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Parliamentary Archives: continued

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Secret London
Murder Ballads

The Archives occupy 12 environmentally-controlled floors here in Victoria Tower, which stands at the opposite end of the Palace of Westminster from Big Ben.
It was designed following Westminster's catastrophic blaze of October 16, 1834, which was started by the disposal of old tally sticks like those discussed above. A large backlog of sticks no longer needed was taken to be burnt in the furnace below the Lords' chamber, but the heat from so big a fire set light to the chimney flues and that conflagration quickly spread through the building's wooden structure. Firemen and troops fought the blaze all night, but in the end only Westminster Hall could be saved.
Sir John Cam Hobhouse, then an MP, witnessed the fire. "The whole building in front of Old Palace Yard was in flames, and the fire was gaining ground," he later wrote. "I assisted in breaking open the entrance to Bennett's cloakroom and then, with several others, rushed upstairs to the Libraries above next to Bellamy's Eating Rooms. There I directed the men with me to bring down the books from the Libraries, and sent for cabriolets and coaches to carry them over the way to St Margaret's Church."
The House of Lords, House of Commons and all the surrounding buildings were reduced to ashes, along with most of the Commons' records to that date. MPs responded by ensuring the new Victoria Tower was built in cast iron and stone to provide a fireproof structure for Parliament to store its books and documents in future. It was completed in 1860, and features prominently in Claude Monet's 1904 paintings of Parliament.

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Tally-sticks: continued

* When Tony Benn (then Viscount Stansgate) campaigned to renounce his peerage in the early 1960s, he used the Archives to find a 1549 precedent supporting his argument.
      This concerned William West, nephew and heir of Lord De La Warr, who was not prepared to wait for his uncle to die a natural death before inheriting the title.
      West tried to poison De La Warr, who survived and secured a Private Act barring his nephew from ever becoming a Lord.
      Benn originally hoped to get a similar Private Bill passed for himself, but the matter was eventually resolved through wider legislation in the Peerage Act of 1963.

* Perhaps the strangest object stored in the Archives is a forged gravestone, dated 1734 and submitted to the House of Lords' in a 19th Century peerage claim.
      In 1835, Joseph Tracy launched a legal claim for the dormant title and estates of Baron Tracy of Rathcoole, Co, Dublin. The case dragged on for many years, with Joseph's son James taking it over on his father's death.
      In 1847, James produced the fragments of a long-lost tombstone which he claimed was that of William Tracy, his great-grandfather, and a crucial link in the family line he needed to prove.
      Two years later, James was shown to have forged this tombstone, which he'd had inscribed to order, broken into four pieces and held over the fire to age. His peerage claim was rejected, and the title remains dormant to this day.

The Parliamentary Archives' search room is open to the public, but you'll need an appointment and a photo ID to get in. Check their website here for more details.