According to The Times, on 16 October 1834 London was visited by an ‘afflicting accident’, which was a ‘spectacle of terrible beauty’. Quite simply, the Houses of Parliament burned down. For over 600 years after its foundation, the Exchequer, the forerunner of today’s Treasury, had kept its accounts on wooden tallies. These bundles were not regarded as a superb archive of medieval administrative practice but as an embarrassing nuisance. Accordingly, two Irish labourers were instructed to burn them in the boilers situated immediately below the Chamber of the House of Lords. They worked with a will and achieved a result that exceeded all expectations. At a subsequent inquiry, both men expressed surprise at what their handiwork had caused.
The buildings that were consumed represented a jumble of architecture from many centuries. A warren of corridors and staircases connected some of the greatest offices of state. Beautiful survivals from the Middle Ages, such as the Painted Chamber, stood cheek by jowl with rooms that were barely habitable. The home