The Houses of Parliament burn down


The Houses of Parliament burn down

Westminster, London The 16th of October 1834 AD

The medieval Palace of Westminster, incorporating buildings erected by William Rufus in 1097, suffered a disastrous fire in 1834, leaving little of the old complex standing.

It was not terrorism that destroyed the venerable building, but a workman’s wish not to be delayed by his duties.

The Board of Works had finally decreed that the old tally sticks used at one time by the Court of Exchequer, stored in some cases for very many decades, should be destroyed. Rather than letting them be sold or given away as firewood, with the special mentality beloved of civil servants everywhere the Board felt the sticks were too important to be used so, and perhaps held confidential information, thus they would be burned in private in Westminster.

The job was given to a man named Cross, with instructions that the sticks be burned with care. Cross and a colleague set about the task with more vigour than care, burning them in a stove in the House of Lords. In spite of warnings by other staff alerted by the smoke filling the area, they threw in great bundles at a time so they could depart at five o’clock. The over-fuelled fire raged on until about an hour after Cross had left the heat in the pipes from the stove became so intense that ancient panelling on the walls was set alight in several places.

The panelling burned rapidly and the fire spread to the Commons. Members of the cabinet including Lord Melbourne directed the efforts of the fire-fighters, but in spite (or perhaps because) of all the organisational genius for which British politicians are famed the conflagration spread.

Westminster Hall was saved, and the Jewel Tower and the crypt of St Stephen’s Chapel also survived. But the libraries of both Houses were almost totally lost, as was the celebrated tapestry of the defeat of the Armada. Many works of art and historic archives were also engulfed by the flames, and for decades it was thought that the standard yard and other weights and measures had been destroyed too, but they were found in the 1890s.

What was undoubtedly a disaster did have positive elements, however. Turner witnessed the events, and later painted several pictures of the fire from memory. And what had already become inadequate accommodation for the two Houses was replaced with Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin ’s magnificent new buildings, opened in 1844.

As with the Scottish Parliament in our times, the cost of the new Houses of Parliament soared over the years, with Dickens among many others complaining as the figure went into its second million. Plus ca change.

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