on 10 July 2012
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.
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.
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. 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!
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. 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!
on 22 September 2013
It seems a bit unfair in some ways only to give this book 4 stars. The research involved is brilliant, and must have been a herculean effort. It is written as a factual story, while giving a great deal of very interesting history and perspective to the buildings and characters. Why, then, not 5 stars? Perhaps it should be. I gave it only 4 because it does get bogged down a little in the middle with lists and because, with the Kindle edition, the fact that all footnotes and maps are at the end of the book, and so not easily accessible at the time you need it, reduces the understanding the reader has. This is, of course, a constant problem with reading on Kindle - fine if it is a novel, but if you are wanting to read the footnotes of a factual book as you reach them, you have to go to the end, then try and get back to where you were - tiresome. Probably unfair, then, to give only 4 stars. If I had had the book in my hand, and could have accessed the footnotes and maps easily, it may well have been 5 stars.
This is a well researched and extremely readable account of the fire on 16th October, 1834, which resulted in the burning of Parliament. The book begins with a history of the buildings, the first House of Commons and the way it was added onto and grew as more space was needed. Rather than improving the House, it led to increasing rebuildings which led to a rickety and uncomfortable tinder-box which was cramped and almost unfit for purpose. Indeed, suggestions had already been made to rebuild the entire building, but it was considered a national monument and a suggested move was also rejected as too radical.
The author does a brilliant job of unravelling the day of the fire. The reasons why it happened, why it was allowed to burn for so long until the alarm was raised and how is was discovered. The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, called the event, "one of the greatest instances of stupidity on record", as it was obvious that the fire had been burning for some time before firefighters even began to tackle the blaze. Information on early firefighting is fascinating and the author's use of extracts from letters and newspaper articles make the events seem almost immediate. You almost feel you are watching the events unfold as dispatches are sent to inform the country about the news and rescuers take huge risks to save the precious items and historic records, with official papers being hurled from the windows into the streets below.
As spectators gathered to watch the flames, we read of the fear of the 'mob' in a time which had recently witnessed the French Revolution and, closer to home, riots around the time of the Great Reform Act. Later, the author discusses the extent of the devastation and plans for rebuilding the Houses of Parliament. Some MP's were pragmatic about events, with some certainly feeling that now there was "no choice on the subject" events would have to move on regardless. Overall, this is a thrilling and exciting read, with a real sense of personal loss and involvement amongst the national tragedy. Well written, informative, excellent research and an interesting manner make this history book anything but dry. Highly recommended.
on 24 July 2012
This is a gripping story, compellingly told by Caroline Shenton. The books advances the idea that the night of the 16 October 1834 was one of the most remarkable forgotten calamities of British history, where the work of forgetting began almost the morning after the fire. The book details from extensive archival research what happened on an hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute, basis as the Medieval Palace of Westminster, with its connected state buildings, chapels, and houses, was destroyed by an accidental fire. The book tells the story, but it also gracefully opens up the implications of the loss and the relevant back stories: not least in the destruction of parliamentary records and the destruction of the celebrated Armada Tapestries and Painted Chamber. Human stories--all too human, sometimes--emerge, as does one marvellous canine story. One of the shocking revelations of the book is how ordinary people could have stopped the fire had they thought more about what they were doing. A rigid adherence to a hierarchy of command--'I am only doing what I was told to do'--is part of the problem, together with simple incompetence and, it maybe, actual senility. A telling, gripping story of what seemed to some commentators a divine comment on the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832, and to others an opportunity to construct a purpose-built Parliament for new times.
This is an outstanding book, brilliantly researched, that captures your interest from start to finish.
On the morning of 16th October 1834 staff at the Houses of Parliament started to dispose wooden tallies that had built up over many centuries by burning them in the the building's heating furnaces. The dry wood, explains Caroline Shenton, would have burned quicker and hotter that the coals usually burned in the furnaces. Within hours the building was aflame, the fire boosted by the flammability of many of the materials used in the building.
Shenton takes us through an hour by hour account of the fire. The events are grippingly described. What impressed me especially was the interesting background information that Shenton includes throughout, making this book a wonderful choice for anyone interested in British history.
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. I like the way Caroline Shenton has managed to put such a huge amount of detail into what is essentially TWO DAYS of history - this, as others have said, is "Micro-history at its best"!
The eye-witness accounts and the earlier paintings of the various views of the old Westminster Parliament (before it burnt down) also make this book special. It ends with an extensive notes section on the text (with a myriad of references) and a comprehensive bibliography should you wish to delve futher.
I love Shenton's style and will be reading more of her work when I get the chance!
This is a fine addition to any collection of books about London. The story of the actual burning was already fairly familiar to me, although there is a lot of detail here. This is a bit galling at times - we have a verbal description of the mazy structure to start with which is hard to follow, and I gave up on it and referred to a recently published copy of the plans (very useful when the course of the fire is detailed). On its own, however, the fire is not enough to maintain interest in a book of this length, so it's a great pleasure to constantly come across fascinating digressions - ranging from details of the changes in firefighting provisions in London to information on the 1832 Reform Act - and this adds to the book's readability as well as to the reader's knowledge, so that by the finish we can feel that we have really swallowed a slice of history. As so often in modern non-fiction, the illustrations are bunched away from the relevant text and are too small, though at least there is very little padding out with pictures which are simply related to the period rather than the events and people. A thorough examination of a vivid historical scene.