In 1834 a huge fire engulfed the Houses of Parliament. The blaze drew crowds of onlookers and many artists captured the scene. With the Palace of Westminster largely destroyed and only a few parts able to be saved, a new building was needed. From the tragedy of the fire came the opportunity to create a purpose-built building for Parliament, which has since become one of the most recognisable pieces of architecture in the world. The story of the fire can be told alongside objects from our Heritage Collections.
By 6.30pm on 16 October 1834, a huge fireball had exploded through the roof of the Houses of Parliament, and the building was quickly burning down. But what had caused such a disastrous blaze?
Earlier that day, workmen had been told to dispose of two large cart-loads of wooden sticks, by putting them into the furnaces beneath the House of Lords. These sticks – called tally sticks – had been an ancient form of receipt for government income. As they were no longer used, the Clerk of Works at the Houses of Parliament ordered them to be destroyed. The furnaces burned incredibly hot with so much fuel being fed into them, and this eventually led to the floor of the House of Lords catching fire.
On the afternoon of the fire, the Housekeeper and the Clerk of Works at the Palace of Westminster had noticed excess smoke and heat from the furnaces, but did not put them out. Later that evening, a doorkeeper’s wife raised the alarm that a fire had taken hold. The Palace was evacuated, and shortly afterwards, it exploded into flames.
This example of a tally stick is from our Architectural Fabric Collection. It is made from hazel wood and thought to date from the 16th century. The visible marks and notches show how much money someone had paid or owed.
The spectacle of the blaze
The scale of the fire was enormous – the biggest in London since the Great Fire of 1666. The King and Queen could see it from Windsor Castle, around 20 miles away, as could passengers in stagecoaches travelling along the top of the South Downs.
Many artists captured the event as it happened.
William Heath’s lithograph shows the spectacle of the blaze and the crowds it drew. If you look closely, you will see Chance the dog, who was mascot of the London Fire Engine Establishment. You can find him underneath the white plume of smoke in the centre.
Click the image to see more details.
The subtitle to this depiction of the fire proudly states: ‘Drawn on stone… from a sketch taken by him by the light of the flames, at the end of Abingdon Street’. The light from the gigantic fire was so bright that it was possible to read the small print of a newspaper in Pedlar’s Acre, quarter of a mile away, as if it were daytime.
Thousands of people gathered to watch the catastrophe unfold. Some people observed from the relative safety of boats on the River Thames, but others were injured in the crush of the crowds surrounding the area. Many bystanders were pickpocketed as they gazed at the inferno, but, amazingly, no one died in the disaster.
This dazzling depiction of the fire by an unknown artist captures its size and ferocity. Winds tossed the flames, creating a spectacularly large blaze. In this scene we can see the burning buildings of the House of Commons Library, the Speaker’s House, and St Stephen’s Chapel. As this painting shows, the usual soft blue reflections of the moon in the River Thames at night were replaced by scorching orange.
We can also see many people standing on the banks of the Thames below the burning buildings. This shows us that the river was at low tide, which was a problem for the firefighters, who struggled to access enough water for their pumps.
Fighting the fire
Parish fire engines, insurance companies and the private London Fire Engine Establishment fought the fire. Hundreds of volunteers helped, including MPs and Peers. Those who staffed the water pumps on the night, which was a very physical labour, were given beer tokens for their efforts.
By the middle of the evening it was clear that the fire could not be controlled through most of the Palace. Firefighters now focused on Westminster Hall. The Chancellor of the Exchequer reportedly declared: “Damn the House of Commons, let it blaze away! Save, O save, the Hall!”
Westminster Hall’s thick stone walls provided an excellent barrier against the spread of the fire, but its ancient oak roof timbers were in great danger. A few lucky events meant that the Hall was eventually saved.
First, the tide turned in the River Thames. This allowed the London Fire Engine Establishment to begin pumping water from the river, through its huge floating barge mounted fire engine. Then, around midnight, the firefighters were helped by a change in wind direction, which blew the flames away from the Hall. Finally, before the fire, scaffolding inside Westminster Hall had been erected for some repairs. This enabled firefighters to get close to the roof and thoroughly and repeatedly douse it with water.
This watercolour shows us the interior of Westminster Hall on the night of the fire. Hundreds of volunteers can be seen working to save it. We see the fire raging outside of the large south window. Figures are climbing the scaffolding and ladders. Molten lead would have been dripping from the roof. Outside, volunteers would be contending with with falling embers and broken glass.
Surveying the destruction
The fire crews finally left five days after the fire started, having put out the last embers. The remains of buildings were shattered and smoking. Most of the Palace had been lost, including both the House of Lords and the House of Commons Chambers. Only Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel of St Mary and part of the Cloister remain today as part of the New Palace of Westminster. The ruins of the other buildings were cleared in the following months. Stone was sold to salvage merchants or pushed into the River Thames.
This large nail (14cm long) is a relic of the old Palace. It would have been used to hold together wooden beams and was found in the debris of the fire. It was donated to our Architectural Fabric Collection in 1989 by a descendant of James Easton, a firefighter for the Phoenix Insurance Company, who was likely at the scene on the night of the fire.
The damage to the wrecked and uninsured Palace was estimated at £2 million. No one was prosecuted, although a public inquiry found various people guilty of negligence and foolishness.
Author Charles Dickens (1821-1870) remarked after the fire:
“The [tally] sticks were housed at Westminster and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by some of the many miserable creatures in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful and official routine could not endure that they ever should be useful, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes…”
Artists not only captured the fire as it burned, but also documented the aftermath. Today the Parliamentary Art Collection is home to many illustrations and works of art showing the ruined Palace.
This painting by George Scharf (1820-1895) shows a panoramic view of the ruined House of Commons in the days immediately after the fire. Scharf recorded the scene in great detail as part of a larger panoramic painting. We see the charred remains of the upper part of St Stephen’s Chapel. Below, the stonework of the Tudor Cloister Court has survived. The Cloister was repaired and today is one of the few surviving parts of the Medieval Palace. The site of the Chapel was rebuilt as the grand entrance to the New Palace of Westminster.
Another space which survived the fire, but was badly damaged by heat and smoke, was the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. Also known as the Crypt, it was originally built in 1297 for use by the Royal Household. Over the years it had also been used as the Speaker’s State Dining Room, a wine cellar and, allegedly, stables for Oliver Cromwell’s horses.
This watercolour by G B Moore shows the Undercroft soon after the fire. Scattered throughout are pieces of masonry from the destroyed House of Commons (formerly St Stephen’s Chapel), which was above. The Chapel was saved and restored, and returned to its original use as a place of worship.
Some of the ruins of the old Palace were temporarily salvaged and used by Parliament, while plans for a new Palace were made. The Commons moved into the space previously used by the Lords, while the Lords moved into the shell that was previously known as the Painted Chamber.
A New Palace of Westminster
The Houses of Parliament needed a new, permanent home. Although devastating, the disaster created an opportunity to design a purpose-built space for Parliament.
Architects Charles Barry (1795-1860) and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852) were appointed for this mammoth task. By chance, both men had watched the old Palace burn down. Pugin had written about it in a letter shortly after the fire. He disparagingly referred to the architecture of the old Palace: