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.

Royalist beats up journalists in Fleet Street

Sir Roger L’Estrange hated journalists.

He’d been a royalist all his life (born in 1616) and fought with King Charles I during the English Civil War. When the king lost and Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, L’Estrange was sentenced to death as a spy and conspirator and thrown into Newgate prison. Not enjoying his time behind bars in squalid conditions, L’Estrange escaped, fled to Holland, only to return with the Restoration of King Charles II. Now it was time for revenge against all those who had supported Cromwell. Especially journalists.

Fleet Street

Fleet Street in the 18th century – note the heads on display over Temple Bar

The centre of British journalism was Fleet Street with its many little alleyways. In the taverns, coffee houses and printing works of this great thoroughfare, writers expressed themselves a little too freely for L’Estrange’s royalist tastes. Many scribblers had been parliamentarians and against kingly autocracy. They wanted to write what they thought and that often meant mocking or criticising the monarch and his retinue.

In 1663, L’Estrange issued a pamphlet with the ominous title: Considerations and Proposals in order to Regulate the Press together with Divers Instances of Treasons and Seditious Pamphlets proving the Necessity thereof.” Ironically, for a man who hated writers – L’Estrange was a prolific writer himself, though always in defence of royal privilege. In this pamphlet, he argued for the harshest penalties for everybody involved in producing treasonous material. That not only meant journalists but “letter founders, the smiths and joiners that work upon the presses, with the stitchers, binders, stationers, hawkers, Mercury women, pedlars, ballad-singers, posts, carriers, hackney coachmen, boatmen and mariners” (sic). Nobody left out then!

Tyburn gallows

An execution at Tyburn

He was made official press censor. In his new role, L’Estrange abolished all newspapers except two – which he happened to own. The Intelligencer – “started for the satisfaction and information of the people” – and the News. But of course Fleet Street wasn’t just going to roll over and die in the face of L’Estrange. So he had to enforce the dire penalties he’d threatened. One victim of this royalist bigot was the owner of a printing press in Cloth Fair. His name was Twyne and he’d be made an example of to all journalists thinking life could go on as before.

With four burly men, L’Estrange kicked in Twyne’s door. They found writings that advocated the popular will – and you can imagine what L’Estrange thought about that! Twyne soon found himself before Lord Chief Justice Hyde at the Old Bailey who shouted: “Tie him up executioner!”  And added rather unpleasantly:

I speak it from my soul that we have the greatest happiness in the world in enjoying what we do under so gracious and good a king, and you Twyne, in the rancour of your heart, thus to abuse him deserve no mercy.

He was then sentenced to be hanged but cut down before he was dead, his entrails burnt “before your eyes” and his head and chopped up body to be “disposed of at the pleasure of the king’s majesty”. And so it was that L’Estrange got to have Twyne executed horribly at Tyburn and his body parts displayed at Ludgate, Aldersgate and elsewhere.

L’Estrange, sad to say, led a long life. Though he fell out with King William III and this old Tory lived long enough to see the Whig party, which he detested for its lack of devotion to the king, grow stronger. As a former journalist myself, I’d say that L’Estrange was an object lesson in why we should defend a free press with our dying breath. Though hopefully, it will never come to that!