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Hay hopes

The Telegraph Hay Festival is taking place from 23 May to 2 June 2013 on the edge of the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park. We’re delighted to have many Oxford University Press authors participating in the Festival this year. OUPblog will be bringing you a selection of blog posts from these authors so that  even if you can’t join us in Hay-on-Wye, you won’t miss out. Don’t forget you can also follow @hayfestival and view the event programme here.

Caroline Shenton will be appearing at The Telegraph Hay Festival on Sunday 2nd June 2013 at 10am to talk about The Day Parliament Burned Down More information and tickets.

By Caroline Shenton

Writing a book also means talking about it.  A lot.  Over the last nine months since publication, I have given around thirty talks about #parliamentburns, as the book is known on Twitter, to groups large and small, here and abroad, and in huge lecture theatres as well as at a pub, an art gallery, and in someone’s front room with a greedy labrador in attendance (actually one of my favourite venues). I’ve composed presentations of different lengths – from twenty minutes to one hour and twenty minutes – as well talks tailored to groups interested in firefighting, archives, Dickens, and Turner.  I use a series of drawings, watercolours, engravings and oil paintings of the catastrophic fire at Westminster in 1834 to tell this forgotten story, and provided the lights are down and the battery in my remote control slide controller doesn’t run out (it did at the Cheltenham Festival!), the audience comes with me on an immersive tour round the greatest disaster to hit London since 1666. I’m delighted to be doing a session at the Hay Festival about this year and I have great hopes of the audience, but not perhaps in the way you might imagine.

I tell the story of how 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 deaths of JFK and Princess Diana were to our generation – 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. In one hour I aim to relate the story of the fire as it burns through the building during a day and a night.

But the real point is, talking about the book is not a one-way process. In the last year I’ve been amazed and delighted by the response of members of the audience who have come forward with more information about the fire at the old Palace of Westminster. Following one lecture I was shown a snuffbox carved from the surviving wood of the Painted Chamber – a wonderful survival.  I had discovered in my research that such souvenirs were made from remnants of the destroyed building, and widely advertised and sold at the time, but I never imagined to see any of them intact today.

After another event, this time at the Soane Museum, news of some other mementoes made from the ruins came to my attention. This time were some limestone ‘chess pieces’ created from salvaged stonework, depicting a mysterious man and woman.

People ask such interesting questions as well. Were the first steam-powered fire engines used at the scene? What would have happened to the old Houses of Parliament if there hadn’t been a fire; would it have been restored or knocked down anyway? Where was Turner actually standing when he painted the scenes – was he in fact on the first floor of a stranger’s house, or in a boatyard shack? Can we trace where the salvaged stone was reused? Who conducted the public inquiry that followed the fire – was there a cover-up? And in a reversal of what you might expect, UK audiences nearly always want to know whether anyone was punished, while American audiences mostly want to know about what the greatest art losses were.

People have been in touch with new eyewitness accounts of the fire, and details of local Westminster residents at the time of the fire; and some friends who are architectural historians gave me a picture of the fire they had found in a print shop as a memento.

I’ve been thrilled to be offered all this new information, but now I’m setting my sights higher. My ultimate aim is to track down the stuffed body of Chance, the celebrity firedog who attended the fire and whose body was last seen in at the London Fire Brigade’s HQ in Watling Street, London in the 1880s.  Now, to have an audience member come forward at Hay with a glass case containing a moth-eaten carcase of the famous Manchester terrier would be the best piece of audience participation of all…

Caroline Shenton is currently Archives Accommodation Study Director at the Parliamentary Archives in Westminster. Her book The Day Parliament Burned Down (OUP) was published in 2012. Shortlisted for the Longman-HistoryToday Prize, in February 2013 it won the inaugural Paddy Power and Total Politics Political Book of the Year Award.  Caroline tweets @dustshoveller and has a blog.

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Image credits: courtesy of Caroline Shenton. All rights reserved. 

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  1. [...] have got in touch to say how much they enjoyed it. New accounts and relics of the fire have come to light.  The reviewers liked it.  It was book of the week/year in some papers.  And – ahem – it [...]

  2. [...] I speak at the Hay Literary Festival, and write about why talking to audiences is fun, and my experiences since [...]

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