Paperback review: The Day Parliament Burned Down, By Caroline Shenton


The day that Parliament didn’t burn down despite the best attempts of Guy Fawkes, 5 November, has overshadowed somewhat the day that it actually did.

On 16 October 1834, John Phipps, assistant Surveyor for London in the Office of Woods and Forests, was required to clear out tally foils in the Exchequer buildings, and a huge batch of wooden tallies, or “nick-sticks”, was collected and subsequently burned in the furnaces of the Houses of Parliament. Phipps’ clerk, Richard Woebly, instructed Joshua Cross to load the sticks on in small amounts. But something went wrong during the day and the load eventually combusted, with the result that the medieval buildings housing valuable records, such as the collections on the Upper Library, as well as tapestries and other art work, went up in flames.

Shenton’s fascinating history considers the responses of the fire-fighting teams of the age, as well as the people’s general reaction. Many were delighted to see Parliament take a hit, viewing it as a judgement from God for passing the controversial Great Reform Act in 1822. Architects and radical politicians who had long campaigned for new buildings were also less than sorry. It was a shocking incident nevertheless, “one of the greatest archival disasters the United Kingdom has ever known”, and was subsequently captured in paintings and watercolours by Turner and Constable (although Londoner Charles Dickens somehow failed to write it up at the time). And even those who were glad to see the fire didn’t want the great Westminster Hall to be destroyed, or the famous Painted Chamber, which dated back to the time of Edward III. It did bring about change however, so something good came out of the wreckage – the new buildings gave women their first opportunity to view Parliamentary proceedings.