fall into pits - all sorts of things like that. But here is someone who's not yet had an unlucky mishap - he's just sitting there smoking a pipe just before knocking down this amazing medieval doorway.
So, a final farewell then to the Palace. You can see it here: the remnants of the old palace there, smuggled in, in Old Palace Yard with the big new Palace rising up around it. The perspective in this picture, which is part of a much bigger sketch drawn from a balloon at around 1850, I guess, is all shot to pieces.
So there's no Westminster Hall - that's all completely disappeared; Westminster Abbey has been stretched vertically so it looks a bit like Cologne Cathedral; I don't think that the old Palace was quite as weeny as this compared with the new one. It was designed to create an impression, this picture, but it's nonetheless a very poignant reminder of what we lost on 16th October 1834.
Coming out of the fire then, we have the new Houses of Parliament - perhaps the most famous building in Britain across the world. But we have a number of other occurrences coming out of the fire:
Here is the second Turner painting. Both of these fantastic oils - the one with the floating engine and this one - both of them are currently in America. They left the country in the 19th Century, sadly. It would be wonderful to have them here in Tate Britain. Sadly, that's not going to happen. But they are two of his most important works and really part of the crowning achievement of his career.
Other things that came out of the fire include the first public London Fire Brigade - in fact, the London Fire Brigade wasn't created until 1886 but there were constant calls in the papers and in Government for the creation of a single public fire brigade for London from 1834 onwards.
Other things that came out of the fire include a new record-keeping system for the country. So those of you who are historians perhaps, and have worked at the National Archives, you have this fire to thank for the national record-keeping and National Archives that we have today. The Record Commission - which today we would call a 'failing Government Department' – that was in charge of records, including the Domesday Book, was found to have been completely incompetent on the night of the fire and it was closed down very shortly after the fire.
There was a Royal Commission into the future of how the country should keep its historic archive whose report started:
"No one can now be in any doubt as to the danger of fire to our national records."
And that led directly to the Public Record Act of 1838 which set up what was then the Public Record Office, now the National Archives.
And Dickens: I've mentioned that Dickens was heavily influenced by the fire. There's no direct evidence, interestingly, that he was actually there at the fire. His letters from this period didn't survive and if he was filing copy for the Morning Chronicle there weren't any by-lines to tell us it was his.
But there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to say that he was there: I've mentioned already about Chance. He mentions it in much later life in a speech on democracy in the 1850s and there are also clues in his novels as well. We know that fire plays a big part of the denouement in various novels including Bleak House and Great Expectations but most tellingly I think in Oliver Twist, published just a couple of years after this fire .
There is a description of an enormous fire which really doesn't take the narrative forward in any way; it's when Bill Sykes flees London after beating Nancy to death and as he leaves London he helps to put out an enormous fire. If you compare that description that Dickens has in Oliver Twist with the description that other eye-witnesses give in their private correspondence - for example if you compare it with Pugin who we know to have been there at the fire - if you compare that description, they're very, very similar. So I do just wonder if this was Dickens telling us just what it was like to actually watch his workplace go up in flames on the evening of the 16th October.
There were a whole host of other much smaller effects - on individuals, on institutions and so on - but overall there are plenty of good reasons why I think the day Parliament burnt down is worth remembering.
So thank you very much for listening.
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