Symbolising political change: space and the temporary House of Commons

Rebekah Moore is currently completing a PhD (Institute of Historical Research/History of Parliament) on the temporary Houses of Parliament and the new Palace of Westminster, 1830-1860. In this guest blog, she draws some parallels between the current proposals for Restoration and Renewal at Westminster and events in the nineteenth century.

On 31 January 2018, the House of Commons approved plans for the restoration and renewal of Parliament, following a 2012 study that warned of ‘major, irreversible damage’ if a programme of major conservation work was not undertaken to repair the decay to the Palace of Westminster. The plans were agreed by the Lords a week later, on 6 February 2018. The ‘full decant’ option agreed by both chambers means that both Houses, along with many of the offices and facilities within the Palace of Westminster, will be housed in temporary accommodation while the repairs take place.

The last time that Parliament was housed in temporary accommodation to the extent of the ‘full decant’ was when the Lords and Commons were housed in temporary chambers after the conflagration of 1834, which destroyed the medieval Palace of Westminster. (Temporary accommodation was used after the Blitz, although this made use of the existing spaces of the New Palace of Westminster, and where possible, parliamentary activities remained on the parliamentary site.) The comparisons between the present and the nineteenth century are striking, and have been covered extensively in the national press. Caroline Shenton notes that ‘politicians want something glorious but delude themselves about the cost, the timescale and the vulnerability of the building; they worry about what the public will accept.’ The delays to improvements to the parliamentary accommodation, and the spatial restrictions upon any proposed plans, alongside fears about the financial obligations have hampered efforts to launch a programme of repairs. In the nineteenth century, this inertia was only ended by the fire which destroyed much of the Houses of Parliament on 16 October 1834.

As in the present, the planned changes to the Palace of Westminster in the 1830s were framed against a backdrop of political uncertainty. The decade before the conflagration of 1834 had been politically tumultuous and there were fears that the country would become revolutionary. The 1832 Reform Act was one of the most important changes in this period, extending and standardising the franchise and redrawing the electoral map of the United Kingdom. It was a measure that was considered to be a permanent means of representing the people in Parliament, and effectively strengthened the constitutional position of the Commons and the people in comparison to the Lords and the monarchy. Some MPs advocated for corresponding changes in parliamentary accommodation, and proposed improvements to the accommodation for the House of Commons.

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

This constitutional shift was communicated through the spatial arrangements in the temporary Houses of Parliament used after the 1834 fire. Between 1835 and 1852, the House of Commons was housed in the Court of Requests, which had previously been the Lords chamber, while the Lords had to decamp to the sub-standard Painted Chamber. A comparison of the two spaces emphasised the increased importance of the Commons as the chamber which purported to represent the interests of the people. The temporary chamber was considerably larger than the previous Commons chamber that was located in St Stephen’s Chapel. Lord Brougham stated that the chamber was the ‘best [the Commons] had ever had’ and Charles Burrell agreed with Brougham’s assessment, declaring in 1840 that the temporary chamber was a ‘paradise compared to the old House of Commons’.

There were some small differences between St Stephen’s Chapel and the temporary House of Commons. A reporters’ gallery appeared in the Commons chamber in time for the opening of the 1835 session and a second division lobby was completed just a year later. These were minor alterations architecturally, but were an indication that Parliament was willing to open its proceedings, through the vehicles of the press and official publications, to the scrutiny of the people. Through the symbolic use of space, it was clear that Parliament now recognised ‘the right of the people to know… all that passes within those walls’, as one contemporary observer, Charles Greville, put it.

As a result of these alterations, the closed door of Parliament had been wedged open only a fraction, yet there was a sense that high politics was profoundly different. The Reform Act of 1832 was in many ways a conservative measure, but the methods by which it was implemented, and the small changes which were required at constituency level to enforce the acts led to meaningful differences in electoral politics. The same trend can be seen in the temporary House of Commons, where spatial experiments led to further amendments to the behaviour of politicians, and their relationship with the people they represented.

The temporary accommodation of the nineteenth century had a lasting impact upon parliamentary spaces, and upon the way that Parliament represented the people. When the New Palace of Westminster was officially opened in the 1850s, these principles were made permanent in the stone and wood of the new edifice, making them far more difficult to reverse.

Although in 2018, both chambers have approved  the ‘full decant’ option there are currently no further details of what that will involve, or where the new temporary Houses of Parliament will be located. The timeline of the restoration and renewal of Parliament is also unclear, and there are no plans to begin works in the current Parliament. However, if the twenty-first century continues to emulate the events of the nineteenth, the spaces of the temporary Houses of Parliament will be politically contested, and will continue to shape parliamentary politics in the United Kingdom in a permanent way.


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