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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: August 2010

Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Bought two postcards of the principal Turner watercolour of the fire
today from the Tate.  One for home, one for work.

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Monday, 30 August 2010

The Loneliness of the Longdistance Narrative Historian

After my nine-day marathon of writing, and a bit of work over the Bank Holiday weekend, I have now jogged past the 75,000 word milepost.   I am very pleased with  progress, but the first three and a half chapters are still just a series of half-digested chunks of narrative and references which is annoying.  One liberating triumph however, was to combine the former chapters 3 and 4 (now chapter 3), and chapters 5 and 6 (now chapter 4).  There was no way I was going to get those four smaller chapters up to 5,000 words each, so I cut the gordian knot and now feel FREEEEEEEEEE of the obligation to pad them out with meaningless stuffing.  Last week, on a practical expedition, I went into the Jewel Tower at Westminster (left) to refresh my memory of the location where the acts of Parliament were located during the fire.  The Jewel Tower is one of the few surviving parts of the medieval Palace of Westminster, built in 1365.  Should really also take a trip (all of one minute across the road) to St Margaret's church where many of the evacuated books and records ended up, and also need to go to the Tate Britain (10 min walk) to check out the Turner watercolours of the fire.  

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Saturday, 28 August 2010


Spent part of Bank Holiday Saturday mooching round Blackwells and Waterstones in Oxford, after discovering that the Bodleian was shut because of the holiday. (Memo to self: check the website next time). After a minor tantrum outside the Divinity School, I reconciled myself to following up some references the following weekend instead. In the bookshops I had a relaxing browse, feeling smug that a new biog of Edward I has a citation of one of my articles in it, and also that Ian Mortimer's bestselling Timetraveller's Guide to Medieval England, has a footnote to another one of my articles. Small crumbs maybe, but it made me happy, saddo that I am. Then accosted in Waterstones by a properly sad person doing a booksigning of some terrible-looking (?privately printed) biographies, and vowed that if I ever get to the heady heights of doing booksignings (ha!) that I will never behave like that myself


Sunday, 22 August 2010

Writing is a dangerous sport

Yesterday I burnt down the Commons' Library, and today I'm doing the same with the Lords.  Actually, I've been on leave for the last five days (of nine), determined to get the first draft of the book ready for checking by the beginning of September. I've been working about ten hours a day, and now have a numb little finger in my left hand, caused - I think - by "ulnar nerve compression".  In other words, I've been leaning too hard on the table with my elbow, chin in hand, while I re-read drafts.  Other scrapes of the last five days include having to get a bald tyre replaced on the car on my way back from a research trip to the National Archives at Kew on Friday, and managing to spill an entire can of diet coke over myself in a moment of inattention.  Ho-hum.  Makes the fire seem like a picnic in comparison.


Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Snippetty Snip

I'm on leave now for over a week, and so therefore have a really good opportunity to crack on with the book.  

The wide-ranging snippets written up in this stint include: thefts and pickpocketing among the crowd; the marble mantlepieces of the Speaker's House and damage thereto; cottaging in St Margaret's Churchyard; and beer rations given out to the soldiers.

Monday, 16 August 2010

A McGonagall Ancestor?

Transcribed a hilarious verse broadsheet today on the fire, which includes the deathless couplet:
Oh dear, oh dear, what a consternation / This affair will cause throughout the nation.
Must work the pome into the book somehow...

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Hidden Treasure

Popped into the St Stephen's cloisters by Westminster Hall today, which were half destroyed by the fire in 1834 (then again by the Blitz) but half survive.  They were built just over a decade before the dissolution of the monasteries, so weren't used as intended for very long.   They are marvellous, and an incredible survival right in the middle of London.

In the last few days I have transcribed the letters of the Rickman family who were living on site at the time of the fire, which are fantastic eyewitness accounts, with some hilarious moments in them.  Mr Rickman gave each of his servants 1lb of sugar for their good services on the night of the fire, preventing looters from breaking into their house during the firefighting.

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010


Tallies were responsible for the fire of 1834 at Parliament.  Or rather: the idiocy of people disposing of them was responsible.  One of the tallies on display at work had split into pieces, so our collection care manager took on the task of repairing a seven-hundred year old stick of hazel-wood.  But before she did that, she needed to know how the writing on the broken wood fitted together.  This is me helping her out with the jigsaw a few weeks ago.

Left: Here I'm using an "optivisor headband magnifier,"
which looks like a pair of welding goggles,
and some tweezers to put the broken pieces
of the earliest Jewish tally in existence, written
in Latin and Hebrew, in the right order. 
And look! No white gloves...
they make you clumsy.


Right: The damaged tally, arranged in the correct
position, ready for repair.  My good medieval
deed for the day.That label looks 700
years old too...

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Monday, 9 August 2010

The Fire about 7pm

A print from my own collection - showing the fire
probably between 7pm and 8pm on 16 October 1834

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My Life as an Ant

As most people at work are on holiday today, my email box is deliciously quiet. This enables me to head out at noon, rather than working through my lunch hour as usual, to go to the British Library to renew my reader's ticket in anticipation of a research visit next week. It's twenty years since I got my first ticket there, and how things have changed...I love the new building, which is not new any more, of course. I can't imagine why people complain about it; it's a real privilege to work there. I always feel, when I approach the gates, that I'm just one of a line of thousands of ants heading towards a teeming nest of intellectual endeavour. The cafe is good too. What has also changed is the staff. Today I get my reader's ticket sorted out in under ten minutes, with a charming middle-eastern assistant taking my photo. They even have comfy sofas to wait on; so unlike the old days at Bloomsbury, when you were lucky to get a civil word out of some boot-faced jobsworth behind an impenetrable glass screen. I'm now all set to look at Egerton Ms 1048 next Monday: one of the few Commons records which survived the fire.

My book is called Conflagration: the Burning of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. It does exactly what it says on the tin, telling the story of the greatest fire in London between the Great Fire in 1666 and the Blitz. At the moment, I have got hold of about 99% of the research material I need, and I would say that the book is about two-thirds written. The main difficulty I have at present is with the early chapters. They are proving to be the hardest to write, because I am describing the layout of the old palace and the progress of the Great Reform Act. Both are complex subjects, which are hard to write about clearly and compellingly without losing essential detail, or becoming tedious.


Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Story So Far

I've been researching this book seriously for three or four years now, but it's only in the last six months that I've really got down to doing some serious writing.  That's been aided by finding a range of new sources, and by setting up a permanent writing station in the cellar (otherwise our dining room).

Blogging seemed a fun thing to do, especially to track my progress and keep me motivated.  I've also been inspired by the websites and blogs of other historical writers, and it looks like this is something that publishers encourage authors to do anyway.  And why the Dustshoveller's Gazette?  Well, that's because a friend calls all curators, archivists and other written heritage specialists "Dustshovellers", which I like, even though no archive should be dusty.  And since I'm having to work with lots of newspaper accounts, that's where "Gazette" comes from.