Today (October 16) in London History – Parliament burns down

October 16, 1834 – the day the Palace of Westminster burned down. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

October 16th. Like September 2nd. And December 29th. London days of infamy. London in fame in flames.

They’re the three big ones, those fires. Well, on the north side of the Thames at any rate.

They’re separated by hundreds of years, those three big-ticket fires. 

The first one, September 2nd, 1666. The first day of the Great Fire of London. That conflagration burned for five days. 80 per cent of London went up in flames.

December 29th, 1940. That was the single worst raid London suffered in the Blitz. It’s been called the second great fire of London.

The Luftwaffe sent 136 bombers to the British capital that night. They dropped 100,000 incendiary bombs on London.

St Paul’s alone and its immediate area was on the receiving end of 28 of them. Much of the City was in flames. That was the night of the famous St Paul’s photograph. 

One thing the December 29th, 1940 conflagration – should say conflagrations, because it was many fires – had in common with our third fire, the fire that will forever show October 16th on the calendar in a sea of flames – one thing the December 29th, 1940 conflagration had in common with October 16th, 1834 was low tide. That timing was intentional on the part of the Nazis, it was just bad luck that October evening in 1834. But what it meant of course was that with both blazes there wasn’t much water to be had from the river. 

Now, a big difference. Two big differences really. The 1666 fire burned for several days and burned down many buildings. The firestorm brought about by those 100,000 incendiary bombs was over in a matter of hours. But like the Great Fire, the second Great Fire destroyed – burned down – huge swathes of the city.

Wasn’t the case with our fire today, October 16th, 1834. It basically destroyed one building – the Palace of Westminster. Parliament. And it was over in a matter of hours. One building and just a few hours it may have been – but it was the most momentous blaze between the 1666 Great Fire and the 1940 Second Great Fire.

And I hasten to add, even that formulation, “just one building” has to be qualified. In the words of Caroline Shenstone, the leading authority on the fire that did for the old Parliament, “the old Palace was a glorious mess: a ramshackle, higgledy-piggledy, degraded but monumental collection of individual buildings and artwork which over the centuries had formed a conglomeration of spaces to which human beings had been obliged to adapt, rather than the other way round.”

Shenstone goes on: “the fire was a national disaster that we have forgotten; and that disaster in turn destroyed an extraordinary complex of buildings which have faded from our consciousness. Yet before its destruction in 1834, the old Palace of Westminster had for hundreds of years been the home of monarchy, of government, of the law courts, and of Parliament. It was the building in which many of the great set pieces of British history took place, including the trials of William Wallace and Sir Thomas More, the Gunpowder Plot, Charles I’s struggles with the Commons, Wilberforce’s battle to abolish slavery, and the only assassination of a Prime Minister. 

People who witnessed the fire – it was the most memorable experience of their whole lives. It was a seminal moment in the history of the nineteenth century and Britain. It wasn’t just the destruction of a national icon – it was a turning point in the history of Parliament and of the nation.”

All right. How did it happen? When did it happen? In the first third of the nineteenth century they were still using wooden tally sticks to keep track of government revenues. Daringly, they decided to go over to ledger books. They had to get rid of the wooden tally sticks. They couldn’t just leave them lying there in the cellar, like great heaps of kindling. Charles Dickens said they should give them to the London poor for their hearths. No, couldn’t do that. They decided to burn them in a furnace in the basement. Fire roared out of control. Building caught fire. Fire spread. Couldn’t be brought under control. Remember that low tide. By dawn the following morning – the great Palace of Westminster – where Parliament had sat for centuries – was a blackened, smoking, stinking ruin. 

The fire had begun in the evening of October 16th. In just a few hours a terrifying event had devastated the heart of British political life. The blaze was visible for many miles around London. It had been watched by thousands of spectators. Some of them had cheered on the progress of the flames. 

In the words of the Times the next day, the fire was “calamitous and awful.” It described the blaze as an “afflicting accident” and “a spectacle of terrible beauty.”

There was one mercy. And it was a big one. They somehow managed to save Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall, the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. The building with the finest wooden roof in the world. The building that has been closely involved in the life of this nation for, now, over 900 years. Most recently of course, the building where the Queen lay in State. The great mediaeval hall that more than any other building in this country crystallises its history. The saving of the Hall was comparable to the saving of St Paul’s in that later conflagration. For the record, Parliament was bombed on 14 occasions during the Blitz. Very badly so on May 10th and May 11th. Westminster Hall was hit as well. The fire chief got on the blower to the Prime Minster. Explained the situation. Several fires blazing out of control. Limited resources. Without hesitation, Churchill said, “save the Hall, save the Hall.”

Well, what happened on October 16th meant of course that Parliament had to be rebuilt. It took over 20 years. It’s a very different building to the Westminster Palace that burned down that October night in 1834. When King Charles III reaches the Sovereign’s entrance at the foot of Victoria Tower and then sets foot in there for the State Opening of Parliament, that’s the opening to some eight acres submerged under stone, to over a thousand rooms, a hundred staircases and eleven courtyards.

But please permit me a favourite anecdote to end. When the old Palace burned down there was a heated debate about where the replacement should go. Some people argued for Trafalgar Square. 

Another candidate was near Buckingham Palace – so they could keep an eye on Queen Victoria.

Whereupon the Duke of Wellington – the Iron Duke – weighed in and said, “no you don’t, you put it right back where it’s always been. You must never put Parliament where the London mob can surround it. And of course unless the London mob erect any number of pontoon bridges across the Thames from the Surrey side, the river frontage of the Palace of Westminster means the London mob can never surround it. 

Which given the political climate today and how a lot of people feel about the genus politician, maybe that’s just as well.

And a Today in London recommendation. Yesterday I recommended Lord Leighton’s House in Kensington. Which has finally reopened after a tremendous refurbishment. Well, same goes for Samboune House at 18 Stafford Terrace in the same neighbourhood, in Kensington. Linley Sambourne was the legendary Victorian illustrator. His house has also undergone an extensive restoration and has just reopened. More than any other house in London, time has stood still in Sambourne House. To step in there is to leave the 21st and 20th centuries and to find yourself in 1875 or thereabouts. Good place. Strongly recommended.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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