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4.4 out of 5 stars
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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. 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!
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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. 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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VINE VOICEon 22 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 22 January 2016
Quite interesting - good social history. Very well-written & easy to understand.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 January 2014
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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VINE VOICEon 3 September 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A meticulously researched and referenced work that conveys the shocked fascination of those who witnessed, or were caught up, in the destruction of the Houses of Parliament on the night of the 16th/17th October 1834. Caroline Shenton has drawn on a variety of contemporary sources for her account, ranging from Turner's famous illustrations, the popular ballads that blamed arsonists of one stripe or other, and the testimony of eye witnesses, to provide a detailed, hour by hour, account of the blaze. Some of this evidence is quoted at length - for instance, the headlong letter, complete with dashes, that Frances Rickman wrote to her sister Anne, penned in the early hours as the fire reached its greatest intensity, its breathlessness furnishing a vivid testimony to a major event in the capital's and nation's history.

It is a tale rich in incident, with a large cast of characters, from government ministers and illegitimate sons of William IV down to the individual fireman who laboured to save what could be rescued, and to prevent the loss of an even greater national treasure, Edward III's Westminster Hall, which escaped unscathed. I was particularly struck by the author's technical research into the phenomenon of combustion, the spread of fires, and the operation of the various fire appliances currently available at that time.

The author has presented the fire as symbolic also of the passing of the old order, the Georgian Age giving way to the Victorian in an age of reform. It swept away the jumble of medieval and assorted later buildings, to be replaced by the massive Houses of Parliament designed by Charles Barry, a fitting building for Britain in its age of empire.. Quoting Charles Dickens' observations, Caroline Shenton notes that the cause of the fire, the old tally sticks burnt in an ill-supervised clean- up operation were themselves a medieval survival whose disposal tragically brought about the destruction of the structure that had housed them. The list of irreplaceable items lost as a result of this carelessness was long, consumed by the blaze, or trampled underfoot when the fire was being tackled. Yet some good came of it all, particularly the setting up of the Public Record Office and the proper preservation of the nation's archives.

A fascinating account that will appeal to all those interested in our national heritage.
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on 3 September 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a superbly written and quite thrilling account of an important event in our history that has somehow faded from the national consciousness. Thanks to the current iconic Houses of Parliament which replaced the earlier, the original Houses tend to be forgotten. A rabbit warren of inter-connected buildings, some ancient, some new, formed the Palace of Westminster. These were increasingly seen as unsuitable and unfit for purpose, but the solution to these problems was something totally unforseen in the devastating fire of 1834.

Shenton writes of the thrilling events that took place over just a few hours on the 16th October 1834. Although never trying to be anything other than an historical account, the nature of the events and her style of writing makes this like a thriller.

She also triumphs in setting the events of the fateful day in their wider context. She effortlessly guides the reader into the wider issues which had a bearing on these fantastic events; the social, political and physical changes occurring in London and the UK (which at that time included the whole of Ireland). Not once do these analyses slow down the narrative or seem pushed in for their own sake.

There is also an astonishing amount of research in this book. Every other sentence has a reference to a footnote, which collectively take up a lengthy section at the end of the book. The actions (even conversations) of so many players are brought to life in the account of the hours before, during and after the fire. The great and the good are vividly depicted. The King could see the fire from Windsor; John Constable and JMW Turner were busy sketching; Augustus Pugin was in the vicinity already dreaming of his replacement while collaborator Charles Barry was in a coach at the top of the South Downs when he saw the conflagration. Even Henry Cole, a man I knew best as the inventor of the Christmas card, gets his part in the events recognised.

A fascinating book and very well written. Full of research and learning but completely accessible - a gripping read.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 10 December 2013
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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!
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 3 October 2013
I was diverted to this book on Amazon by a mention of it after reviewing and reading about The Perilous Question (Antonia Fraser). It sounded extremely intriguing, so wanted to read it.

The book is broken down into chapters taking us through the twenty four hours of the day of the fire - from 6 a.m. Thursday 16 October 1834 to 6 a.m. Friday 17 October. The action is bolstered with background information; on the characters of the story (the caretakers, clerks of Works and others), the times (the Great Reform Act and more), the place (the Houses of Parliament and their history), and the culture (the poverty, the Irish question, child labour), as well as the details of the fire itself - how it started, how it progressed, how it was discovered, how it was fought, and the aftermath.

This is a great book; told with loving detail by someone who has had access to everything you could imagine could possibly ever be learned about this important event in British history. The Author is Clerk of the Records at the Parliamentary Archives in London; 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. She clearly knows her subject, and clearly brings a great eye for detail and attention, as well as a jolly good story to the readers.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Prior to reading this, my knowledge of the great fire that destroyed the Palace of Westminster was limited to its date and the depiction of the event through Turner's magnificent paintings, so this was an interesting exploration of a largely forgotten event in history.

Shenton does an admirable job of reconstructing the anatomy of the disaster with an almost forensic attention to detail; along the way she makes temporary departures from her narrative in order to provide historical background and contextual information furnishing the reader with a greater understanding of both the iconic status the buildings held for the country and the great social and political developments of the time. The resulting miscellany of architectural history, the people and business of the parliament of the day, the greater social background against which the event was set, together with fascinating details concerning such things as the organisation and practice of contemporary fire-fighting, all make this a veritable treasure trove of information on the conflagration and its significance.
My one criticism of the book is of the illustrations; as another reviewer remarked, the maps and floor plans are rather small-scale, making them difficult to reference and to read; also the decision to print all of the plates in black and white was a missed opportunity - in an age when photography was unavailable the event was largely documented by artists, something Shenton gives much attention to in her text. Not to reproduce the Turner paintings - which capture the fearsome beauty and drama of the scene so eloquently - in colour, has deprived readers of a description more vivid than any words could convey; as it is, that drama is lost in a miasma of grey. The book-jacket illustration - by a lesser artist - has to serve this purpose alone.

That gripe aside, this is an impressive first book by this author, a well-paced, informative read and an easily recommendable volume.
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