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Illustration of the fire from a broadsheet produced in London the following day
Te fire of 1834
By the late Hanoverian period, the ancient buildings of the Palace of Westminster where parliament had sat for centuries had become an accident waiting to happen. The long- overdue catastrophe finally occurred on 16 October 1834 when a chimney fire caused by the unsupervised burning of wooden tally sticks (a form of medieval tax receipt) set fire to the House of Lords. Warning signs were persistently ignored, leading the prime minister later to declare the disaster “one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record”. A huge fireball exploded out of the building at around 6.30pm, lighting up the sky over London, and immediately attracting thousands of spectators. It turned into the most significant blaze between the Great Fire of London in 1666
and the 1940 Blitz, burning fiercely for the rest of the night. When the sun rose the next day it revealed a shattered and smoking collection of buildings. Most of them were cleared in the months that followed and the stone sold to salvage merchants or pushed into the river. Only Westminster Hall, the Undercroft Chapel of St Mary and part of the Cloister remain today of the survivors of 1834. Later commentators saw it as symbolic of the constitutional changes brought about by the Great Reform Act of 1832. At the time people were more likely to have seen it as divine judgement for the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, against which Dickens—a parliamentary reporter at the time of the fire—railed in Oliver Twist.