Review: The Day Parliament Burned Down

Posted: August 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

the day parliament burned down caroline shentonNot too long ago, the author of this book wrote on her blog what constitutes a good history book: The Good History Book Checklist. Hostage meet Fortune, perhaps, now that her new book is virtually on the eve of publication! But I can tell you right away that the boxes have all been ticked. This meticulously-researched book is both pacy and informative as befits the spectacular, calamitous subject matter. One has to wonder why it hasn’t attracted such a comprehensive modern treatment before now.

On the evening of 16 October 1834, the old Houses of Parliament at Westminster – an ancient compound comprising buildings of widely varying merit and age – went up in flames. It began as a result of the basement furnace being employed to burn several wagon-loads of redundant tally sticks (find out what these are in the book!), a use for which the furnace – and its copper-lined flues – were not designed. After several hours, highly dangerous overheating turned into a catastrophic inferno. Before this happened, several people in the building saw the build-up of smoke in the Commons chamber and felt the unnaturally hot floors and walls. Yet no action was taken, nothing was reported (or reported to the right people). Once the disaster was fully realised, it was too late.

jmw turner burning of the house of lords and the house of commons

JMW Turner’s famous depiction of the disaster.

The book is arranged one hour per chapter, taking us through the fire’s progress throughout the evening and into the night in a very structured narrative. Within this framework, the author tells us about the buildings; the players in the drama, from the lowest Parliamentary servant through to the Prime Minister, heroes and villains alike; the archaic way in which the palace was staffed; conspiracy theories; precisely what was lost in terms of buildings, treasure and records; and what survived. Although this is a perfectly enjoyable book for the general reader, the historian in particular will shudder at the sheer loss of priceless documents. And not only the burned ones; it’s a difficult read finding out about the bundles of records which were hurled from windows by perfectly well-meaning rescuers doing the right thing, bursting open on the street and then being either taken by souvenir hunters or soaked by  firehoses and trampled into the cobbles.

But while there is much to mourn, there is probably as much if not more to celebrate, in a way. The process of saving records met with not insignificant success and thanks to the shambolic nature of the palace as a whole, many were stored off-site in any case, for example in the nearby Jewel House. The feel-good story of the whole crisis has to be the saving of Westminster Hall, constructed in the late 11th Century the same age as the White Tower itself. Contemporaries knew full well this was the most important building in the complex, if not London itself. Even the massed crowds, many of whom we discover witnessed the conflagration not without a certain cheerfulness, were alarmed at the threat to the hall. So we discover how James Braidwood, London’s first proper fire chief and the hero of the book, directed every resource available to him at saving the building, today over 900 years old and still with us.

So a taste then of what you’ll find in this most accessible and precise of history books; there is much more to look forward to: Chance, the firemen’s dog; Prime Minister Melbourne’s sanguine reaction to an excitable messenger’s news that Charles I’s death warrant had been rescued; and the snapshot of 1834 fire-fighting, a time when the service was mid-transition between the old insurance company bands and the modern integrated operation we know today.

The book has 35 black-and-white images which include the Turner (above) and very good maps at the front depicting the immediate local area and two detailed plans of the ground and upper floor of the palace. It’s a shame though that modern books tend not to carry these as larger fold-out items as in days of yore, most likely due to cost. There are also a full 60 pages of meticulous bibliography, footnotes and index which include periodicals, manuscripts and newspapers.

I recommend without reservation this superb account of the disaster which transformed the Mother of Parliaments forever .

London Historians members will be interested to learn that a signed copy of this fine book is our August members’ newsletter prize.

The Day Parliament Burned Down (333 pp) by Caroline Shenton is published on 9 August by Oxford University Press with a cover price of £18.99 but available for quite a bit less. Pre-order today or order from Thursday!

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