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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.

Fire, Fire!

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?

Two pieces of broken wood, photographed on a white surface. A small piece of wood is above, which has a jagged broken edge on its right hand side. Below is a larger piece of wood, long and thin, with a broken edge on it's left hand side. Both pieces of wood are a mid brown, flat, and feature some markings which are illegible. The larger piece of wood has some triangular notches carved into one of its longer sides.
Tally by Unknown © Architectural Fabric AFC 002279

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

Print depicting the scene of a large fire with firefighters and many onlookers. To the right hand side of the composition, a stone building with castellated walls is on fire with smoke billowing out in great plumes. In the centre of the composition, horse and cart and old-fashioned fire fighters are busily working, There is a small dog running around one of the carts. At the bottom of the scene we see the silhouettes of a great number of onlookers, wearing colourful period dress and hats. The crowd can be seen extending down and through the middle of the scene. past a large and ornate building which is across the road from the burning building, Westminster Abbey. In the foreground at the left of the composition, a 3 story square building holds 3 windows, each with people leaning out to watch the destruction. Another building behind holds more onlookers. A couple of jets of water can be seen being directed at the flames from the central part of the scene. The sky is grey and appears thick with smoke.
The Destruction of the Houses of Lords and Commons by Fire on the 16th of Octo.r 1834′, Hand Coloured Lithograph by William Heath © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 589

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.

Painting depicting an old stone building consumed by fire. The building is riverside, and boats of onlookers are floating in the foreground, gesturing towards the scene. The painting is a warm orange colour. In the centre of the composition is a large arched window with two turrets either side. The walls of the rest of the building are castellated with many windows. The flames appear to be blown by strong winds to the right hand side. The sky is black. Westminster Abbey can be seen in the background, along with tiny figures outside the abbey who also appear to be onlookers. More small figures can be seen on the bank of the river. The river is reflecting the yellow and orange of the fire. A full moon can be seen in the top left of the painting.
Palace of Westminster on Fire 1834 Painting by Unknown © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 1978

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

Save, O save, the Hall!

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

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.

Scene depicting the interior of a grand hall. The hall is filled with small figures busily working. The top of the composition shows roof made of curved wooden beams. The far wall of the Hall has a huge arched window. The stone walls of the hall have scaffolding and ladders leaning against them. Some tiny figures can be seen climbing up the ladders and standing on a ledge in front of the grand window. On the ground, the figures appear to be moving and gesturing urgently. The scene has mostly dim diffused light, but with some reflected orange light in the centre. Some orange can be seen through the window. Looking closely, you can pick out two pumps inside the hall with many people working on them. The style of the watercolour uses some loose marks to suggest figures.
Westminster Hall on Fire 1834 Drawing by George B. Campion © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 1669

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.

You have doubtless seen the accounts of the late great conflagration at Westminster which I was fortunate enough to witness from almost the beginning till the termination of all danger as the Hall had been saved which is to me almost miraculous as it was surrounded by fire.

Letter from A.W.N Pugin, dated 6 NOVEMBER 1834

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.

A large rusted nail photographed on a white surface. The nail has a large round flat head, and a long spike. The bottom half of the spike has some angled notches in it. It appears the notches are to help the nail grip once inserted into a material.
Nail, pre-1834 Fastner by Unknown © Architectural Fabric AFC 004624

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.

A large horizontal scene depicting a partially ruined building under a blue cloudy sky. The angle of the composition looks down from a shallow angle over the top of the structure. The composition is like a panorama. On the right hand side, a large hall with towers and windows is missing it's roof. There are small bits of rubble on the ground. In the foreground of the left hand side, we see more walls that have survived and don't have a roof. The walls have detailed stonework with many arches and niches. Some taller walls with castellated tops have also survived. In the background, a river with small boats can be seen. Some smaller buildings and chimneys can be seen in the city landscape in the background, beside the river. Looking closely, there are some small figures in the ruins in the foreground. In the centre foreground, some figures in red uniforms can be seen with what appears to be an old fashioned fire engine cart, with a hose trailing behind it.
Panorama of the Ruins of the Old Palace of Westminster, 1834 Painting by Mr George Scharf © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 3793

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.

A depiction of an impressive stone structure with large chunks of fallen masonry on the ground. The space has vaulted ceilings with extensive decorative stonework. The background shows an arched window with tracery details, through which a ladder can be seen with a figure stood at the foot of the ladder. The large chunks of masonry in the centre of the scene have varying levels of carved detailing in them. The overall scene is in sepia tones.
St. Stephen’s Chapel Ruins, after the fire in 1834, The West End of the Crypt under the Chapel Drawing by George Belton Moore © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 5195

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:

There is nothing much to regret and much to rejoice in the vast quantity of [John] Soane’s mixtures and [James] Wyatt’s heresies [having] been effectually consigned to oblivion. Oh it was a glorious sight to see his composition mullions and cement pinnacles and battlements frying and cracking while his 2(s) 6(d) [2 shillings and 6 pence] turrets were smoking like so many manufacturing chimneys till the heat shivered them into a thousand pieces…

Letter from A.W.N Pugin, dated 6 November 1834