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h i s t o r y l e s l i e m i t c h e l l

Fiery Debates The Day Parliament Burned Down

By Caroline Shenton (Oxford University Press 333pp £18.99)

According to The Times, on 16 October 1834 London was visited by an ‘afflicting accident’, which was a ‘spectacle of terrible beauty’. Quite simply, the Houses of Parliament burned down. For over 600 years after its foundation, the Exchequer, the forerunner of today’s Treasury, had kept its accounts on wooden tallies. These bundles were not regarded as a superb archive of medieval administrative practice but as an embarrassing nuisance. Accordingly, two Irish labourers were instructed to burn them in the boilers situated immediately below the Chamber of the House of Lords. They worked with a will and achieved a result that exceeded all expectations. At a subsequent inquiry, both men expressed surprise at what their handiwork had caused.

The buildings that were consumed represented a jumble of architecture from many centuries. A warren of corridors and staircases connected some of the greatest offices of state. Beautiful survivals from the Middle Ages, such as the Painted Chamber, stood cheek by jowl with rooms that were barely habitable. The home of the House of Commons, for example, was St Stephen’s Chapel. Measuring only thirty-three feet by forty-eight feet, it could barely provide seating for half the Members of that House. During debates, ‘the heat of the house rendered it in some degree a second edition of the Black Hole of Calcutta’. Radicals, such as William Cobbett and Joseph Hume, had long claimed that it had become unfit for purpose. Equally alarmingly, Parliament stood on the edge of Devil’s Acre, one of London’s most dangerous slums, stretching along Millbank. All of this made politics an uncomfortable business.

Although unloved by many, Parliament had many defenders on the night of the fire, and the tale makes heroic reading. The new London Metropolitan Police Force was severely tested in controlling crowds of sightseers, who had come to see the greatest show of their lifetime. Appreciatively, some even applauded as roofs caved in or walls collapsed. Under even more strain was the recently formed London Fire Engine Establishment, an amalgamation of the capital’s fire-insurance companies. Their employees were helped by an army of volunteers. Cabinet ministers manned

Spot the fire engine the pumps, and passers-by ran into buildings to rescue books and paintings, while others cheerfully threw state papers out of windows. Through their collective efforts and a fortunate change in the direction of the wind, Westminster Hall was saved and much else. There was no denying, however, that it had been a terrible night.

Great disasters produce standard responses. The smoke and flames had barely cleared before some interpreted the event as the working of providence. For Queen Adelaide, the fire was God’s revenge on a Parliament that had dared to pass the Great Reform Act two years earlier, while those of a more radical disposition saw it as punishment inflicted on the authors of the heartless new Poor Law. Equally, conspiracy theorists were early in evidence. Arson and Irishness were linked in some minds, while others speculated that persecuted trade unionists might be at the bottom of it all. Five years earlier, York Minster had been severely damaged by a fire started by a deranged Methodist who objected to the noise of its organ; clearly anything was possible. For those for whom disasters have to be portentous as well as agonising, the London fire offered considerable scope.

Others took a more pragmatic view. Disaster often presents marvellous opportunities to the criminal. While the Attorney-General was helping to pump water, his pockets were picked. According to police reports, many, ‘with the sharp hyena look of plunder’, saw no distinction between salvage and theft. Equally enterprising were local inn-keepers whose stocks were exhausted by thirsty firefighters, and those who, in subsequent months, lodged claims for compensation to cover losses real and imaginary. Relic-hunters were also much in evidence. Boxes made out of timbers from the old Parliament sold well, but their numbers were such as to rival fragments of the True Cross.

There was profit, too, for the artist. The poet Letitia Landon thoroughly enjoyed herself: ‘Never was a spectacle so much enjoyed. All London went to see the fire – and a very beautiful fire it was.’ J MWTurner sat on the river for most of the night sketching furiously, while John Constable preferred the relative comfort of a hackney cab stationed on Westminster Bridge. Forty other artists produced work covering the same subject in the months that followed the blaze. For a romantic mind in search of the sublime and the awesome, nothing could be better.

Most fortunate of all were those who could make a career out of the necessary rebuilding. Sir Charles Barry, whose designs would win the competition to frame the new Parliament, frankly exclaimed on hearing of the fire: ‘Oh, what an opportunity for an architect.’ Similarly, Augustus Pugin thought that little of value had been lost, and that his own ideas offered a better

Literary Review | a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 8

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