On 16 October 1834 an immense fire started by the over-zealous burning of waste took hold in the old Palace of Westminster, completely destroying the medieval Commons and Lords chambers as well as the Speaker’s apartments. The largest metropolitan conflagration since 1666, at its height the fire could be seen as far away as the south Downs and was far brighter than that evening’s full moon.
The legacy of the fire was immense. Politicians had been dithering for decades about the issue of inadequate accommodation at Westminster at a time when the business of Parliament was rapidly expanding. Within a few years, after a carefully managed public competition won by the architect Charles Barry, the process of beginning work on the palace we are familiar with today had begun. In the meantime, for the next 20 years both the Commons and Lords sat in temporary chambers, overseeing the development of the early Victorian state and its colonial empire from one of Europe’s largest building sites.
As well as triggering the construction of today’s palace, the fire had a special political resonance, occurring at a time of huge social unrest and political change. Many old institutions – the established church, medieval town councils, the corrupt appointments and pensions system – were under unprecedented attack in the early 1830s and being drastically reformed. The old electoral system of rotten boroughs has just been completely overhauled by the Great Reform Act – after an intense two year struggle in parliament – extending the vote to many of the middle classes. Catholics and Dissenters had recently been granted full civil rights. The system of local urban government in Scotland that had been around for centuries had just been swept away and the process of doing the same in England had just begun. Above all the old poor law, providing parish poor relief out of local rates, had a few months before been controversially replaced by the dreaded Victorian workhouse system.
Not surprisingly the fire was immediately seized upon by different groups and invested with all sorts of political and even religious meanings. To give a few examples:
● For the Radicals it represented progress, the physical embodiment of a sweeping away of the old corrupt aristocratic regime, and the destruction of the symbolic centre of the unreformed political system that they had been campaigning against for years.
● For the lower classes, it was justice – justice for being cheated out of voting rights in 1832 – and of course retribution for the infamous workhouse system with its unpopular separation of husbands, wives and children. ‘This comes of making the poor girls pay for their children’, one weaver was overheard saying, as he watched the flames (Broughton, Recollections of a Long Life (1911) v, 21-23). Another onlooker, the writer Thomas Carlyle, observed how
The crowd was … rather pleased than otherwise; whew’d, and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it; “There’s a flare-up for the House of Lords”. “A judgement for the Poor Law Bill!” – “There go their acts!” Such exclamations seemed to be the prevailing ones. A man sorry I did not anywhere see.
● For the die-hard Tories – many of whom assumed the fire was deliberate – the destruction of the old palace was a national calamity, which physically embodied the threat facing the ancient institutions of the country, with their centuries old traditions. The rebuilding of the palace in a medieval gothic style, with artworks and decor venerating the nation’s ordered past, was no coincidence, occurring as it did against a backdrop of huge social and political upheaval.
Ultimately the fire represents an incredibly convenient dividing line, between the final years of an 18th century culture of doing politics and the emergence of a far more recognisably modern form of governance in the early Victorian era. Only a month after the fire the king actually dismissed the Whig goverment and installed his own – the last time in British history that this ever happened. One year later all the major boroughs in England started to elect their town councils each year using a ratepayer franchise.
Whether by design or default, Britain’s political world would operate very differently either side of this famous event.
BBC Parliament programme on the fire: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8309103.stm
Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012)
Patrick Cormack, ‘The Great Fire of Westminster 1834’, The Historian (Autumn 1984), 3-6.
K. Solender, Dreadful Fire: burning of the Houses of Parliament (1984)