Dr R Balashankar
The Day Parliament Burned Down, Caroline Shenton, Oxford University Press, Pp 333 (HB),
THE British parliament was completely gutted in a catastrophic fire on October 16, 1834. Most Britons have forgotten it, as a new, better structure came up at the site. In a gripping narrative Caroline Shenton in the Day Parliament Burned Down tells the hour-by-hour account of what happened that day, the dramatis personae and the aftermath. There was no casualty in the fire. And yet it raged nearly a whole day to reduce to ashes several wings of the building.
The buildings that were eaten up by the flames were eight hundred years old, the oldest being the feasting hall built in 1097-98. Of course changes had taken place, mostly haphazard, prompted by the need of the moment. It was a ramshackle, higgedly-piggedly, says Shenton.
The fire apparently started from the routine, innocuous burning of the tallies (account sheets). Despite a few people noticing fire and smoke, nobody took it seriously. Aided by the wind, it spread quickly, beyond control. This was not the first fire to have destroyed and reshaped the old palace over the centuries. The first recorded fire was in 1263, then 1298, 1315, 1549 – to mention a few.
After the most devastating fire of 1834, an inquiry was launched which came up with several recommendations. There was clearly lack of organisation in firefighting. “Each engine crew was responsible only to itself.” No one was coordinating the rescue efforts. One Captain William Hook of the Royal Navy, who was in the vicinity suggested to the fire-men and the police to vacate and save the buildings untouched by fire. But the police said they were there only to keep order and had no say with the fire-men. The crowd, in the meanwhile was swelling. Thousands rushed to the spot to ‘watch’ the fire. “Large sums of money were paid by the nobility and gentry for seats at the front windows of the houses in Bridge Street and Parliament Street, ‘to witness the imposing scene of the night.’ If these were the balcony boxes, then the river itself was the stalls.”
“It took over twenty-five years to build a new Palace of Westminster. When finished, the new building must have been profoundly shocking for those who could remember the old one. It was much bigger, and set much further back from Westminster Abbey than its predecessor… It was logical, monolithic, and almost obsessive in its orderliness compared with what had gone before.”
The fire became the central theme in literature too, the most visible example being Charles Dickens (Great Expectation, Bleak House). He lived near the Parliament when the fire broke out, though there is no known letters he wrote about the fire to anyone. In fact, during the incident, he was working with the Morning Chronicle and may have written some of the material that appeared in the press.
Some of the irrevocably lost items were the weights and measures of the kingdom. “These were the national master standard against which all local copies in the shires were calibrated. Originally ordained by Magna Carta in 1215, the standard yard was used to compute distances, volumes of land, and lengths of cloth: feet and inches, poles, perches and rods; furlongs, miles, and acres…”
It took a quarter century to rebuild and the process was subject to delays, over spending, slander and accusation, political interference, madness and death. “But that is another story” says Shenton, who is Clerk of the Records at the Parliamentary Archives in London. She has worked in and around collections relating to the old Palace of Westminster for over twenty years, which definitely qualifies her as the best one to write a most authentic narrative. Read it like a thriller.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2, 6DP, United Kingdom)