The Day Parliament Burned Down

Jeremy Black on an eventful night for the British government

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Caroline Shenton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £18.99

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On 16 October 1834 a group of workmen were asked to burn some old wooden sticks in a stove under the House of Lords. By evening the blaze had got out of hand and sparked an inferno that would destroy both houses of parliament. The Day Parliament Burned Down is both a gripping account of that fateful night and a wide-ranging search for its ramifications across British society. Well written and extensively illustrated, this is a book that deserves attention.

Caroline Shenton, clerk of the records at the Parliamentary Archives, carefully shows how parliament’s buildings, their destruction and rebuilding, captured contrasting hopes and fears. The fire was swiftly translated into competing accounts of national destiny. Some saw it as triumphant self-immolation on the part of a parliament which had reached its highest achievement in the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, but others regarded it as a divine judgement for this very legislation. Contemporary political and governmental weaknesses attracted comparisons by other commentators.

Aside from these resonances, Shenton shows how many experienced the fire as a national disaster and an assault on the collective memory.

The building in which many of the great set pieces of English and, later, British history had taken place had been destroyed in the most momentous blaze in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940.

“One of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record… no private house would have been destroyed in such circumstances,” complained the new prime minister, Lord Melbourne. He certainly captured the lack of care that arose from the weak nature of much British government: bodies reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s fictional Circumlocution Office scarcely rose to the challenge. At the same time, Melbourne’s response hinted at the psychological consequences of the fire, for in later years he suffered flashbacks in which the image of the blaze frequently presented itself. Dickens himself left an account of a tremendous London fire in Oliver Twist, and the power of flame became a major theme in many of his novels.

William IV offered Buckingham Palace as new accommodation, but, by dint of hard work, including the use of night-shifts, prefabricated timber and iron girders, and papier-mâché ornamental mouldings, both chambers were refitted as temporary accommodation. The repairs provided the first opportunity to allow women into the Commons to view proceedings officially, with 24 seats provided in a dedicated ladies’ gallery behind a trellised screen and up a separate staircase.

Let us hope Shenton moves on to consider the building of the new Houses of Parliament, at once a key site and icon of national identity.

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Jeremy Black’s books include The War of 1812 (University of Oklahoma, 2009) and Empire Reviewed (Social Affairs Unit, 2012)