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The Day Parliament Burned Down [Hardcover]

Caroline Shenton
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
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Book Description

9 Aug 2012
In the early evening of 16 October 1834, to the horror of bystanders, a huge ball of fire exploded through the roof of the Houses of Parliament, creating a blaze so enormous that it could be seen by the King and Queen at Windsor, and from stagecoaches on top of the South Downs. In front of hundreds of thousands of witnesses the great conflagration destroyed Parliament's glorious old buildings and their contents. No one who witnessed the disaster would ever forget it.

The events of that October day in 1834 were as shocking and significant to contemporaries as the death of Princess Diana was to us at the end of the 20th century - yet today this national catastrophe is a forgotten disaster, not least because Barry and Pugin's monumental new Palace of Westminster has obliterated all memory of its 800 year-old predecessor. Rumours as to the fire's cause were rife. Was it arson, terrorism, the work of foreign operatives, a kitchen accident, careless builders, or even divine judgement on politicians?

In this, the first full-length book on the subject, head Parliamentary Archivist Caroline Shenton unfolds the gripping story of the fire over the course of that fateful day and night. In the process, she paints a skilful portrait of the political and social context of the time, including details of the slums of Westminster and the frenzied expansion of the West End; the plight of the London Irish; child labour, sinecures and corruption in high places; fire-fighting techniques and floating engines; the Great Reform Act and the new Poor Law; Captain Swing and arson at York Minster; the parlous state of public buildings and records in the Georgian period; and above all the symbolism which many contemporaries saw in the spectacular fall of a national icon.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (9 Aug 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199646708
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199646708
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 355,151 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Caroline Shenton is an archivist, historian and writer. She works at the Parliamentary Archives in London and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and Royal Historical Society. Her first book, The Day Parliament Burned Down, won the Political Book of the Year Award in 2013, and was shortlisted for the Longman-History Today prize. Her website is www.carolineshenton.co.uk.

Product Description

Review

Splendid. (The Victorian)

A glorious micro-history ... Shenton has a terrific eye for fine detail. (Dan Jones, Daily Telegraph)

The best and most exciting and dramatic account of the burning building since Turner's paintings. (Robert Tanitch, Mature Times)

This is a fascinating read and I commend it to colleagues in both Houses. (Lord Cormack, House Magazine)

One of the many achievements of Shenton's scholarly but gripping account is to revive, in all its intricacy and richness, the ghost of one of London's greatest lost treasures. (Rosemary Hill, The Guardian)

London's most legendary 19th century conflagration is vividly described in this book by Caroline Shenton ... This excellent social history is Shenton's first book. One hopes there will be many more, not least one about today's Houses of Parliament. (Hannah Stephenson, Liverpool Post)

Anyone with even a passing interest in politics or London history will be engrossed by this thoroughly researched, well-written and admirably unsensationalised book. (David Clack, Time Out Magazine)

Hour by hour she [Caroline Shenton] takes us through the fantastic build-up of the fire. You could have been there. (Daily Mail)

is both a gripping account of that fateful night and a wide-ranging search for its ramifications across British society. Well written and extensively illustrated, this is a book that deserves attention. (BBC History Magazine)

[Shenton's] book is deeply researched ... yet surprisingly gripping. (Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times)

Caroline Shenton's account of its history makes for a truly remarkable read. (Charlotte Heathcote, Sunday Express)

Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records in the parliamentary archives, shows in her excellent book, even the wood shoved into the furnaces was the product of the stranglehold of inefficient tradition. (Jonathan Sale, The Independent)

No one has written about the burning of Parliament before , and this vivid, superbly researched book is a definitive account of one of the greatest cockups in English history. (Jane Ridley, Spectator)

The author, Clerk of the Records at Westminster, could not have been bettered as our guide to this exciting event. (Peter Lewis, Daily Mail)

The detail Shenton provides is absolutely fascinating, such as the Dean of Westminster, who refused to move the Domesday Book to safety as he had not received the Prime Minister's permission. Each chapter is headed with the successive hour of the fire, creating a wonderfully detailed and gripping read. (The Telegraph)

She has just the voice to narrate this tale, gripping the reader by the scruff as she describes the titanic struggle to save Westminster Hall and its stupendous hammerbeam roof She has written a wonderful first book. (Lucy Inglis, The Georgian)

The events of October 1834 are told in an authoritative and entertaining way by our Parliamentary Archivist Caroline Shenton in (Keith Simpson, The House Magazine)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars PARLIAMENT BURNING 2 Aug 2012
By A. Taylor TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Personally I would be hard put to write more than a couple of pages when describing a fire. However, MS Shenton has managed some 260 odd plus the notes etc. I'm impressed; not least of all because she has written a very interesting book in a lively and readable style.

Basically the books tells the story of the fire that consumed the bulk of the Houses of Parliament in October 1834. Split into chapters covering various time periods over the two days, 16th and 17th, each chapter not only covers approximately what happened in that time period but also fleshes out the characters of the people involved. Lots of background architectural history is included as well so one gets ones money's worth :-)

There are both B&W plates and maps of the original layouts of the buildings involved and it is with the latter that I have my one gripe. To get the most out of this I found it necessary to continually turn back to the maps on pages xix and xxi, this quickly became a pain! It is a pity that the maps were not of the pull out style which would have made reading the book so much easier (slightly larger text on the floor plans would not have gone amiss either). While probably not the fault of the author, who has produced a very readable and informative book, this did get in the way of a straightforward read so hence 4 stars.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping story superbly told 16 Oct 2012
By S. J. Williams TOP 500 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Caroline Shenton's book (her first - it's hard to credit considering how brilliantly well it is put together) rather took me by surprise. The title, and also the chapter headings, suggest a detailed progression through the 36 hours of the conflagration, and of course we do get that. But what makes the book such a superb read is that the text is full of fascinating, and often quite lengthy, diversions through related aspects of contemporary history which shed light on the central focus. So, for example, we learn of the history of the development of the Palace of Westminster, its origins and changes in use, proposals to change the accommodation of the legislative houses even to locate them elsewhere, and the suitability or otherwise of the Palace for the home of Parliament. In fact, the buildings were obviously not fit for purpose, though for various reasons, agreement had never been reached on what should be done.

The changes in the make-up of Parliament is also covered: the fire occurred a mere two years after the Great Reform Act which had an effect on the number of members. Aspects of Poor Relief and legislation affecting child labour (just who would and could clean the flues in the House of Lords which led in part to the disaster?) find their way into the narrative, as do the changes to the fire services and law enforcement. All these apparent byways are brilliantly woven into the fabric of the narrative in a wonderfully engaging way and prove to be central to our understanding of the fateful events of 16th October, 1834. This is not a remotely dry read: it is very well-structured so that each segue seems effortlessly and inevitably blended with the central narrative.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Crisis as Cultural History 17 Aug 2012
By Mr. Gtj Charmley VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Under the eye-catching title, Caroline Shenton presents a meticulously researched account of the day in October 1834 that a fierce blaze destroyed the old Palace of Westminster, with many of its treasures. Using information from letters, diaries and official papers, Shenton weaves a gripping narrative of the fire. The stated purpose of this book is to highlight the place that Parliament's destruction occupied in the national consciousness at the time. For many of us today, Charles Barry's Palace of Westminster, which rose on the sight of the smoke-blackened ruins of the old, are so iconic that it is easy to forget that they replaced an ancient complex of buildings which grew up over many years, and that they altered the shape of that building to an extent I had not recognised until reading this book. The destruction of many state papers and records, similarly, is a catastrophe the extent of which is hard to judge.

Shenton's account of the destruction of the old Palace of Westminster is also a deeply human account; from the ex-convict employed in the Palace Furnaces, to the families whose houses were part of the Palace complex, and who found themselves homeless as a result of the fire, the story concentrates on those who were caught up in the events, whether because of intimate connection with the Palace, or as expert passers-by. Even 'Chance', the canine mascot of the London firemen has his story told!

The political context, so easily forgotten if the burning of Parliament is treated as a social event.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thorough, many stranded book 10 July 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is the story of the fire which left little trace of the Palace of Westminster having started as an effort to empty a room of ancient wooden tally sticks used to record debts. What easier way of getting rid of them than burning them in the furnace used to heat the building. Except wood burns much hotter and the flues were not well maintained.

The book describes the frantic efforts of the firemen, in a time before the Metropolitan Fire Brigade's steam powered fire engines, man powering pumps for hours at a time as part of the Chief's, James Braidwood, successful efforts to protect the Medieval Westminster Hall we still enjoy today. The stories of the night watchmen and the ladies who provided guided tours of the Houses of Parliament. The stories of the historic public records and the scramble to save them with helpers resorting to throwing them out of windows before the fire consumed them from where they were gathered up from the street and stored in nearby buildings. The stories of the fire's observers, Dickens and Turner amongst them.

The story ends with the inquiry and the beginnings of the replacement Houses of Parliament, the buildings that we know and love today, and a quick round up of what happened next to the principal players in the story.

This is a richly written book which is about so much more than the fire. The Kindle edition does contain maps but not the accompanying illustrations which is not the end of the world but is an annoyance.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good - but slightly too detailed in certain parts.
During the first part of the book - before the fire really takes hold - it is hard to put Down. It is like a novel. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jacob la Cour
4.0 out of 5 stars A heroic tale of the end of an era!
I like many other readers of this period know that, at some stage in the early 1830s, the old houses of parliament burned to the ground. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Darren O'Connell
4.0 out of 5 stars Gripping read
I grew up in London. Until this book was published I didn't even know that Parliament had burnt down!

The book is very readable. Read more
Published 8 months ago by JoMaynard
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting
This is a dense, very intense book, detailing the fiery demise of the previous Houses of Parliament, which though increasingly unsuitable for the purpose, had been in use for... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Basement Cat
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant history book
This is an outstanding book, brilliantly researched, that captures your interest from start to finish. Read more
Published 8 months ago by antom
3.0 out of 5 stars Dense but worthy
This tells the story of 16 October 1834, when a huge ball of fire exploded through the roof of the Houses of Parliament, creating a blaze so enormous that it could be seen by the... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Mr. H
5.0 out of 5 stars Great factual and fun book
Wonderful book telling the story of the burning down of parliament which so few people are aware of. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Giles Shenton
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent source of facts and figures
I feel that my comments may do a grave injustice to this book as there's clearly been a huge amount of research and effort put into making it (hence the four stars) but to me,... Read more
Published 9 months ago by MR P J FAIRWEATHER
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb!
I have to say - I LOVED this book. It is everything you want in a piece of historical non-fiction. It is incredibly well researched and also quite gripping to read. Read more
Published 9 months ago by uncle barbar
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cracking Good Book
Before seeing this book I had no idea that parliament was destroyed by fire in 1834, and I'm sure that fact was never mentioned at school. I blame the teachers. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Amazon Customer
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