The Palace of Westminster, otherwise known as the meeting place of Parliament, is one of the grandest buildings in the United Kingdom. However, the building that stands here now is less than 200 years old, replacing another grand palace that had stood since medieval times. The first Palace of Westminster was a royal residence for Canute the Great from 1016 to 1035. Then Edward the Confessor built the next palace on Thorney Island, and it was expanded on by his successors, though today the only part that remains is Westminster Hall, which was constructed under King William II.
Westminster Hall was the meeting place of the “Model Parliament” or the first official Parliament, in 1295. A fire in 1512 destroyed the “privy” or the royal residence part of the palace, ultimately forcing out King Henry VIII who would find a home in the Palace of Whitehall and other palaces around London during his reign. At this time, it was really only the House of Lords that met in Westminster Hall, and the House of Commons would meet in various locations, though most often in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey. While both the Lords and the Commons recognized the need for a new building that could house them both instead of the decrepit and cramped Palace of Westminster, no new meeting place was ever constructed.
On the day when the fire started, October 16, 1834, Parliament was in the middle of burning old tally sticks. Tally sticks had been used for Parliament’s accounting purposes and were made out of pieces of wood, about the length of the index finger to the thumb. Rather than giving them away to palace employees to use as firewood, Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works, opted to burn them in the furnaces of the House of Lords. On the 16th, a couple of laborers, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong, were tending to the furnaces and Weobley was checking on them periodically. However, none of them were aware that the copper lining in the flues had melted and a chimney fire had started.
Mrs. Wright, the deputy housekeeper, was the first to notice that something was wrong. On leading a group of visitors through the palace, they noticed that the floors were warm and smoke was rising from them. Cross and Furlong finished by 4 PM and went to go have a pint, closing the doors to the furnaces as they left. They had no clue the destruction that was about to follow. Heat and sparks from one of the flues above ignited the woodwork around 5 PM. By 6 PM fire was visible as the wife of a doorkeeper announced that the House of Lords was on fire. In the ensuing minutes, no one bothered to alert anyone outside the palace of the fire, perhaps thinking that it could be brought under control. No one inside Westminster really had a clue that the fire was already too far along to be stopped.
A large fireball then illuminated the London skyline as it burst forth from Parliament at about 6:30 PM. As the night went on, it became clear to firefighters that they could not contain the bulk of the blaze and focused on trying to save Westminster Hall. The only thing that ultimately saved the structure at all was the continued dousing of the timbers with water from the firehoses as well as the London Fire Engine Establishment’s great barge fire engine. The fire drew large crowds to watch as the home of government went up in flames. By 3 AM the fire was nearly out, but the extensive damage had been done.
The report that came out in the aftermath did not paint a pretty picture. Nearly everything save for Westminster Hall, the Law Courts, St. Mary’s Undercroft Chapel, and a handful of other buildings were completely destroyed. The House of Lords, House of Commons, Painted Gallery, and a chunk of the Royal Gallery were unsalvageable. Most of the procedural records for the House of Commons were lost, but the records of the House of Lords from 1497 to the then-recent were saved as they were stored in the Jewel Tower. Aside from this, one of the night’s few blessings was that the fire resulted in no deaths.
King William IV offered Buckingham Palace to Parliament as a new meeting place, but the Lords and the Commons considered it too “dingy” and opted instead to have a new Palace of Westminster constructed. To that end, they hired Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin to design and build the new palace. This Neo-Gothic building is what stands today, attracting many visitors per year. Noted as one of the worst fires between the Great Fire of 1666 and the London Blitz, the 1834 Palace of Westminster fire ultimately gave us one of the city’s most iconic buildings.