The Great Fire of Westminster
Footprints of London Guides Richard Watkins and Steve Pratt talk about their forthcoming new walk about The Great Fire of Westminster
One of the paintings featured in the Tate Britain’s current exhibition, “Late Turner: Painting Set Free ”, is The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons 16 October 1834, amongst others on the subject. This is a timely inclusion as we are approaching the 180th anniversary of the night when a great fire ripped through the medieval Houses of Parliament: the theme of my forthcoming joint walk with Steve Pratt: “The Great Fire of Westminster”.
The photo I have taken is roughly in the same position from where Turner has rendered the scene for his most famous painting of the fire – you can see the west towers of Westminster Abbey in the photo on the far left as you can also see in Turner’s painting. He walked all around the site until dawn, including on Westminster Bridge, from the Lambeth bank and the southern end, producing two sketchbooks of work. He was fascinated with how the fire showed the elemental forces of earth, water, air and fire.
In retelling the story, Steve and I walk around the streets and on Westminster Bridge where thousands witnessed the great conflagration along with Turner, an event described as “horridly beautiful”. It’s a story characterised by farce as well as by some acts of heroism, which the Prime Minster of the day Lord Melbourne labelled as “one of the greatest instances of stupidity upon record.” But it also came at a time of great social and democratic changes, on the cusp of the Victorian era.
The walk will take place on