Category Archives: Parliamentary History

Parliament Buildings of the World: No 8 – Canada

IMG_2900.JPGOf all the legislatures in the world which follow the Westminster model, the Parliament of Canada in Ottawa seems most familiar to British observers.  It has a House of Commons, members of Parliament and a Gothic-revival Parliament building, a Hansard, an impartial Speaker (unlike the USA, for example) and procedural manuals and processes which parallel those in use in London.IMG_2804.JPGIt is to the Canadian Parliament that the Westminster administration often looks first when seeking comparisons on major strategic developments. Most recently, the proposal for an essential refurbishment programme in London is being informed in part by the experience of the redevelopment plans now taking place in Ottawa.


Recent tragic events in Canada also point to another similarity with Westminster, in the person of the Serjeant at Arms.  This week, Kevin Vickers, who holds this post at Ottawa, shot dead the gunman who killed an unarmed soldier outside and then was running amok inside the Parliament building.  In 14th century England, the royal household included a number of serjeants-at-arms, a bodyguard wearing striped uniforms, who protected the monarch wherever they travelled. One serjeant became assigned to Westminster to escort the monarch when in Parliament, and then subsequently the Speaker.  The ceremonial mace (pictured above carried by Vickers) used in Canada, symbolises the power and authority of the House of Commons as it does in Westminster, but originated in the powerful and threatening clubs wielded by the serjeants in their jobs.  The Canadian Serjeant in 2014 was heroically doing exactly what was in the original medieval job description.

IMG_2769.JPGJust over a year ago, I visited the Ottawa Parliament building and was fascinated to discover it too was the product of a disastrous fire.  The Canadian fire of 1916 was equally as dramatic as 1834 but much swifter in its early stages.  The Westminster disaster was condemned by the Prime Minister, Melbourne, as, “one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record.  I have no doubt it had been burning the whole day. No private house would have been destroyed in such circumstances.”  In 1916 there seems barely to have been enough time for the fire to have been spotted and the MPs to grab their coats before the building was fully ablaze. The fire started in a reading room adjacent to the Commons’ chamber at 8.50pm.  Its point of origin was a pile of papers on the lower shelf of a reading desk which suddenly flared up, alarming a nearby Member who rushed to find a doorkeeper and fire extinguisher to put it out.  This proved unsuccessful and before their eyes the flames licked up the sides of the walls, catching on the newspapers hanging there, and then across the ceiling. The woodwork in the reading room and other parts of the building had been freshly varnished, and this, plus the extensive use of white pine for the furnishings, meant that the fire took hold incredibly quickly in such an inflammable environment.

Unlike the Westminster fire (subject of a Privy Council inquiry headed by the Prime Minster and the Lord Chancellor) the cause of the Ottawa fire seems never to have been satisfactorily explained. As the reading room desk where it began was free standing that seems to rule out electrical failure. A fireplace does not seem to have been involved. The room was deserted at the time except for Francis Glass, the MP who first spotted (or rather, felt) the fire beside him.  Reports in the papers that the flames were ignited by an abandoned cigar in a wastepaper bin (a version of the story which still seems to persist today) or by the spillage (deliberate or otherwise) of some chemical were categorically ruled out at the inquiry. The fire seems to have sprung fully formed from the desk without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’.  The newspapers of course, revelled in lurid conspiracy theories in both 1916 and 1834.  In Canada, the worry was that, coming in the middle of the First World War, this was a plot set by foreign spies. At Westminster, the rumours ranged from the machinations of greedy architects to – again – shady characters (no doubt thought to be French, given the year in question) throwing molotov cocktails made of flaming turpentine at the building.


Seven people tragically died at the Ottawa fire. Most, including two women, were overcome by smoke inhalation before being able to exit the building, but two men firefighting were killed by the fall of one of the towers. At Westminster, no one died on the night. Neither House was sitting in October 1834 and therefore fewer people were at risk to begin with. Palace servants ran from the building in panic, including the senile mother-in-law of the housekeeper who had been left in charge, the women shockingly bonnet-free. In Canada, outer clothing also preyed heavily on the mind of escapees. Dr Chisholm, MP for Inverness and recovering from flu, asked a messenger to fetch his warm winter coat from an upstairs office, while he himself tended to the badly-burned face of a minister, not realising the danger to which the servant would be exposed.

The impact of the 1834 fire on Parliament, London, and British life more widely, was enormous.  Its most obvious result was the creation of the new Houses of Parliament – which is the image of Britain which pops into most people’s heads when they think of this country, especially the iconic silhouette of Big Ben.  It spawned a number of Victorian Gothic imitators, including those in Budapest, and Ottawa itself, though they are more Ruskinian than Perpendicular in style.IMG_2808.JPG

But while it took around five years to replace the core of Parliament Hill in Canada, work in Westminster took some thirty years to complete. It’s also fair to say that the rebuilt Central Block at Ottawa is not what other nations think of when they hear the word ‘Canada’.  In those instances, it’s more likely to be an image of the glorious outdoors: a maple leaf, some magnificent wilderness, or a grizzly bear poised on some rapids is the more likely image which springs to mind.

One final poignant aspect of the Ottawa fire is how the catastrophe itself and the ruins were captured in photographs, and how recordings of eyewitnesses survive.  Occurring just a few years before the invention of photography, one of the most tantalising features of the 1834 fire is how little we know about the interior of the building before the disaster and how imperfect the evidence is of its aftermath.  For Canadians at least, the continued existence of the destroyed building in photographic form meant that it was not wiped from the national consciousness, as the old Palace of Westminster has been in Britain.  In London, Westminster Hall survived as a reminder of the old building; in Ottawa it was the Parliamentary Library, a Gothic Pepperpot whose iron doors (below) were swiftly closed by a quick-thinking librarian who thus saved it from the oncoming flames.





If you liked this post, you might also like to read about other Parliaments of the World.



James Gillray and the Old Palace of Westminster

James Gillray (1756-1815) was one the most brilliant caricaturists of all time.  He was brought up in the Moravian faith, a strict Protestant sect which forebade any form of entertainment or indulgence. Although he rebelled as an adult against this, becoming a student at the Royal Academy, its influence can be seen in his engravings which are simultaneously disgusted with human excess but also exuberantly scatological and pornographic.

Gillray’s most famous caricatures are those satirising politicians and royalty, most especially Fox, Pitt, and George, Prince of Wales.  Although – like many – initially delighted with the outbreak of the French Revolution, once things took a darker turn across the Channel, Gillray used all of his powers to portray the Terror and the subsequent rise to power of Napoleon including, famously, his Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion in 1796.

Two years later, he followed this up with ‘Consequences of a Successful French Invasion’ depicting the interior of the Houses of Parliament should Napoleon ever manage to get as far as Westminster.  The first shows a scene of pillage in the House of Lords chamber entitled ‘We explain de Rights of Man to de Noblesse’.  This building had been used by the Lords since 1291 (it had previously been the Queen’s bedroom), and was the one which Guy Fawkes had tried to blow up at State Opening in 1605.  In the cartoon, the throne has been replaced with a Guillotine, its canopy is emblazoned ‘Confusion to All Order’ and topped with the red cap of liberty. Napoleon directs his men to tear down the Armada Tapestries on the walls, and set fire to them from the red benches, while the mace is carried away.

Lords Gillray cropped

This is a pretty accurate representation of the Lords chamber in 1798, with its characteristic coffered ceiling and famous wallhangings.  These features can be compared with their appearance in two other portrayals of the building, namely The Death of Chatham by John Singleton Copley (National Portrait Gallery, London) 1781:

John Singleton Copley Death of Chatham 1778

and Peter Tilleman’s Queen Anne in the House of Lords (Royal Collection, London), 1708-1714:old lords

Meanwhile the second cartoon shows what is happening in the House of Commons where the French declare, ‘We come to recover your long-lost liberties’.

Commons Gillray

The Napoleonic forces have stripped, shaved and handcuffed the MPs, dressing them in convict uniforms prior to transportation. The Speaker’s chair announces, ‘This House is adjourned to Botany Bay sine die’, and the Speaker himself has been gagged. One rough-looking sans-culottes is in the process of destroying the mace with a sledge hammer, the symbol of the Commons’ power, while another  stokes a brazier ready to set fire to various documents including the Bill of Rights 1689 and Magna Carta 1215, which have toppled off the overturned Clerks’ table.

Compare this with the Commons chamber depicted in the 1808 Microcosm of London by Auguste Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson.


Happily, Gillray’s nightmare scenarios did not come to pass. But both buildings changed forever just two years later. The Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 required that more MPs and Peers be accommodated at Westminster when the Irish Parliament was abolished. In the Commons, James Wyatt controversially expanded the width of the Commons to provide more benches, and redesigned its east end (this explains the three windows in the Microcosm of 1808, rather than the two windows in the Gillray). And the Lords had to move out of their ancient chamber altogether to another building in the Palace complex called the Lesser Hall, or White Hall in order to fit all the new peers in.  It was this final building which was the point of origin of the terrible fire of 1834.

Happy Anniversary, Great Fire of Westminster!

Yes, it’s 179 years since the old Houses of Parliament burned down. Last year there was the very successful real-time tweet of the events of 16 October 1834 (you can still see the story as it unfolded on Twitter), and this year there are more treats to mark the anniversary.

Firstly, there’s a brand new page about the fire, launched today, on the History of Parliament website. This complements the other concise but very useful potted histories of key moments in the House of Commons and House of Lords there.



Then, at Westminster, there is an exhibition on the fire currently running in Portcullis House for Parliamentarians through the autumn. It was open to the public on Open House Weekend at the end of September. It was great fun curating it, and I’d like to thank the Curator’s office at Parliament for suggesting that I might like to do it. If you missed it, then don’t worry – you can find a free downloadable booklet and other resources relating to the paintings and drawings in our art collection which depict the 1834 fire on the Art in Parliament website.


If you’re in London there’s still time to come to the Open Lecture today in Parliament at 2.30pm, where I’ll be giving a free public talk on the fire. Do come and say hello if you’re there.

And remember, the Houses of Parliament shop has signed copies of the book now out in paperback (they make great Christmas presents) and you can even order them on online if you wish – I signed 100 of them a couple of weeks ago in just 15 minutes…

book pile


Finally, here are a couple of my favourite blogposts from the last year. I hope you enjoy them:

A Tale of Two Birthdays

My Hot Date with Mr Turner