16 October 1834: Houses of Parliament burn down

An attempt to modernise Parliament's system of accounting for debt led to both Houses being destroyed by fire on this day in 1834.

The current chancellor would probably like nothing more than to see records on government borrowing go up in smoke. And that is exactly what happened 180 years ago along with most of the medieval Palace of Westminster.

In 1826, the Exchequer had done away with the ancient system of using tally sticks for accounting purposes. A tally stick was broken in half when a debt was issued, and brought together again when the debt was repaid. But by the 19th century, enough people could read and write, making the system redundant.

In a fit of clearing out in 1834, the Exchequer ordered two cartloads of tally sticks to be burned. The Clerk of Works thought the two stoves under the House of Lords would be perfect for the job, and hired two workmen to carry out the Exchequer's orders.

Visitors to the Palace of Westminster that afternoon on 16 October expressed concern that heat and smoke was rising up through the floor. But the workmen pressed on regardless, cramming tally sticks into the fires. At 5pm, the workmen clocked off and went home.

An hour later, the alarm was raised – the Houses of Parliament were on fire! But it was too late; the fire was by now out of control. Crowds, including the artist JMW Turner, lined the streets, river banks and bridges to watch the old palace be engulfed in the blaze.

Thanks to the determined efforts of firefighters and volunteers, Westminster Hall was saved. Its roof was doused with water, preserving it from the flames. The Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel, the Cloisters and the Chapter House of St Stephen's also survived as remnants of the old palace. But both chambers were lost.

The architect Charles Barry won a public competition to design the new Palace of Westminster. Work began in 1840 in the perpendicular gothic style and cost £2m roughly £180m in today's money. Construction lasted more than 30 years, by which time the famous clock tower had risen from the ashes, with Big Ben nestled inside.

 

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