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The Day Parliament Burned Down

The Day Parliament Burned Down
Caroline Shenton
Oxford University Press   £18.99   333pp

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Ever since the invention of hell and the destruction of Valhalla conflagration has been a powerful metaphor for purging and renewal. When the House of Commons and House of Lords were dramatically consumed by fire during the night of October 16th and 17th, 1834, two years after the passage of a Reform Act which had nibbled at rather than swept away a moth-eaten political system at least 400 years old, it was (and is) tempting to see the event as the funeral pyre of the British ancien regime. Certainly its remaining representatives could sense the revolutionary heat as they anxiously deployed troops, uncertain whether the gathering crowds were simply spectators or the advance party of an uprising similar to the one they believed had been narrowly averted in the days of May 1831, or the one that had ousted the monarchy of Charles X in France in 1830. But, as Caroline Shenton’s extraordinarily informative, well-paced narrative of the fire demonstrates, they need not have worried. The fire was quickly revealed to be the result of a disastrous cock-up rather than a conspiracy; and, while plenty of the onlookers commented that it was a shame that Members of Parliament were not in it when it went up so spectacularly, few of them seemed likely to do anything about it.

The Day Parliament Burned Down tracks the progress of the fire from its origins in an ill-considered decision to clear out the remaining tally sticks from the Court of Exchequer by burning them in the furnace that heated the old House of Lords; through the ignored warning signs as the floor of the chamber became intensely hot and it started to fill with smoke; its outbreak and the increasingly desperate attempts to save the building and to salvage its contents; and the aftermath and reckoning. Exploiting the detailed inquest carried out by the privy council, as well as survivals in the more obscure nooks and crannies of the parliamentary archives (of which she is the head) and elsewhere, Dr Shenton provides an astonishingly detailed account not only of the fire but of everything and anything relevant to it: London’s fire-fighting capacity, including the brave and resourceful Scottish pioneer, Braidwood; the ghastliness of the slums around Westminster; and the efforts to put Parliament’s and the nation’s records in order. Shenton’s account is alive not only to the sights but also the feel of the disaster, noting the sense of gloom that descended over the capital in its aftermath, enhanced perhaps by the erection of hoardings afterwards to keep sightseers away from the collapsing masonry, daubed with the words BEWAIR DANGER.

 A cast of well over 150 is helpfully listed in a dramatis personae, from King William IV, Queen Adelaide and the Prime Minister, Lord Grey, to Jane, a waitress, and Nicholas, the maitre d’ both at Bellamy’s restaurant and tea rooms, and Chance, the firemen’s dog, whose energetic ineffectuality was compared by Dickens to the pointless exertions of William Hughes Hughes, the MP for Oxford City. Chance ended up stuffed, though his current whereabouts have eluded even Dr Shenton’s exhaustive enquiries. No-one else did, although poor, overworked Richard Weobley, clerk of the works at Westminster, eventually got his comeuppance, exiled to Brighton in 1840 and dismissed for corruption seven years later. For one man, the architect Charles Barry, the fire created (as he was supposed to have observed as he watched the walls come tumbling down) the opportunity of a lifetime.

Paul Seward is Director of the History of Parliament. His most recent book (jointly edited with Ruth Paley) is Honour, Interest and Power: an Illustrated History of the House of Lords, 1660-1715 (Boydell Press, 2010).

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