The Day Parliament Burned Down Paperback – 29 Aug 2013
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[A] fascinating history. (Lesley McDowell, Independent on Sunday)
With meticulous research, using eyewitness accounts and newspaper records, it makes for compulsive and entertaining reading. (Sarah Clarke, Bookseller's Choice)
Absolutely riveting... It's a thriller. Caroline Shenton is clearly one of those writers who feels that history has all the best tunes and should therefore never be boring. (Lady Antonia Fraser)
A hugely enjoyable read. It is formidably well researched and tells a gripping story throughout. I was riveted. Readers will be informed and enthralled by this book. (Professor John Morrill, University of Cambridge)
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)
The Day Parliament Burned Down 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)
Caroline Shenton's writing style is a joy: She draws the reader in through the perspectives of numerous individuals, through clipped analysis and summation of contemporary written accounts, and with a hugely diverse range of sources, many of which are elegantly witty and tragical by turns ... This volume will appeal to historians, architectural historians, students of politics, social observers, and, unusually for histories, fans of a ripping yarn. (Jane Sidell, The Historian)
About the Author
Caroline Shenton is Clerk of the Records at the Parliamentary Archives in London. She was previously a senior archivist at the National Archives and has worked in and around collections relating to the old Palace of Westminster for over twenty years. Educated at the University of St Andrews, Worcester College Oxford and University College London, she is a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Historical Society. This is her first book.
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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. Caroline Shenton is, however, too good a historian to do this, reminding readers of the controversies which gripped Parliament at the time, from the parsimony which created a highly flammable extension to Parliament in place of proper rebuilding, to the view that Parliament's destruction was Divine retribution for the creation of the workhouse system in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. The much-criticised system of sinecures, too, is referred to, illuminating other aspects of a political system at once similar to, and different from, our own.
This is a fine work on a once-iconic event, and anyone interested in the history of Britain during the last two centuries ought to read it. A gripping account which uses a crisis to shine a light on London in the pre-Victorian era - certainly I couldn't put it down!
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. Shenton's research is exhaustive but never exhausting, though there are one or two moments when the book didn't need quite such detailed accounts of personnel affected. And I think it IS true to say that as the narrative progresses, the 'diversions' become fewer and the detail of the story is a little overwhelming.
My only serious caveat is more to do with the presentation, primarily text size and the accessibility of plans and their keys. The main body text is fine, but all extracts from documents and personal accounts are in a smaller type which I find (and my reading glasses cope with most things) a little uncomfortable. The plans of the Palace of Westminster, essential to a clear understanding of its complexity and the progression of the fire through the buildings, are challenging at best and the lengthy key to identifying rooms etc is pretty much unreadable (think of the very worst contents lists on food packaging). I gave up on trying to make sense of the various locations alluded to, which is a pity. This could so easily have been avoided.
Apart from that caveat, this book really is a triumph!
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The book is very readable.Read more
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