Described as “calamitous and awful” by the Times the following morning, the fire that destroyed the Houses of Parliament on the night of 16th October 1834 must have been devastating to witness for those who stood by, powerless to prevent the disaster.
Yet the event was also acknowledged to be “a spectacle of terrible beauty”. Indeed, a great fire is both strangely compelling and utterly fearsome to watch, and Caroline Shenton skillfully harnesses the innate drama in the scarcely-remembered national disaster to explore the social and political context of the day.
Shenton certainly has the credentials to bring the story to life. With a doctorate from Oxford (Worcester College, 1990), she’s Clerk of the Records at the Parliamentary Archives in London and has unique access to the contemporary accounts of the event. She has also worked as senior archivist at the National Archives, and with collections relating to the old Palace of Westminster for over 20 years. This is both her first book and the first full-length book published on the subject.
It’s easy to forget that the current Palace of Westminster ever had an ancient predecessor, mainly thanks to Barry and Pugin’s stunning — and hugely influential — design for the new building. Shenton describes the old Palace as a “glorious mess: a ramshackle, higgledy-piggledy, degraded but monumental collection of individual buildings and artworks”, which, over hundreds of years, monarchs, politicians and lawmakers had simply adapted and made their own.
But it was more than just a collection of buildings; it was the place in which many of British history’s defining events and struggles had taken place, including the trial of Sir Thomas More, Wilberforce’s fight to abolish slavery, and the only successful assassination of a British prime minister. For this reason, when the fire razed the old Palace to the ground, for many it took on an allegorical quality, with a new Parliament rising from the ashes to mark a turning point in history, society and politics.
The fire took hold at a time of great change in Britain, as the Georgian period gave way to the Victorian era: railways were taking over from stagecoaches, and the last vestiges of the medieval city of London were being swept away along with the ancient Parish system. The disaster even sowed the seeds for future reforms, like the establishment of a single London Metropolitan Fire Brigade in 1866, which came about after years of pressure to provide a unified, organised approach to fire fighting following the events of 1834.
Shenton effortlessly sweeps us from the slums of Westminster to corruption in high places, painting a colourful picture of the social and political landscape of the day. But despite its detail, the book never feels overladen with facts, as she keeps a brisk pace to weave a gripping tale of how the 1834 disaster unfolded — and the remarkable impact it had on contemporary society and beyond.