The Houses of Parliament fire of 1834 – A lesson from history

185 years ago today the old Houses of Parliament burnt down. Was it arson? Was it a terrorist act? A Gunpowder plot perhaps? Or even too much hot air created by a particularly tetchy exchange at the dispatch box? No, as with most accidents there’s a far more straightforward explanation. It was simply a case of using the wrong fuel in the wrong type of boiler. Intrigued? Read on…………..

There are certain key things that you must remember when using biomass as a fuel. The boiler and fuel must be compatible. The boiler must be maintained properly and serviced regularly. You need to use it appropriately according to the manufacturer’s instructions.  All pretty standard stuff, that is also true for any fossil fuel system.

Any deviation from these basics can have grave consequences. You only to have to look back 185 years ago today when the inappropriate use of willow and hazel sticks as a fuel led to a devastating fire that left the old Houses of Parliament in ruins.

A bit of background

For 700 years between the 12th -19th centuries the British monetary system was dominated by the use of tally sticks made of split hazel, willow or box wood. These sticks provided receipts and contracts in all transactions with the Royal exchequer and enabled individuals to lend money to and borrow from the Government. 


Thirteenth century tally sticks held at the National Archives in Kew. (Catalogue item E402/2. Reproduced with kind permission).

The reason that this system was so successful was that each party received half of a stick split down the middle with matching notches in the wood indicating the amount outstanding. No other two pieces of wood would fit together perfectly, matching both the notches and the grains of wood so this provided a foolproof system that was impossible to counterfeit. Furthermore, as the sticks were made of seasoned wood they were more durable and cheaper to produce than parchment or paper alternatives.

When a deal was done the shaft of the tally stick was split lengthwise. The longer piece known as the counterfoil, countertally or stock, was retained by the exchequer and the shorter piece called the foil or tally was kept by the payee or the person owed the money. A small hole was made in the thick end of the counterfoil and this was stored with others on metal rods in the basement of the Houses of Parliament.

By the end of the 18th century this system was viewed as antiquated and a law was passed in 1782 that all future transactions should have a paper record. However, the tally stick system could not be completely abolished until all parties owing or owed money had died. This finally happened in 1826 !!!! The wheels of Government have always been slow and it wasn’t until 1834 when a decision was finally taken to get rid of two cart loads of old tally sticks that were taking up space in the vaults.

In October 1834 during a parliamentary recess Richard Weobley, the Clerk of Works was ordered to dispose of the tally sticks. He considered the options and on balance decided against the benevolent act of giving the tinder dry wood to Parliamentary staff and instead elected to burn the sticks in the coal boilers in the basement. This was of course a big mistake!

He obviously didn’t envisage the burning quality of well-seasoned willow and hazel wood which has a completely different combustion profile to coal; burning very hot, very quickly with lots of flame compared to the slower, controlled release of heat with little flame from coal.

Two labourers were responsible for stoking the boiler. Instead of adding the tinder and then closing the boiler doors, it appears that they left the doors open presumably so they could enjoy an easy day watching the flickering flames. Anyone who has seen a Bunsen burner work will know that when you open the valve and introduce extra air into the system the flame intensifies.

The situation was worsened by the fact that the flues were in poor order having been damaged over time by having footholds cut in them by the child chimney sweeps! In addition, the annual chimney sweep had not taken place that year and a considerable amount of clinker, soot, tar and other debris had built up inside the flues. These deposits ignited and a chimney fire resulted.

The labourers were unaware of any problem and having completed their task they left work at 4pm and went to the pub. As the House wasn’t sitting there weren’t too many people around to smell the smoke that was starting to disperse around the building and first alert came when two tourists couldn’t view some tapestries due to the smoke and the heat rising from the floor.

The fire took hold at around 5pm when the heat of the flues ignited the buildings timbers. By 6pm the fire was well established and by 6.30 pm it was ferocious and beyond control.  It lasted most of the night and by the time it was brought under control it had destroyed St Stephen’s Chapel (the meeting place of the House of Commons), the Lords Chamber, the Painted Chamber and the official residences of the Speaker.

Just to refresh the lessons we should learn from this:

  • Make sure the boiler only uses the fuel that was designed for (this will be listed in the boiler instructions). Failure to do this will invalidate the boilers warranty and shorten its lifetime.
  • Make sure the boiler is serviced regularly
  • Make sure the boiler and flues are cleaned regularly
  • Make sure the boiler is operated by trained individuals

And one for the Government

  • It’s probably not a good idea to dawdle over years and years before delivering on a policy and then doing something kneejerk right at the last minute (something very prescient about that considering tomorrow’s 11th hour EU summit!)

Like Rome, the New Palace of Westminster complete with Big Ben was not built in a day – The HP we know today was constructed over a 25 year period! All these years later the palace is widely considered to be in a very poor state of disrepair, the heating system needs an overhaul and fires (due to old electrical wiring) are an ever present danger. Renovation work has started on Big Ben but the enormous job of upgrading the House to modern building standards remains outstanding. When the time finally comes for the major refit and upgrade let’s hope a sustainable energy option will be considered.  However, I have to admit, that even though it would be a lovely redemptive touch, a modern biomass boiler using energy crop willow is probably unlikely!

For more information on House of Parliament fire of 1834, tally sticks and the current state of the Palace of Westminster see these links.