Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Rebekah Moore, ‘Contested spaces: temporary houses of Parliament and government, 1834-52’

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Rebekah Moore, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on the temporary Houses of Parliament after the fire of 1834. Here Rebekah gives an overview of her paper…

From 1557, the House of Commons was situated in St Stephen’s Chapel, one of the medieval buildings of the Palace of Westminster. Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs. Yet St Stephen’s was increasingly unsuitable for use by the Commons, only seating around 300 MPs on the floor of the House. The cramped conditions, and the increasingly poor ventilation led James Grant to declare that St Stephen’s was akin to the ‘second edition of the Black Hole of Calcutta’ [James Grant, Random Recollections of the House of Commons… (London, 1837), p1].

The fire of 1834 devastated the medieval Palace complex, and led to the destruction of the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Painted Chamber, as well as the numerous committee rooms and offices. A new parliamentary space was necessary. Following an architectural competition, Charles Barry (1795-1860) was commissioned to construct the New Houses of Parliament. The narrative of rebuilding the Palace of Westminster is well known. The New Palace was beset by numerous delays, and vastly exceeded its budget. In total, the New Palace took twenty five years to complete, at a cost of almost two million pounds.

Historians know little about the spaces where parliament conducted its business whilst the New Palace was under construction. From the charred remains of the Palace of Westminster, the Court of Requests (the former House of Lords) was fitted up temporarily for the reception of the Commons, and the Painted Chamber was similarly fitted up for the Lords. The Court of Requests was larger and more convenient than St Stephen’s Chapel, being large enough for the reception of 450 MPs on the floor and in the galleries. In contrast, the Painted Chamber was much smaller than the old House of Lords, leading Lord Brougham to comment that the temporary chamber was ‘the worst they had ever had’ [Hansard, 17 May 1844].

The Commons were housed in their temporary chamber for a total of eighteen years; the Lords for thirteen years. Throughout, there was a dominant discourse focused on business and efficiency. Between 1835 and 1840, there were numerous experiments to the House of Commons. For the first time there was a designated reporters’ gallery and in 1836 a second division lobby was added. Alongside experiments with ventilation and lighting, these were considerable changes to the House of Commons. Each change and addition was discussed in terms of efficiency and the potential effects the changes would have upon parliamentary business.

After 1844, the pressures of business became more acute. In 1844, Charles Barry removed a large portion of the temporary accommodation, including the refreshment rooms, writing rooms, the vote office and numerous committee rooms. This was accompanied by an increase in legislation, partially as a result of the railway boom. Although ten temporary committee rooms were hastily erected in New Palace Yard, they were not sufficient to meet the demand. There was increasing pressure on parliamentary space and committee rooms were used in properties outside the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster. Committee rooms were also fitted up temporarily in the New Palace from 1846.

In 1847, the Lords moved into their new chamber, followed by the Commons in 1852. By 1852, almost all traces of the temporary Houses of Parliament had been removed. The New Palace of Westminster was eventually completed around 1860. Yet between 1834 and 1860, when parliament was at its busiest and in an age considered to be its most golden, it was meeting in shabby and constantly changing temporary buildings. The ways parliament adapted to this, and the effects of the changing space on parliamentary behaviour, form the basis of my doctoral research.


Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when the British Library’s Alexander Lock will speak on ‘Magna Carta: law, liberty and myth′. Hope you can join us!

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