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Houses of Parliament 1834

On the afternoon of the 16th October 1834 two men in the cellars beneath the House of Lords were engaged in burning, in a furnace, a large accumulation of old wooden tallies, which had been left over from the dissolution of the Court of Exchequer in 1826. These tallies were sticks of unequal lengths, used for recording sums of money paid into the Exchequer. The two men were anxious to finish their task quickly and so they threw on to the fire all the remaining tallies and then left. The result was that the furnace became overheated and very soon afterwards fire had started in earnest. It was the beginning of a "national calamity never to be forgotten" as a contemporary records described it.

Progress of the Fire

At about half past six in the evening, flames suddenly burst forth near the entrance of the two Houses and in less than half an hour the whole interior of the building, from the ground floor to the roof was one mass of fire. Soon great crowds began to assemble in boats on the river and on Westminster Bridge and numbers of police and soldiery were sent to the spot. The first task was to save public papers and other important documents and large quantities of these were conveyed to a place of safety, although unfortunately some were lost. It proved impossible to save the House of Lords, the first part of the building to be affected by the fire, as the flames had gained a secure hold before the firemen could properly direct their efforts towards it. The firemen's efforts were therefore concentrated on the Commons, which was some distance from the point where the fire originated. Unfortunately at about eight o'clock, the wind changed from the south towards the west, which threw the flames directly upon the Commons, the angle of which nearest the Lords caught fire.

The House of Commons

By this time there were both firemen and soldiers working hard to save the roof of the Commons, but their efforts were in vain. It is colourfully described in a contemporary document as "falling in with a tremendous crash accompanied with an immense volume of flame and smoke and emitting in every direction millions of sparks and flakes of fire. This appearance, combined with the sound resembling the report of a piece of heavy ordnance, induced the assembled multitude to believe that an explosion of gunpowder had taken place."

Westminster Hall

After this it was the turn of Westminster to be threatened. From the House of Commons the fire had travelled through a range of committee rooms at the south end of the Hall which became encircled with burning buildings. At this point several engines were brought actually inside Westminster Hall and as immense quantity of water was distributed over the building. Firemen and soldiers working on the outside of the building also increased their efforts in spite of the dangers from falling rafters and showers of molten lead which poured down on every side. Here at last they were successful, for their efforts, and the massive masonry of the building proved too much for the flames and the Hall was saved.

The Crowds

As morning began to dawn the vast crowds which included Lord Melbourne and other members of the Government saw that the worst was over. Of these crowds a lead in the Times reported the next day:

"The conduct of the immense, the countless multitudes which, in the course of the evening, flocked together to view this spectacle of terrible beauty was such as to inspire respect ..... the general feeling seemed to be that of sorrow, manifested either by thoughtful silence or by occasional exclamations of regret. The admiration of the sublimity of the scene, which seemed to impress every mind, was subdued by the pain at losing these noble memorials of the wisdom and greatness of bygone ages. On common occasions of general concourse the English are sufficiently noisy in the demonstration of their feelings but on this occasion all was grave, decorous and becoming a thinking and manly population ....."

Losses

There were no fatal casualties in the fire but the loss of records was serious particularly rolls signed by Members of Parliament after taking the oath, and the original warrant for the execution of Charles I. The ancient paintings in the Painted Chamber and St Stephen's Chapel were also destroyed, together with the tapestry depicting the Spanish Armada. An official statement issued afterwards states that the buildings destroyed were the House of Lords, the robing rooms, the Painted Chamber, the House of Commons, the Libraries, the committee rooms and the Speaker's House.

An Inquiry

On the 22nd October, the Privy Council held an investigation into the origin of the fire. A political plot was suspected but it was eventually concluded that there were no grounds for considering that this was the case. The possibility of arson was discounted and the Privy Council recorded it as their opinion that the cause of the fire was an overheated furnace in the cellars beneath the House of Lords.

Cause of Fire Spread

In a letter to the Times, James Braidwood, Superintendent of the London Fire Engine Establishment said:

"The causes of the fire proceeding so rapidly in the work of destruction I believe to be as follows:

1 The total want of party walls.

2 The passages which intersected the building in every direction and acted as funnels to convey the fire.

3 The repeated alterations in the buildings which had been made with more regard to expedient then to security.

4 The immense quantity of timber used in the exterior.

5 The great depth and extent of the buildings.

6 A smart breeze of wind.

7 An indifferent supply of water which, though amply sufficient for any ordinary occasion, was inadequate for such an immense conflagration.

8 My own and the firemen's total ignorance of the localities of the place. In fires in private dwellings, warehouses, or manufactories, some idea may generally be formed on the division of the inside of the premises from observing the appearances of the outside, but in the present case that rule was useless."

Rebuilding of the Houses

After the destruction of the House of Parliament it was decided to hold a competition for the best designs submitted for the new building. In 1836 the designs of Sir Charles Barry were accepted and building started in 1837. Owing to numerous difficulties the building was not completed until 1852. The House of Commons was extensively damaged by enemy action in 1941 and rebuilding was only recently completed.


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