Page last updated at 18:03 GMT, Thursday, 15 October 2009 19:03 UK

Burning down the House

By Andrew Wilson
Producer, The Great Fire, BBC Parliament

The Palace of Westminster 1834
Crowds cheered as the vast majority of the Houses of Parliament burnt down

They say a week is a long time in politics. So after 175 years, you would probably expect some dramatic changes.

But one theme still remains from 1834. Politicians were about as unpopular then as they are now.

When an awesome fire ripped through the Palace of Westminster on 16 October of that year, a gleeful crowd whooped and cheered as fire burned the vast majority of the building to the ground.

Back then it was not MPs' expenses that were causing public anger. It was the money that Parliament was taking away from the masses.

The Poor Law Amendment Act abolished financial relief for the poor, and they were forced into harsh workhouses to earn money for food.

'There go their acts'

The fire itself was the greatest to hit London between the great fire of 1666 and the blitz of World War Two.

The column of flame that reared over Westminster was visible from as far away as the South Downs.

The hand-pumped fire engines of the day were powerless to prevent the destruction of the Palace.

Dr Philip Salmon: Fire was an 'accident waiting to happen'

As word of the blaze spread across London, crowds gathered on the banks of the River Thames.

One diarist caught the mood: "The crowd was rather pleased than otherwise; whistling when the breeze came as if to encourage it; 'There's a flare-up for the House of Lords.' 'A judgment for the Poor Law Bill!', 'There go their acts!'. Such exclamations seemed to be the prevailing ones. A man sorry I did not anywhere see."

The big mistake

It was all caused by a decision to de-clutter at the Palace.

Vast quantities of old wooden tally sticks had been used by the Exchequer to record how much tax was owed by subjects of the Crown. But these sticks had not been used for years, so Mr Weobley, the Clerk of the Works, decided to get rid of them.

Two workmen, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong, fed the sticks in to the furnaces in the cellars of the House of Lords.

The Great Fire presenter Mark D'Arcy and the current Chief Fire Officer David Kaye

The work went on all day, and they were supposed to be careful not to stoke the flames too high. Witnesses later described them throwing great handfuls of tally sticks on to "an astonishing blaze".

By the afternoon, the housekeeper, Mrs Wright, complained that smoke had filled the House of Lords. Other witnesses said they could feel the heat through the soles of their boots whilst in the chamber.

Fire spread throughout the Palace at a rapid pace. The House of Lords and Commons had been consumed, and Lord Althorp shouted out his famous command: "Damn the House of Commons, let it blaze away, but save oh save the hall."

And firefighters did just that, preserving the medieval Westminster Hall. And so it remains, alongside the rest of the gothic Palace of Westminster that we know today.

BBC Parliament marks the 175th anniversary of the burning down of the Palace of Westminster, with a special programme "The Great Fire: Burning Down the House - on BBC Parliament, Saturday 17 October at 2030 BST.



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