The Fire that Destroyed The Palace of Westminster
- 16th October 1834 -
There are concerns that the current Palace of Westminster is not only unfit for purpose but also falling down. There are talks about vast sums of money having to be spent to repair it and for Parliament to move to a new purpose built headquarters.
The current building became the fixed location for Parliament in the fourteenth century. It had been home for the Lords in the previous century – when the house met in London. It used to move around the country to where the King was staying or visiting. Henry VIII moved out from the building and along with Reformation this allowed the House of Commons to move to the former royal chapel of St. Stephens. The palace also housed the law courts and acted as a depository for key documents.
Over the centuries it was altered, re-shaped and expanded. By the eighteenth century it had already become an accident waiting to happen with its wooden walls, rambling staircases and sprawling buildings. The inevitable happened on 16th October 1834 when two cartloads of tally sticks, wooden pegs that were used as tax receipts that had become redundant eight years previously, needed to be disposed of. The Clerk of Works decided that two underfloor stoves in the basement would be an excellent place for this to happen. Two workmen carried out this task at 9am that morning. By the afternoon a group of visitors, being shown around the palace by the deputy housekeeper, Mrs Wright, noticed that the floor was getting very warm and that smoke was appearing through the floorboards.
The workmen, unconcerned, continued the job they had been given, and at 5pm put out the furnaces. As usual Mrs Wright locked up just after this and went home. Just after 6pm the wife of the doorkeeper started shrieking that there was a fire. In the wooden buildings it quickly took hold and soon the flames were shooting out of the building and had taken such a grip that all hope seemed lost.
A large crowd built up outside, held back by soldiers. Painters came to draw the sight, including JMW Turner. Staff, MPs and Lords helped staff the pumps. They were later paid in beer for their troubles. This was the biggest blaze in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz and the equipment available to deal with it was woefully inadequate. The conflagration was fought by the parish engines, insurance companies (although the building was uninsured) and later the private London Fire Engine Establishment.
There was a lack of available water on land that was hampering whatever efforts they could muster and the low tide was preventing the larger floating barge-mounted fire engine of the private London brigade from being used. However, at 2am, when the tide was higher, this craft provided much needed help and was responsible for the survival of parts of the building. Perhaps, most importantly, Westminster Hall, built in 1097, and the largest hall in Europe in its day, was saved. Its thick stone walls provided a barrier for the fire and the roof timbers were saved by continual dousing with water.
The damage was estimated to be in the region of £2 million pounds as well as the loss of records that could never be recovered. The law courts too were destroyed.
The Government ran a competition to redesign the Parliament building. This was won by Charles Barry and ANW Pugin, the latter of whom watched the fire destroy the original palace. The new building took thirty years to build, was beset by delays and over-spends and was not completed before both architects had died.
However, by 1870 it was completed in Gothic Revival style and has become one of the most recognisable and beautiful buildings in England. Barry used the passageway between Westminster Hall and the Central Lobby as the new St Stephens Hall to house the Commons and was built along the same footprint as the previous House of Commons.
Time will tell if this iconic building, recognised around the world, will continue to house the mother of parliaments.