Restored, Renewed, Relocated: Parliament and its buildings

Before Christmas Rebekah Moore, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, organised a seminar in Westminster to discuss Parliament’s accomodation. Here she reports back…

In December, Mark Egan (the HPT’s former Secretary) and I organised a seminar at Westminster Hall. The aims of the seminar were to think about how parliament was housed in temporary accommodation and rebuilt. How did this take place and how did this change according to the historical context? The seminar was aimed at those who were working on the restoration and renewal project for the Palace of Westminster and was conceived as a means of explaining how parliament adapted to unfamiliar surroundings and the ideas influencing changes to parliamentary spaces.

Dr Vivienne Larminie, myself and Professor Gavin Stamp explained how parliament’s accommodation had changed in the seventeenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, providing historical context and precedents for the current discussions about restorations to the Palace of Westminster

First to speak was Vivienne Larminie, who spoke about parliament’s temporary relocation to Oxford. On two occasions (1625, 1665) parliament aimed to avoid the plague spreading through London. In 1644, Charles I gathered his supporters and hoped to persuade MPs and Peers to end the Civil War. The final occasion was in 1681 during the ‘Exclusion Crisis’ parliament hoped the escape from the lobbying factions and newspaper press.

Bodleian Courtyard © Vivienne Larminie
Bodleian Courtyard © Vivienne Larminie

Oxford was chosen due to its relatively central location. Oxford also contained numerous meeting spaces suitable for the use of parliament. Convocation House under Duke Humfrey’s library, was occupied in 1625 and 1644–5 by the House of Lords and in 1665 and 1681 by the House of Commons. The Divinity School, at right angles to this and with a directly connecting-door, was occupied by the Commons in 1625 and 1644–5. In 1665 and 1681 the Lords used the Geometry School on the first floor of the Bodleian Library quadrangle.

Despite this, there were numerous challenges to meeting in Oxford throughout the century. Members were reluctant to leave London as their presence in parliament would be more visible to both the King and the public. Also there was increased difficulties managing proceedings in an unfamiliar environment, for example finding suitable committee rooms and accommodation for the Peers, MPs and the King.

Next was myself, discussing the temporary Houses of Parliament following the fire of 1834. This paper focused on the temporary House of Commons, and the way that the Commons adapted to the reduced accommodation of the temporary chamber.

R. W. Billings, ‘The Temporary House of Commons as fitted up in 1835’, (c) Palace of Westminster, WOA 15.
R. W. Billings, ‘The Temporary House of Commons as fitted up in 1835’, © Palace of Westminster, WOA 15.

Firstly, the paper discussed how the temporary accommodation was constructed from the damaged Palace of Westminster. The Commons were housed in the Court of Requests, the former House of Lords, and the Lords made do with the Painted Chamber. The temporary House of Commons was longer than St Stephen’s Chapel, and capable of seating around 70 additional members on the floor and in the galleries than St Stephen’s Chapel.

The temporary accommodation also provided an opportunity for innovation and experimentation within the House of Commons. A designated reporters’ gallery was added and a second division lobby was completed in 1836. However, despite greater space within the chamber, there was increasing pressure on committee rooms and Commons offices whilst the New Palace of Westminster was completed. Temporary committee rooms were constructed in 1845 to ease the pressure on committee rooms, but there was still insufficient rooms. This increased the pressure on parliamentary business, already increased due to the railway boom of 1845-47.

Finally, Gavin Stamp spoke about the rebuilding of the House of Commons following the bomb damage sustained during the Blitz. Following the Luftwaffe attack on the Palace of Westminster, which took place on the night of 10 to 11 May 1941, the House of Commons suffered serious damage. Giles Gilbert Scott was commissioned with rebuilding the House of Commons, having demonstrated his skill with Gothic architecture in a number of churches and other public buildings.

Unknown, ‘Key for the Line Engraving of the House of Commons Chamber 1941' © Palace of Westminster
Unknown, ‘Key for the Line Engraving of the House of Commons Chamber 1941′ © Palace of Westminster

Whilst the building work was taking place, the Commons were housed in the Lords chamber, and the Lords used St Stephen’s Hall. The Select Committee of 1943 agreed that the House of Commons should retain its original style and features. Gilbert Scott’s design was not an exact replica, and was designed to make improvements to the previous Commons chamber. At gallery level, the chamber was slightly widened, and considerably lengthened, from eighty-four feet to one hundred and three feet, allowing for increased accommodation for the press and strangers. The gothic tracery within the chamber was simplified to provide a more modern effect. The arch in the central lobby, later known as Churchill’s Arch, was left in its damaged state as a reminder of the damage sustained to the Palace of Westminster. The new House of Commons was opened on 26 October 1950.

Giles Gilbert Scott’s rebuilding of the House of Commons was the last time that a significant restoration of parliament was attempted. As parliament currently requires significant repairs and improvement, there is continuous debate in both parliament and the press as to how this should be achieved.


Further reading:

Christine Riding and Jacqueline Riding (eds) The Houses of Parliament: History, Art Architecture (London: Merrell, 2000)

You can read more on Rebekah’s research in her blog report on her ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper last year.

The programme for our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research has been announced for this term: see here for full details and watch this space for updates on the papers.

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