J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2020

How “the House was consumed” in 1747

On the morning of 9 Dec 1747, as I described yesterday, Bostonians discovered that their Town House was on fire.

In that month the brick building in the center of town was hosting a session of the Massachusetts General Court.

According to a legislative inquiry the following week, the fire
proceeded from the Wood-Work under the Hearth taking Fire; and that the Fire first broke out in the Entry-War between the Council Chamber and the Representatives Room; and from thence went up the Stair-Case, and thro’ the Roof, and continued until the House was consumed.
The exterior brick walls of the Town House had survived, but the roof was gone and the interior was gutted.

The Massachusetts house’s official records show that the first thing that body did when they heard about the fire was, of course, to form a committee. Members were designated to work with the Council to “inquire after and secure any Books, Records and Papers, that may have been preserved.”

The legislators crowded into “the great Room in the House lately occupied by Mr. Luke Vardy,” meaning the Royal Exchange Tavern on King Street. Then Boston’s selectmen came by and invited the representatives to use Faneuil Hall. Another committee went to see that space.

The legislature spent the next two days considering and voting on various matters unrelated to the fire. It wasn’t until 11 December that the house took its first votes on what to do about its own meeting-place.

The house decided not to appoint a committee to “procure Timber or Boards in order to build a Court-House,” as the legislature called the building. (After all, the town was no longer using it, it hosted judicial sessions, and the legislature was officially the General Court.)

Instead of rebuilding quickly, the house asked the Boston selectmen “to secure the Walls of the late Court-House from the Weather, by causing them to be covered with Boards in the best and cheapest Manner.”

Winter was coming, there was a war on, and the General Court couldn’t agree on what to do next. On the 12th, Gov. William Shirley prorogued the legislature until February 1748 (N.S.).

TOMORROW: Should they stay or should they go?

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