I’ve worked hard to get women into my book. It’s not been easy. A day-conference I attended earlier this year run by the History of Parliament Trust contained a whole session on their problem of undertaking a decades-long academic enterprise which, by definition, had to concentrate on the biographies of MPs and Lords before the 20th century – all of the subjects being men.
So, in The Day Parliament Burned Down there is Frances Rickman, a principal witness to the fire, with her mother, who lived in the Palace, who have left behind correspondence which can been researched. Then there are grand women, like Queen Adelaide, and bohemian ones like the poet Letitia Landon, whose views on the fire were recorded. But there are others too, who flit through the records and therefore the pages of my book, in shadowy fashion. The Westminster pub landlady whose beer barrels were drunk dry on the night by those pumping the engines. The nurses at the new Westminster Hospital. The terrified doorkeepers’ wives in the Palace who first discovered the fire. The waitress at Bellamy’s whose uniform was burnt. The ladies in the crowd who fainted in the crush, and those scrambling up to their ankles in mud on the shore of the Thames to get a better view. The prostitutes in the back streets of the Devil’s Acre slum nearby. And the women whose lives were changed forever when their husbands were killed or seriously injured due to the disaster. I wish I knew more about them. I never will.