If you were to see a bright red light suddenly appear on the London skyline, the chances are you’d check the latest news on your smartphone to find out what was going on. Step back nearly two centuries, however, and this was not possible. So, when an enormous fire set the city’s skies aglow on 16 October 1834, thousands of Londoners flooded across the city to Westminster to investigate. There, they witnessed the horror of one of the biggest national disasters of recent history: the burning of the Houses of Parliament.
Caroline Shenton’s The Day Parliament Burned Down is a great place to start exploring one of the most significant fires in London’s history. As Clerk of the Parliamentary Archives, the author has used her expert knowledge of the resources to recreate the gripping sequence of events on that fateful night. The story of the fire is retold, hour by hour, in remarkable detail.
The book not only acts as the most detailed account of the event to date but also serves to contextualize the social and political atmosphere of the time. Shenton reveals details of life in the slums of Westminster, the plight of the London Irish and child labour as well as an insight in to the fire service of the time coping with such a huge catastrophe. However, The Day Parliament Burned Down is perhaps most memorable for its thrilling account of the fire itself, including the moment when a huge ball of flames ripped through the roof of the Palace of Westminster.
In the aftermath of this monumental disaster, the task of reconstructing the ancient Palace of Westminster’s building was awarded to the architect Charles Barry. In fact, Barry and his assistant, Augustus Pugin, swept away much of the original Palace that had survived, and imposed their own distinctive style on the new design: a masterpiece in Perpendicular Gothic. The rebuilding project took twenty five years, making it one of the biggest building projects in London’s history.
The City of Westminster Archives Centre sits in the shadow of Palace of Westminster, and many of the items in our collections tell the story of the seat of government and the surrounding area.
Some items of particular interest are a series of paintings and sketches by Anne Rickman, an amateur watercolourist, working around the time of the burning of Parliament. As the daughter of the Clerk of the House of Commons, she spent her early life in the family home in New Palace Yard. She was lucky enough to be away visiting family on the evening of the fire, but she returned a few months later, armed with a paintbrush, and set about finding inspiration among the ruins. A small exhibition of her watercolours from before and after the fire can be viewed in the current Archives Search Room exhibition dedicated to this little known, but highly-talented, young artist of the period.