Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Londoner executed not once – but twice!

How could somebody come to be executed not once – but twice? Such is the tale of one poor, unfortunate Londoner at a time of great cruelty and savagery.

Thomas Savage – appropriately named – was born in the parish of St Giles in the Fields and as a youth, became an apprentice to a certain Mr Collins, a vintner at the Ship Tavern at Ratcliff Cross. Three hundred years ago, when this story is set, Ratcliff was a hamlet by the river Thames with a strong ship building and provisioning tradition. It’s long been swallowed up by the borough of Tower Hamlets, located between Shadwell and LImehouse.

Thomas Savage
Thomas Savage at the “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay

The teenager Thomas showed what a wicked person he was by not attending church on the Sabbath.  “Breaking the Sabbath” was illegal at the time – this being the late seventeenth century. But that didn’t bother Thomas too much who spent his Sunday at a “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay, “a vile common strumpet , who was the cause of his ruin” (as one account puts it).

At first, Savage turned up at the brothel with wine and he and the prostitute Hannah got merrily drunk and enjoyed themselves. But being a lady of the night, Hannah wanted money for her services. So she goaded Thomas into robbing Mr Collins. But Savage explained that Collins’ maid was always in the house. To which Hannah responded:

Hang her, a jade! Knock her brains out and I’ll receive the money and go anywhere with you beyond sea, to avoid the stroke of justice.

So the weak-willed Thomas headed back to the Collins house and avoided his master by climbing over a back wall. He then ran into the other servants having dinner including the ever-present maid. Rather unwisely, she took Savage to task for spending too much time at the bawdy house. He didn’t like this telling off and it convinced him to bash her brains out as Hannah had advised.

So one day he took a hammer and began hitting out at objects round the house to provoke her to anger. This presumably would have made it easier for him to do the foul deed. Thomas needed to psyche himself up to commit his first murder. Initially, the maid seems to have tried to ignore this bizarre behaviour but eventually she asked him to stop. He then threw the hammer and scored a direct blow on her head. Falling to the ground she screamed in pain and her assailant hesitated to deal the fatal blow. He just couldn’t quite do it.

But as she moaned and groaned, he set about her with the hammer and snuffed the maid’s life out. Breaking open a cupboard, he found a bag with sixty pounds of Collins’ money – a princely sum then – and escaped. Meeting up with Hannah, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. She asked for all of it but he only gave her half a crown and then fled. In the hours that followed, he sat by the roadside crying out loud about what he had done. Eventually, gathering his wits about him, he went down to a guest house in Greenwich.

The mistress of this guest house was very suspicious to find a seventeen year old with a bag bulging with so much money. She asked him what he was doing. Thomas lied that he was on his way to Gravesend to meet his master, a wine cooper. This story seemed a bit fishy and Thomas, now in a total panic, said she could contact his master and in fact, he’d leave the money with her until she did.

So without any of his ill-gotten gains, Savage wandered off to Woolwich. Shortly after, word of his murder filtered down from Ratcliff to Greenwich – it took much longer for news to get around in the days before mass media. The mistress of the guest house sent a group of men to go after him and he was found in a Woolwich ale house, head on the table and a pot of beer by his side. The men challenged him:

Tom – did you not live at Ratcliff?

Yes

And did you not murder your fellow servant? And you took so much money from your master? You must go along with us!

Yes, with all my heart.

In custody, Savage confessed everything. On the day he went to court, his fellow prisoners got him a bit drunk and he shopped Hannah Blay to the authorities. She was then arrested too. Thomas was sentenced to death – the punishment to be carried out at Ratcliff Cross. This was quite a common thing to do – to kill the criminal at the place where they had committed their crime. Savage’s hanging was postponed on one occasion and news was given to him as he was dressed up for the occasion.

What – have I got on my dying clothes? Dying clothes did I say? They are my living clothes, the clothes out of which I shall go into eternal glory. They are the best clothes that ever I put on!

At Ratcliff Cross, there seems to have been some sympathy among the crowd for this pathetic figure. He said a little prayer and the cart pulled away to leave him struggling at the end of the rope. A friend beat Thomas around the chest to shorten his misery. Motionless and left dangling for a while, everybody assumed Savage was dead. His friends then took him to a nearby house and laid his body on a table. Then something incredible happened. Thomas started breathing!

His throat rattled. He heaved upwards. Then his eyes and mouth opened. His teeth are described as having been “set before” – I assume that means in his death struggle, they’d been pushed out – and he couldn’t speak. Now you might think he’d have been let off but not in seventeenth century England. As word got out that Savage was alive, an embarrassed sheriff turned up and took him back to the gibbet. Poor Savage was then hanged all over again until he was properly dead.

His forlorn friends then spirited his seventeen year old body away to Islington where he was buried on the 28th October, 1668.