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The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 JMW Turner, 1834-35 (an eye witness)

for the rest of the night. It was fought by parish and insurance company fire engines, and the private London Fire Engine Establishment, led by Superintendent James Braidwood, the grandfather of modern firefighting theory. Hundreds of volunteers, from the King’s sons and Cabinet ministers downwards, manned the pumps on the night, and were paid in beer for their efforts. Contrary to popular opinion, onlookers in the vast crowds did not generally stand around cheering. Most were awestruck and terrified by the spectacle, and some suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Others were injured in the crush, and plenty were pickpocketed: but, astonishingly, no-one died in the disaster. As it burned, the fire stripped away the Houses of Parliament’s later, and often ugly, accretions of many centuries, revealing the beautiful old Palace beneath, including the Painted Chamber, St Stephen’s Chapel and its lower chapel of St Mary’s, in use at the time of the fire as the Court of Claims, House of Commons, and Speaker’s Dining Room respectively. In the aftermath of the fire these became a focus for much antiquarian activity and delighted the sightseers touring the ruins. By the middle of the evening it was clear that the fire was uncontrollable in most of the Palace. Westminster Hall then became the focus for Braidwood’s efforts and those of his men and hundreds of volunteers. The thick stone Norman walls provided an excellent barrier against the spread of fire, but the fourteenth-century oak roof timbers were in great peril. “Damn the House of Commons, let it blaze away!” cried the Chancellor of the Exchequer

IMAGE COURTESY THE JOHN HOWARD MCFADDEN COLLECTION, 1928, THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART

desperately, “But save, O save the Hall!”. The efforts of all, from the highest to the lowest, plus a lucky change of wind direction at midnight, and the arrival of the London Fire Engine Establishment’s great, floating, barge-mounted fire engine, finally started to quell the fire in the early hours, and ultimately saved Westminster Hall. The fire crews finally left five days later, having put out the last of the fires which kept bursting out from the ruins. The following day revealed a shattered and smoking collection of buildings, most of which were cleared in the months that followed and the stone sold to salvage merchants or pushed into the river. Temporary chambers and committee rooms were available for occupation by February 1835, and a government competition commenced to design a new Houses of Parliament on the ruined site. Charles Barry, aided by Augustus Pugin, won the commission and together they created the most famous building in the United Kingdom. The patched-up parts of the old Palace were finally pulled down in the early 1850s. Only Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel of St Mary and part of the Cloister remain today. The damage to the

wrecked and uninsured Palace was estimated at £2 million. No-one, however was prosecuted, though the public inquiry which followed found various people guilty of negligence and foolishness. Coming at a moment in British history between the Georgian and Victorian ages, the stagecoach and the railway, the demise of the medieval city of London and the birth of the modern one, it is easy to load the great fire of 1834 with a wider historical significance. Later commentators have seen it as symbolic of the constitutional changes brought about by the Great Reform Act of 1832, but at the time people were more likely to have seen it as a judgement from God for the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, against which Dickens, a Parliamentary reporter at the time of the fire, railed in Oliver Twist. The Day Parliament Burned Down by Caroline Shenton is available from www.shop.parliament.uk and other retailers. Tours inside the Houses of Parliament are available on Saturdays throughout the year and on most weekdays during holiday periods including the summer, Christmas and Easter. For details see www.parliament.uk/visiting

September 2014 19

The American September 2014 Issue 736  

The American has been published for Americans in Britain since 1976. It's also for Brits who like American culture.

The American September 2014 Issue 736  

The American has been published for Americans in Britain since 1976. It's also for Brits who like American culture.

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