Oh Lords! Day my ancestors set fire to Parliament...
- Credit: Archant
Today, 180 years ago, two unknown labourers set Parliament ablaze - by accident. The fire has died down in collective memory, despite being the third largest in London’s history - but a Saffron Walden family’s realisation they are the directly related to one of the fire-starters has sparked a whole new interest in this forgotten chapter of Westminster history...
On the afternoon of October 16, 1834, two thirsty labourers sloped off to the pub, after a hard day spent shovelling wooden tally sticks into a furnace under the House of Lords.
Their boss, Clerk of Works Richard Weobley, should have had the redundant tally sticks [a form of currency which was no longer is use] burned in a bonfire outside Westminster Palace.
However, fearful of upsetting the neighbours, he had ordered labourers Patrick Furlong and Joshua Cross to work inside.
Weobley also insisted they work as quickly as possible, and the pair stoked the hungry furnace higher and higher, finishing the job as early as 4pm.
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The two men sipped their well-earned afternoon pints, happy in their ignorance – until, at about 7pm, the sky erupted before them in a ball of fiery light, and the pair were stunned to realise their exertions had set Parliament ablaze.
A huge crowd looked on as the flames devastated the Palace, leaving only a few parts of the Old Houses, including Westminster Hall, intact.
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The fire, which started in two overheated chimney flues and rapidly spread throughout the medieval complex, would be the third largest in London’s history.
Now, 180 years later, inadvertent firebrand Patrick Furlong’s great-great-great-grandson Tim Furlong, of Hop Fields, Saffron Walden, has stumbled across his link to the fire that ravaged the Houses of Parliament.
How does Tim feel about being related to such an infamous character?
“We had to laugh about it,” said Tim, 41, who has lived in the town since 1974.
“My brothers and I can imagine it so well – two lads going down the pub, Patrick Furlong just a typical bloke, making a small mistake with massive consequences.”
Tim’s parents Michael and Lesley Furlong, of Debden Road, originally discovered the bizarre connection when they read a book on the subject, The Day Parliament Burned Down, by Caroline Shenton, Westminster’s Clerk of the Records.
By a further coincidence, Ms Shenton was to give a talk at Friends’ Meeting House in April, and the Furlongs went along.
“My dad introduced himself to Caroline after the talk as Patrick’s great-great-grandson – egged on by mum, I think. Caroline was thrilled by the connection,” Tim said.
The whole family was then invited on a tour of the archives in Victoria Tower, which houses the scrolls saved from the fire – some of the only documents that survived.
Tim’s daughter Annie, nine, took a day off from RA Butler Academy to learn about her family’s history, and was inspired to create a video of her forefather’s mark on history.
“I think it’s quite exciting my great-great-great-great-grandfather was there,” she said.
“I wish I could have met him, but I don’t really want to have been there when the fireball exploded.”