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London’s Burning!

Today we are celebrating the UK publication of The Day Parliament Burned Down, in which the dramatic story of the nineteenth century national catastrophe is told for the first time. In this blog post, author Caroline Shenton presents the top ten London fires that have changed the face of the capital city.

On 16th October 2012, the anniversary of the day that Parliament burned down in 1834, we will be joining forces with Caroline Shenton to trace the gripping tale  in real time. Follow us here: @parliamentburns.

By Caroline Shenton


1.       Boudicca’s Revenge, 60-61

When Prasutagus of the Iceni tribe died, his queen Boudicca expected her daughters to become co-heirs to their East Anglian kingdom with the Emperor Nero. Instead she was flogged, the girls raped and their estates plundered. Boudicca rose in rebellion, teaming up with the neighbouring Trinovantes to lay waste to Roman settlements including Londinium — then a thriving, but not capital, town. Archaeological excavations in the City of London have revealed a layer of black ash over smashed pottery and roof tiles testifying to the utter destruction by fire and plunder which Boudicca inspired.

Boudicca. Photo by Kit36 via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License

2.       St Paul’s Cathedral, 1087

St Paul’s was founded in 604 by Bishop Mellitus of the East Saxons.  It has been burnt four times over its 1400-year existence but has risen from the ashes each time: an enduring symbol of the City of London.   The original wooden building was torched by Viking invaders in 962, then another fire led to a magnificent Norman rebuild in 1087.  St Paul’s III was intended to be the largest and tallest church in Christendom and was finally consecrated in 1300.  It was immortalised in the famous engravings by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677), showing the classical portico added by Inigo Jones in the seventeeth century.

Engraving of St Paul's Cathedral by Wenceslas Hollar. Source: University of Toronto Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection.

3.       Savoy Palace, 1381

The London home of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and Uncle of Richard II was burned to the ground by rebels during the Peasant’s Revolt. The gorgeous palace on the Strand was named after the original owner of the land in the 13th century, Peter of Savoy, and in 1889 the plot of land gave its name to the iconic Savoy hotel in London — the first to have electric lights, electric lifts, and hot and cold running water in all its bathrooms.

4.       The Palace of Westminster, 1512

2012 marks the five hundredth  anniversary of the major fire at the Palace of Westminster, which made Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon’s private apartments, known as the ‘Privy Palace’, uninhabitable.  The royal family moved out of their principal London residence, and St Stephen’s Chapel of the ‘Great Palace’ was handed over to the House of Commons to use as its permanent home from 1548.  The layout of the Chapel’s pews gave Parliament its characteristic seating arrangements, with government and opposition facing one another, seen on TVs the world over during Prime Minister’s Question Time.

 5.       Pudding Lane, 1666

“Tush, a woman might piss it out” said Thomas Bludworth, Mayor of London, when he first heard of the bakery accident which spread to become The Great Fire of London. After four days of inferno, 13,200 houses, 89 churches, 52 guildhalls had been destroyed and thousands were homeless. St Paul’s Cathedral was burnt to the ground along with 80% of the City, but the fire was an opportunity for architects such as Wren and Hawksmoor to create beautiful new baroque replacements. New regulations made domestic buildings more fireproof in the aftermath, and England became known for its fire-fighting innovations over the next hundred years.

The Great Fire of London by Thomas Willson via PD-Art

6.       Whitehall Palace, 1698

The London palace favoured by the later Tudors and Stuarts was itself destroyed by fire in 1698, when a laundry maid left some linen to dry too close to a charcoal fire.  But the name of the Palace still survives as the principal thoroughfare through the government quarter of London, leading from the Strand to Westminster.  And ‘Whitehall’ has become a metonym for the British government and Civil Service.

7.       The Gordon Riots, 1780

The mob violence that followed the 1778 Papists Act, legislation intended to relieve in a small way anti-Catholic discrimination in Britain, resulted in arson attacks on a wide range of targets.  Catholic homes, foreign chapels, and continental embassies were fired, and then the rioters widened their attacks to the Bank of England and London’s prisons.  After the Gordon Riots, the first calls were heard for a single metropolitan police force to keep order, which was finally formed in 1829, and whose officers are a familiar sight on the streets of London today.

 8.       The Houses of Parliament, 1834

This was the most significant fire between 1666 and the Blitz. It led to the creation of the world’s most famous gothic revival building, some great masterpieces by Turner, the recasting of the weights and measures of the kingdom and the Public Record Office. The massive blaze was fought by parish and private insurance companies with help from onlookers from all levels of society.  Only a lucky change of wind and the bravery of the firemen saved Westminster Hall from destruction.

Parliament Burns: illustration of the UK Houses of Parliament on fire, 1834 - used with permission of Caroline Shenton

9.       Tooley Street, 1861

When the Tooley Street  jute, cotton and tea warehouses on the south bank of the Thames  spontaneously combusted, they melted so much tallow inside that it ran into the river and blazed away on the surface for two weeks.  Fire chief James Braidwood (who had helped to save Westminster Hall in 1834) lost his life when a wall collapsed and the authorities finally agreed to form a single, unified, public London Fire Brigade to protect the city in 1866.

10.       The Blitz, 1940-1

The Luftwaffe’s aerial bombardment during the early years of World War II wreaked havoc and destruction on many London landmarks, changing the face of the East End and Docklands in particular. The Commons’ chamber took a direct hit in May 1941 and Westminster Hall’s roof was once again under threat from fire as in 1834. Christopher Wren’s new St Paul’s remained triumphantly intact in one of the most evocative images of the City on fire in 1940. The regeneration of the Docklands and the London 2012 developments at Stratford have in recent years finally revived areas that have lain derelict since that time.

Caroline Shenton is Director of the Parliamentary Archives at Westminster, and author of The Day Parliament Burned Down.  You can follow Caroline on Twitter @dustshoveller, and read her blog about Parliamentary history.

Don’t forget that on 16th October 2012, the anniversary of the fire at the UK Houses of Parliament will be reconstructed in real time on Twitter: @parliamentburns.

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