Parliament Fire of 1834: The Night it Burned Down

The same year that Madame Tussaud established her Chamber of Horrors, was the same year that the parliament fire of 16 October 1834 began. Apparently, the Exchequer needed to dispose of an obsolete accounting system that had not been used since 1826. The system relied on elongated tally sticks described as follows:

“[A tally is a] wooden staff or stick upon which the notches have been cut, it is cloven or split in two, in the direction of the grain lengthways, and through the notches. Each of these pieces would, of course, bear the like number of notches, and each would therefore record the weight, number, or value of anything the notches signified. For instance, before the general use of writing, two persons doing business together were accustomed to cut a tally between them. The quantity of goods sold, or the sum of money, was entered upon a stick with a knife, instead of into a book with a pen; and the stick upon which the entry was made in notches having been split and divided, one half was kept by one contracting party, and the other by the other party. When another transaction required a similar entry, the debtor produced his notched half to the creditor, who, fitting it accurately to his own, added the requisite notches below the form notches across the two halves, which he held fitted together as one stick, and thus both debtor and creditor possessed an exact statement of the account.”[1]

Parliament fire -

Burning of the Houses of Parliament. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There were two cartloads of wooden tally sticks that needed to be disposed of, and Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works, decided that best way to dispose of them was to use two underfloor stoves in the basement of the House of Lords. The burning of the tally sticks was to be completed by workmen — two Irish laborers, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong. As Cross and Furlong burned the tallies, throughout the day Weobley checked on the men’s progress. He reported that the tally sticks were no more than four inches high inside the furnaces and that both furnace doors were open, which allowed Cross and Furlong to watch the flames. However, a firelighter in the Lords reported otherwise. He claimed that Cross and Furlong threw handfuls of tallies into the fire carelessly and that he warned them to not do it, but when questioned later, both Cross and Furlong denied the firelighter’s accusations.

Medieval Talley Sticks. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As Cross and Furlong burned the tally sticks, a chimney fire resulted in the two flues that ran under the floor and up through the walls. Although no one was initially sure what had caused the fire, some of the first reports did attribute the fire to workmen:

“This lamentable conflagration commenced between the hours of six and seven last night. From the most accurate information that could be collected, it is most probable that the fire was purely accidental, and originated in some neglect or accident of the workmen employed in making alterations in the library of the Lords, and who had just left their work in the part of the building.”[2]

There were also varying accounts as to who discovered the fire.  One report was that the first person to notice the fire was a Sergeant named Underhill who then gave an alarm. Another newspaper, The Observer, stated that the first person to notice the fire was the wife of one of the keepers who had apartments in the House:

“She [the keeper’s wife] came down the staircase, near the strangers’ or side entrance into the House of Lords, where witnesses used to wait preparatory to being examined; and having given some directions for the evening, as she and her husband were going to the play, she was returning to her rooms. She thought she saw a light reflecting under the door, and she said so to the housekeeper … She expressed her fears that there was ‘a fire in the House of Lords.’ Both examined the door, and became still ore alarmed; but they did not open any door to ascertain whether the House was really on fire or not. They raised an alarm, and hastened to their apartments.”[3]

Initially, there was also much confusion as to where the conflagration broke out. A variety of statements were at odds as to where the fire began:

“According to some, it … commenced in the roof of Howard’s coffee-room, and to have been occasioned by some experiments which were being tried on some new stoves … Others state[d] that it broke out in a passage leading to the bar of the House of Lords. Others again state[d], … that it was first discovered in the very centre of the House of Lords; but all persons concur, that when the alarm was first given, which was about 23 minutes before 7 o’clock, a considerable portion of the House of Lords was in flames.”[4]

Parliament fire - October 1834

The Palace of Westminster on fire, October 1834, with Old Palace Yard in foreground. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was a blazing fire that spread quickly. Crowds soon noticed the fire and began to gather and watch. Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail reported on the difficulties that fire fighters encountered as they fought the inferno:

“The greatest consternation prevailed in the neighbourhood, and the flames spread rapidly. Detachments of police from the different station houses soon arrived and information was instantly dispatched to the different fire stations. The engines soon began to arrive, but it was with great difficulty that they could approach form the immense concourse of people assembled for all parts of the metropolis, it being at first report that Westminster Abbey was on fire, and to those persons coming from Pimlico, Chealsea, and that neighbourhood, it appeared very like it for all the windows of the Abbey were quite illuminated, and the interior might be clearly seen. At first there was great want of water, but as soon as a supply was procured the firemen exerted themselves to the utmost, but the flames had too strong a hold, and the water thrown by the engines appeared to have very little effort. The wind too was unfavorable to their exerions [sic] it blowing a smart breeze from the southward and westward.”[5]

As the fire continued to burn, great efforts were expended to save the Parliament building. This resulted in two engines being driven into the building, with one conveying water to the other. For a time, it seemed as if the building might be saved, but instead it was reported:

“When the conflagration had extended to the House of Commons on the right, and the buildings in the Speaker’s yard on the left, where two engines belonging to the fire establishment, and one the Exchequer Court, were in full operation, it was found necessary to have another engine brought into the hall … The first had by this time made fearful progress, the flames rising many yards above the burning buildings, and myriads of sparks flying into the air; …The exertions of the firemen were all that could be expected … They had to work amid dense smoke and a constant fall of sparks, which they had also occasionally to brave the more formidable danger of molten lead, which in one instance fell on and completely burned the front of one of their helmets.”[6]

Parliament fire - 1834-1835

Painting titled “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons” by J.M.W. Turner in 1834-1835. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ultimately, firefighters were unable to stop the fire, and it “reduced to a heap of ruins the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the residence of the Speaker, that of Mr. Ley, First Clerk, besides various Parliamentary offices.”[7] The day after the fire, a report was issued stating, “the strictest enquiry is in progress as to the cause of this calamity, but there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it has arisen from any other than accidental causes.”[8] An emergency cabinet meeting was also called with a list of witnesses drawn up, and, on 22 October, the Privy Council sat in private to investigate the fire causes. Numerous theories were investigated that included a gas explosion, plumbers working in the Lords, an arson attack, and a Howard’s coffee-room experiment, but, in the end, it was determined the burning of the wooden tallies was what caused the fire, and many believed that Cross and Furlong were not as careful as they testified.

References:

  • [1] “Tallies,” in The Observer, 02 November 1834, p. 1-2.
  • [2] “Destruction of Both Houses of Parliament by Fire,” in Warder and Dublin Weekly Mail, 25 October 1834, p. 8.
  • [3] “Destruction of the Two Houses of Parliament by Fire,” The Observer, 20 October 1834, p. 1.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] “Destruction of Both Houses of Parliament by Fire,” p. 8.
  • [6] “Destruction of the Two Houses of Parliament by Fire,” p. 1.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] “Destruction of Both Houses of Parliament by Fire,” in The Times, 18 October 1834, p. 5.

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