One hundred and seventy-nine years ago today, on October 16, 1834, the great Palace of Westminster in London, seat of the British Parliament, burned in a catastrophic and tragic fire. Although no human beings died, countless priceless and important records that were housed in the palace were lost, and the building itself, parts of which dated from shortly after the Norman Conquest (1066), was destroyed. The fire was the single largest conflagration in the city of London since the Great Fire of 1666.
Sad as the basic story of the Parliament fire is, it becomes ironic when you realize how it started. Shortly before the fire somebody discovered that the palace basement was filled with heaps and stacks of old, rotting pieces of wood with various marks on them–thousands of such pieces, many very old. These bits of wood were tally sticks. They had been used for centuries throughout the long development of British democracy by clerks to record government income. The use of tally sticks as opposed to modern accounting records was abolished in 1783, but a few were still in use as late as 1826, and most were discarded and stored on the premises. On October 16, 1834, Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works at the Parliament palace, decided it was time to get rid of these ancient sticks. He told two Irish laborers to begin burning them in the furnaces underneath the floor of the House of Lords, which were usually used to keep the chamber warm. In the morning the workmen started shoveling tally sticks into the furnaces.
The task of burning the tally sticks took all day, and as quitting time approached, the workmen quickened their pace to dispose of them all before 5PM. They overloaded the House of Lords furnaces with tally sticks, which had already made the chamber uncomfortably hot. Then they went home and the custodians locked the Parliament chambers. The furnaces, however, had already set fire to other parts of the sub-floor of the House of Lords chamber. In an hour the whole palace was on fire.
This view of Westminster Palace burning was painted by legendary artist J.W.W. Turner in 1835. He was an eyewitness to the fire. Click for larger/more detail.
The fire was so intense and spread so fast that firefighters could do little more than try to contain it. Although it destroyed the House of Commons chamber too, other parts of Westminster Hall, dating from the 14th century, were saved by firefighters and thankfully the blaze didn’t spread to the rest of the city. But the next morning the seat of British democracy was a charred ruin.
Characteristically, the British bounced back in grand style. Architect Sir Charles Barry was tasked with designing the replacement Parliament, which he chose to create in a lavish neo-Gothic style harking back to the Middle Ages. It is this building, whose image appears at the top of this article, that currently houses Parliament. It’s one of the most iconic structures in the world. Despite its medieval looks, it was completed fairly recently, in 1844, a decade after the fire.
There’s something cosmically ironic about the seat of British democracy being destroyed by the burning of its own internal accounting machinery. Perhaps somewhere deep underground beneath the Palace of Westminster, somebody will find a charred, half-burned piece of wood with some tally marks on it. Such an object will represent nothing less than the black sense of humor history sometimes has as it laughs at us from the past.
In the original version of this article I stated incorrectly that tally sticks were used to count votes, not government revenue. The tally stick system is understandably opaque to modern eyes, so forgive me for the lapse. Thanks to an eagle-eyed Twitter reader–Caroline Shenton, who wrote a book about the great Parliament fire–for correcting me.