In The Day Parliament Burned Down, I have attempted to provide as detailed an account of the disaster as possible, using a wide range of official reports, public records, eyewitness correspondence, contemporary diaries, periodicals and newspapers. On their own, each would provide a skewed and confusing picture of what happened, but when set side-by-side, I hope a reasonably balanced narrative emerges in which it is possible to track the progress of the fire, hour-by-hour. But it is worth saying something about the caution with which I approached newspapers, in particular. “Amid so much confusion…it was not easy to procure information or get particulars of obvious occurrences”, the Ipswich Journal told its readers (18 Oct 1834). This was most certainly true when trying to reconstruct the 1834 fire over 175 years later.
As you might expect, the papers were full – for days, weeks and months afterwards – with “this god-send of a subject” (The Examiner, 26 Oct 1834). However, it is necessary to pick through the reports carefully to determine what actually happened, as opposed to what was hearsay, speculation or blatant invention to increase circulation. In a further complication, most newspapers in 1834 used a technique called “rinsing” (familiar to anyone who reads certain free papers today) which involved one paper lifting original reports from the previous day’s papers, summarizing them and then republishing them as their own material with a slight time lag. They are not producing new information at all: the stories are often garbled or repeating the same inaccuracies.
After researching a wide range of newspapers for the book, it was clear that many of the same accounts appear word-for-word repeatedly in different papers, particularly provincial ones. It seemed to me that the two newspapers producing the earliest original and most reliable reports of news as it happened were The Times and The Morning Chronicle: great rivals and not surprisingly, the two most important national papers at the time. I therefore took entries in The Times as my starting point among the newspapers, supplemented by extra information from The Morning Chronicle, and only occasionally from other papers where they corroborate other sources. It is therefore entirely possible that accounts in some of the lesser London papers and provincial papers may seem to contain different details of what was burnt (and when) compared with the book, but I would urge caution in reading them isolated from all other sources – a good example is the persistent report in various papers of the destruction of the House of Lords Library, which in fact was wholly undamaged. Even taking The Times as a starting point for newspaper accounts was not without its difficulty, since its multiple correspondents sometimes disagree on the facts in the same day’s paper, and no editorial intervention seems to have been made to reconcile them at the time.
In some cases, well-known diarists and politicians made no comment (or no comment survives). They may simply not have been present, as in the case of Sir Robert Peel, who was on his way to a holiday in Rome with his family at the time. Others used to opining felt it was pointless, given that the fire was the only topic of conversation everywhere. The diarist Greville wrote, somewhat petulantly, “for two months nearly that I have been in the country I have not written a line, having had nothing worth recording to put down…it would have been a mere waste of time to copy the accounts of the conflagration of the Houses of Parliament” (The Greville Memoirs 1814 – 1860, eds. L Strachey and R Fulford, (London, 1938), iii, p. 89, 13 Nov 1834). There is also the tantalizing question of Dickens’ involvement in the fire – he was a Parliamentary reporter for The Morning Chronicle, but did any of his copy reach the front page? So, I’m sure there are other eyewitness accounts which I have not discovered, and I would be fascinated to hear of them from readers once the book is published.