On this day in history : 16th October 1834 – The Medieval buildings of the Palace of Westminster are largely destroyed by fire….

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J.M.W. Turner – Public domain

The original construction dated back to the early 11th Century and had been built as a royal palace ~ additions were made over time and it had become the home of the British Parliament….

Up until 1826, as part of the accounting system of the Exchequer, small wooden tally sticks had been used ~ these carved, notched pieces were usually made from willow…. Now obsolete the tally sticks needed disposing of; two Irish labourers, Joshua Cross and Patrick Furlong, were given the task….

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Tally sticks, as used by the Treasury – Image courtesy : Winchester City Council Museums CC BY-SA 2.0

Work commenced at dawn ~ the pair began to burn the piles of sticks in two furnaces situated beneath the House of Lords…. Although the two claimed they had taken care, a witness said he had seen them piling the wood in…. Heat from the furnaces melted the copper lining of the flues, which in turn started a chimney fire…. With the furnace doors open oxygen was drawn in, making the fire burn more fiercely….

Just after 4pm Cross and Furlong had finished the job; they threw on the last sticks, closed the furnace doors and retired to the pub…. About an hour later sparks from the chimney fire set surrounding woodwork alight…. The first flames were spotted at around 6pm ~ panicked staff tried to put the fire out but failed to alert others in the buildings or call for help…. At 6.30pm a huge fire ball swept through the buildings and the whole interior became an inferno…. The burning roof lit up the sky and could even be seen by the Royal Family 20 miles away at Windsor Castle….

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Unknown artist – Public domain

Two hand-pump fire engines arrived but were of little use; at 6.45pm 100 soldiers from the Grenadier Guards joined them…. Shortly after 12 more engines arrived at the scene accompanied by 64 firemen…. Hoses were run down to the River Thames ~ but the tide was low ~ it was too late to save the Palace…. Miraculously, despite the ferocity of the fire, there were no deaths ~ although 9 people needed hospital treatment….

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After the fire – Unknown artist – Public domain

King William IV offered Buckingham Palace as a replacement building for Parliament ~ but MPs declined ~ saying it was too ‘dingy’!!! So the roof was replaced on the Lesser Hall, the Chamber painted and the buildings restored ready for the State Opening in February 1835….

A competition was opened in to which 97 competitors entered to design a new building ~ which was to incorporate the surviving Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel and the cloisters of St. Stephen’s…. The winning design was by architect Charles Barry ~ with his new Gothic-Revival palace…. In 1840 the first stone was laid by Barry’s wife….in 1847 the Lord’s Chamber was completed; Big Ben was installed in the Clock Tower in 1839….and in 1870 the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster was completed….

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Image courtesy : Berit from Redhill, Surrey CC BY-SA 2.0

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