Captain Manby & the Conflagration of the Palace of Westminster

As flames consumed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, one of the watching spectators, explains Kenneth Walthew, was Captain William George Manby who had done 'more than any man in England to combat the horrendous loss of life and property caused by fire'.

On the night of Thursday, October 16th, 1834, fire almost completely destroyed the ancient Palace of Westminster, which had been the seat of Parliament since 1547. By dawn the following day, little was left of the House of Lords, the Commons and the Speaker's House, save blackened walls and piles of charred and smouldering rubble. Only Westminster Hall survived virtually unscathed, as it had done in a previous fire in 1512.

The cause of the fire was never satisfactorily determined, nor was it ever explained why it had been allowed to gain so fierce a hold before it was detected. The reason, however, why, once it was established, the fire could not be extinguished or controlled, was only too evident. The fire fighting services, as they then existed, were totally inadequate to deal with a conflagration of this size and intensity.

At that time, fire fighting was solely the responsibility of insurance companies. The companies maintained private fire brigades, the principal purpose of which was to protect insured premises. Even so, they were under no obligation to attend any fire, and whether they did so or not was a commercial decision. It was a matter of balancing the financial advantage of putting a fire out with that of letting it burn. Since the companies' object was to minimise claims, they were more concerned with the salvage of property than the saving of life.

Because, in London, the main source of water for extinguishing fires was the river Thames, firemen were usually watermen, employed part-time when required. Horses to pull the engines were also part-time, and had to be withdrawn from their normal work of hauling coal or brewers' drays. It took a considerable time, sometimes several hours, to assemble men and horses and for the brigade to reach the site of a fire. Even when they arrived promptly, their effectiveness depended entirely upon an adequate supply of water being close at hand.

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