Burning of Parliament

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thumb (1835) by J. M. W. Turner. Turner witnessed the fire, and painted the subject several times.]]

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament is the popular name for the fire which destroyed the Palace of Westminster, the ancient home of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, on 16 October 1834. The blaze, which started in two overheated chimney flues, spread rapidly throughout the medieval complex and developed into the biggest conflagration to occur in London since the Great Fire of 1666, attracting massive crowds. The fire lasted for many hours and gutted most of the Palace, including the converted St Stephen's Chapel (the meeting place of the House of Commons), the Lords Chamber, the Painted Chamber and the official residences of the Speaker and the Clerk of the House of Commons. Westminster Hall and a few other parts of the old Houses of Parliament survived the blaze and were incorporated into the New Palace of Westminster, which was built in the Victorian Gothic style over the following decades.

The fire

The fire was caused by the destruction of tally sticks. The mathematician Tobias Dantzig in his book Number: The Language of ScienceTemplate:Rp remarked on how a counting-device had brought about the destruction of both Houses of Parliament, and he quotes from a speech given by the English novelist and advocate of social reform, Charles Dickens, in 1855 (Charles Dickens, Speech to the Administrative Reform Association, June 27, 1855<ref name = "DickensSpeech">Template:Citation.</ref>Template:Rp). Long before his time, the now-literate clerks of the Exchequer no longer had need of tally sticks; and in 1724, Treasury officials had ordered that their use be discontinued: but they remained valid, and were not completely abolished until 1826.

Dickens wrote: Template:Quote

The responsibility for disposing of the tally sticks fell to Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works at the Palace. He decided against burning them on a bonfire out in the open, as he feared such an action would upset the neighbours. The decision was made to burn the sticks in the underfloor coal furnaces that heated the House of Lords chamber. On the morning of October 16, Weobley assigned the task to two Irish labourers from the Metropolitan Board of Works, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong. The work went on all day; witnesses recalled seeing both Cross and Furlong throw great handfuls of sticks onto the fires, despite the risk of the burning wood overheating the copper-lined brick flues, which coincidentally had not been swept for over a year. Weobley, already well aware that the archaic jumble of buildings that made up the old palace presented a major fire risk, had warned the two men not to overfill the furnaces or stoke the fires too high but his instructions were ignored.

The first indication that something was wrong came that afternoon when the on-duty housekeeper at the palace, Elizabeth Wright, was showing round two gentleman tourists. They complained that the House of Lords chamber was full of smoke and noted the exceptional amount of heat coming up through the floor. Nonetheless neither Wright nor anyone else pursued the matter any further. Cross and Furlong clocked off in the late afternoon, having completed their task. Mrs. Wright locked up the Lords chamber at 5pm. Within an hour it was discovered to be ablaze. It is believed the over-stoked furnaces heated the flues to such an extent that their copper linings collapsed, causing the exposed brickwork to heat up, and igniting the timber joists that supported the stone floor of the chamber above. This allowed the fire to spread to the vast range of combustible wooden and fabric furnishings inside the Chamber itself.Template:SfnTemplate:Rp

The fire was one of the biggest conflagrations seen in London since the Great Fire of 1666, and an enormous crowd flocked to Westminster to witness the spectacle, including Lord Melbourne, the prime minister, and many of his cabinet.<ref name = "Blackstone">Template:Citation.</ref> Firefighters belonging to the London Fire Engine Establishment, the newly professionalized service under James Braidwood, arrived at the scene but, realizing they would be unable to stop the fire spreading around the palace site, concentrated on saving Westminster Hall.<ref name = "Blackstone" /> The House of Commons chamber, housed within the former St Stephen's Chapel, soon caught fire and Westminster Hall was under threat. Heroic efforts by firefighters and civilian volunteers, who dampened the Hall's great 14th century hammerbeam roof with water, prevented it from catching fire and ensured its survival. The fire was eventually brought under control; but not until most of the old Palace had been destroyed. Along with Westminster Hall, the only other surviving remnants were the Jewel Tower, St Stephen's Cloister and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which was located directly beneath the destroyed Commons chamber.

The British standard measurements, the standard yard and standard pound, were both lost in the blaze. Also lost were most of the procedural records for the House of Commons, which dated back as far as the late 15th century. All of the actual Acts of Parliament survived, however, as they were Lords' records stored in the Jewel Tower at the time of the fire. Yet while the fire was regarded by many as a national tragedy, it was also the occasion for ribald songs, jokes and much celebration amongst those who bore grievances against the political establishment. 'Oh, What a Flare Up!' was published (c.?1838).

The English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) painted the burning of the Palace of Westminster from memory, having witnessed it at first hand.

The Palace of Westminster was rebuilt according to a design by Sir Charles Barry with Gothic Revival detailing by A.W.N. Pugin. Though Dickens deplored the cost, the building is one of the most familiar landmarks of London.

See also

  • Gunpowder Plot, the failed attempt in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament
  • List of historic fires




External links