THE GREAT FIRE OF 1834 And Its Impact on Liberty and Culture by Tyne O’Connell
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
In 1834, my ancestor Daniel O’Connell was already an international figure in the fight against slavery. Known as The Liberator, he was hailed by the American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, as ‘the greatest champion against slavery in the world’. O’Connell was famous for his uncompromising commitment to obtaining freeborn rights for all; regardless of skin pigment, creed or gender, by peaceful means. His ‘soul stirring’ oratory drew crowds of up to one million to his rallies in Ireland but by 1829 he was living on Albermarle Street in Mayfair, London. O’Connell’s insistence that ‘all hearts are the same colour and the mind has no gender,’ inspired the cause of liberty throughout the age. He was a Catholic but no papist and campaigned for Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, becoming the first Catholic MP to win a seat in parliament. He was also a fervent monarchist but denounced ‘the marriage of church and state as an adulterous one’. The Liberator’s commitment to liberty was so mighty that he shocked his greatest supporters by refusing donations from wealthy slave owners in America, even in the height of the potato famine. The lasting greatness of O’Connell’s legacy was his refusal to polarise people into “them” and “us”. This is why the flame of his commitment to the pursuit of liberty through peaceful means, continued to burn so brightly in all those he inspired, such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.
By 1833 he had successfully persuaded parliament to vote for the Slavery Abolition Act. It finally came into effect on 1 August 1834 but it by no means abolished slavery throughout all the Empire. Two months later, the Greatest Fire since 1666 consumed the 800 year old Palace of Westminster on 16th October 1834. The Great Fire, coming as it did after the Georgian Era and before the Victorian Era, when King William IV was on the throne, was viewed as a portent of the extraordinary changes sweeping the age.
1834 was the same year the great eccentric, Countess Ada Lovelace began her work on creating the world’s first computer programme. Her father Lord Byron, crowned her the “Princess of the Parallelograms” and the poetry of her ‘thinking machine’ far exceeded the imagination of her male colleague Charles Babbage. She predicted a day when computers would deliver facts and even have the capacity to think and compose music. Ada’s tutor was the famous scientist, astronomer, geographer and polymath, Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was hailed as ‘The Queen of Science’. Somerville was also a committed feminist who turned to Daniel O’Connell MP and the philosopher John Stuart Mill to support women’s suffrage as part of the 1832 Reform Act. Prior to the Act, women who owned property in their own name had been entitled to vote but the addition of the three words, ‘Male persons only’ which extended voting rights to most men, explicitly barred women from voting for the first time since the Magna Carta of 1215.
This outrage triggered The Liberator to pronounce that “the mind has no gender” which became a key theme of the age, as he promoted the principle of liberty as a ‘free born right of women and men of all races and creeds.’
The destruction of the Palace of Westminster in the inferno of October 1834 had a profound impact on all aspects of British culture. The brutality and fear of the ideas born of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had inspired the Romanticism of Wordsworth and Jane Austin. The destruction of the ancient Parliament trigged a new Age of Realism as expressed in the novels of George Elliot and Mary Shelley, the daughter of the famous scientist and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus” tapped into society’s fear of the rapid leaps being made in science and technology by contemplating that the boundary between life and death was imaginary, and might even be breached. Another author of the age, Charles Dickens, celebrated O’Connell’s campaign against slavery and liberty for all in his 1847 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit. The book immortalised O’Connell’s reputation both as the leading international political champion of the anti-slavery movement and as a fearless opponent of injustice in all its forms.
It was during this era of growing liberty and scientific change that the first fire ball exploded out of the side of Westminster Palace at 6pm, flaming towards the Abbey and lighting up London on the evening of the 16th October 1834. At 8pm another fireball blasted through the roof and blazed like a meteor across the sky. A collective gasp went up amongst the hundreds of thousands of Londoners already gathered on the street and the tens of thousands watching from hundreds of boats, crushed along the Thames.
Public and private firefighters worked side by side with hundreds of volunteers, including MPs, Peers, Dukes, the king’s sons and parliament workmen to quell the flames throughout the night. The oldest part of the Palace had been the home of kings since the reign of King Canute from 1016 and Edward the Confessor (1042-1056). A succession of monarchs had added to the architecture across the centuries. In 1534, King Henry VIII moved his residence next door to Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster became the permanent home of Parliamentary democracy. By the middle of that fateful night of 1834 the focus of the firefighters was on saving Westminster Hall (built by King William II in the 1090s).
JMW Turner RA and John Constable RA were amongst the forty-four artists who set up their easels at the start of the fire. The artists captured each stage of the conflagration, from its explosive beginnings through to the glowing embers of the dawn. Their paintings have provided posterity with a visual record of the architectural splendour of its ancient parliamentary history, from the early Medieval through to the Baroque and the Georgian as it was overwhelmed by the flames.
Turner's paintings evolved through the night. His accurate strokes initially captured the architectural detail of the burning palace but later gave way to his emotional impressions of the event; his brushstrokes evoking the power of the flames to consume history. Turner’s Impressionist breakthrough on that October night in 1834 ensured the rapid progresses in photography, with the creation of the daguerreotype in 1839, posed no threat to the medium of painting.
One of the more notable architectural additions destroyed by the flames that night had been built by the world’s first formally trained woman Architect, Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705). In the late 1600s, Wilbraham had completely redesigned the House of Commons although at the time she had attributed her designs to her untrained building manager, Christopher Wren to avoid scandal, as her husband was a member of the king’s parliament. Alas Wilbraham’s designs, like the 16th Century Armada tapestries and the medieval paintings of King Henry III’s Painted Chamber (1216-1272) perished that night.
By 2 am the rising tide of the Thames finally enabled the London Fire Engine Establishment’s barge-mounted engine to position itself to extinguish the final flames. By then most of the palace was lost.
One of the onlookers that night was Augustus Pugin, who with Charles Barry won the architectural bid to rebuild the neo-gothic Palace of Westminster the following year. Unfortunately the construction was still not finished when Queen Victoria walked through the rubble in the grandeur of her royal regalia en route to her coronation on the 28th June 1838. One month after her coronation, Daniel O’Connell triumphed in finalising the Slavery Abolition Act to ensure the liberation of every slave, in every part of the Empire.
In 1846, the year before his death, O’Connell’s insistence that the British law, “De Judaismo," which prescribed a special dress for Jews and other restrictions based on religion, was repealed. A month after Victoria’s coronation, Daniel O’Connell triumphed in finalising the Slavery Abolition Act to ensure the liberation of every slave, in every part of the Empire. In 1846 at The Liberator’s insistence the British law, “De Judaismo" an anti-jewish law imposed by Edward which imposed a host of restrictions on Jews, including a dress code, was repealed.
Pugin’s most famous contribution to the Neo gothic marvel of the new Palace was the four-faced clock tower, Big Ben which when completed in 1859 enabled everyone in London to see the time wherever they were. It was the largest and most accurate chiming clock in the world. For those who had witnessed the savage speed of almost a thousand years of history consumed in the great inferno, Big Ben came to symbolise the speed of progress and the urgency to create a better world for all, including women and non Anglo-Saxons.
There was no more time to put off liberty. Everywhere new values, new ideas and new possibilities were impacting every aspect of British society via the cultural salons run by the leading women of the age; derisively referred to as “bluestocking salons” by their detractors. Since 1603 the intellectual rigours and richness of British salons had been crucibles for fashion, the arts and science as political and social spurs for change. British Salons unlike those on the continent were free of the barriers of class, welcoming artists and thinkers across every race and sexual spectrum.
In 1840, London hosted the world’s first International Anti-Slavery Convention. The organiser’s last minute decision to refuse to allow female delegates only served to accelerate the cause of women’s suffrage. Daniel O’Connell and John Stuart Mill campaigned energetically for women to be allowed into the Convention. In the end a few leading feminists such as Lady Byron and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were permitted to attend but if anything this only highlighted the exclusion of women and incited women to insist on the same freeborn rights being demanded by men.
By 1840, women’s impact on society was growing in all spheres. A woman was on the throne and the greatest chronicler of the age was a woman. Fanny Burney (1752-1840) was a novelist, diarist, biographer and playwright, hailed by Virginia Woolf as the ‘Mother of English Fiction.’ As the wife of the French General D’Arblay, adjunct general to Lafayette who had served both King Louis XVIII, King George IV William IV and Bonaparte, Fanny Burney was perfectly placed to chronicle the dream and the cruel impact of the French Revolution. She had witnessed the battle of Waterloo firsthand. Her “Waterloo Journal”, posthumously published with her letters in 1846, not only inspired Thackeray’s 1848 novel “Vanity Fair”, it shaped how British history viewed the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and their social impact on British society. It was the first time a woman’s recollection of a battlefield and its aftermath have ever defined public perceptions.
In 1845, Frederick Douglas visited Daniel O’Connell in Ireland and attended one of his ‘monster rallies.’ Days later he wrote to W.L. Garrison describing the huge meeting. “At the close of this business, Mr. O’Connell rose and delivered a speech of about an hour and a quarter long. It was a great speech, skilfully delivered, powerful in its logic, majestic in its rhetoric, biting in its sarcasm, melting in its pathos, and burning in its rebukes. Upon the subject of slavery in general and American slavery in particular, Mr. O’Connell grew warm and energetic, defending his course on this subject. “I am the advocate of civil and religious liberty, all over the globe, and wherever tyranny exists, I am the foe of the tyrant; wherever oppression shows itself, I am the foe of the oppressor; wherever slavery rears its head, I am the enemy of the system, or the institution, call it by what name you will.
"I am the friend of liberty in every clime, class and color. My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island. No—it extends itself to every corner of the earth. My heart walks abroad, and wherever the miserable are to be succored, or the slave to be set free, there my spirit is at home, and I delight to dwell.”
By 1850 Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin’s Westminster Palace was complete. The grandeur of its gothic-revival splendour honoured the significance of Britain as the cradle of democracy and crystallised the cultural, social and political reforms towards liberty being made across every aspect of British society.
Many of these new ideas and emblems of cultural and social change sweeping the age were celebrated in the Great Exhibition the following year in1851 which was attended by Darwin, Marx, Lewis Carroll and women authors such as George Elliot and Charlotte Bronte. The male dominated committee decided that Ada Lovelace’s thinking machine, was ‘too far-fetched’ to be part of the exhibition. A hundred and fifty years later computers are an integral part of every aspect of our lives.
Daniel O’Connell’s ‘radical vision of liberty for all, regardless of race, creed or gender’ are now enshrined in the humanitarian values of the United Nations ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’.