Oxford, £18.99

The Day Parliament Burned Down, By Caroline Shenton

The familiar Palace of Westminster that we know today arose from the ashes of disaster

Yes, there was a smell of something burning in the House of Lords on 16 October 1834. In fact, it was hard to see across the smoky Chamber. Also, the floor near Black Rod's box was too hot to touch. But not to worry: it was just the men below carefully burning some unwanted wood in the furnaces. The Housekeeper of the Lords, a combination of Security and Health-'*'-Safety, was keeping an eye on this sort of thing, or would have been if she hadn't delegated everything except the salary to her deputy, who on the day was away, leaving everything to her own mother-in-law, who was moonlighting as a tourist guide while the underfloor temperature soared.

The senior of the two men defying orders, by cramming the sticks into the stoves, was not the kind of employee to be entrusted with the fate of the Palace of Westminster. He had just emerged from a lengthy sentence at the nearby prison. As Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records in the parliamentary archives, shows in her excellent book, even the wood shoved into the furnaces was the product of the stranglehold of inefficient tradition. In chapters headed with each successive hour of the fire's inexorable progress, she charts the frenetic and misguided efforts of staff and firemen to douse the inferno and snatch papers and property from the flames. Slipped into this saga are background snippets to explain how the Mother of Parliaments got itself into this granddaddy of a mess in the first place.

Take those sticks which accidentally became kindling. A "tally" was a small, notched piece of wood which in medieval times served as a receipt for government income. As Dickens pointed out, pen and paper had been around for a while; yet the antique system dragged on at Westminster until 1826. The last tallies were not disposed of until that fateful day in 1834.

Among the most hidebound of the jobsworths was the Dean of Westminster, who refused to move the Domesday Book to safety in the nave of the Abbey. He had not received the Prime Minister's permission. The king appeared to treat the inferno as some kind of light show. Fortunately there were many who pitched in, ranging from two of the William IV's illegitimate sons to the firemen who pumped – by hand – the water via their rudimentary apparatus.

As the flames darted around like wild creatures and roofs crashed down, there were many injuries but no deaths. Cometh the hour, cometh the men like Rowland Hill, a general who had his horse shot from under him at Waterloo and who now organised a firewall to save the 11th-century Westminster Hall. This book ignites our interest in the forgotten fire of 1834. And what of the Westminster conflagrations of 1263, 1298,1315, 1512 and 1549? We've forgotten those too.

Buy The Day Parliament Burned Down (Oxford) from independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £14.99 (RRP £18.99) including postage or call 0843 0600030

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam