Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – The Victorian Palace of Science: scientific knowledge and the building of Britain’s Houses of Parliament

Today’s blog ahead of our Parliaments, Politics and People seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this evening, is from Dr Edward J. Gillin. Edward is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, working in the history of the science of sound in the nineteenth century. He gave his paper at our previous PPP seminar on the Houses of Parliament and their significance in the emerging scientific world of Victorian Britain…

The Palace of Westminster, home to Britain’s Houses of Parliament, can in many ways claim to be the world’s first industrial legislature.  Constructed following the terrible fire which destroyed the original medieval palace in 1834, the new parliament was a place from which to govern an increasingly urbanized society and a rapidly mechanizing economy, built on iron and coal.  Though it may appear Gothic (indeed it is something of a feudal fantasy) the building was intended to be something quite recognizably modern to Victorian audiences.


To get a sense of this, one need only think of the Elizabeth Tower, popularly, if incorrectly, known as ‘Big Ben’.  In Victorian Britain, questions of measurement were taking on increasing significance.  James Joule’s production of a mechanical equivalent for heat in the 1840s took place in the context of growing concerns over the nation’s coal reserves and the importance of efficient steam engines for its industrial economy.  Likewise, the calculation of accurate electrical standards was crucial to realizing submarine telegraphy communication.  And of course following the loss of Britain’s national set of weights and measures in the fire that destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, much labour went into the construction of a new Imperial system of measures, passing in to law in 1855.  It is significant then, that in the 1850s the newly built Houses of Parliament came to physically embody two crucial forms of measurement.  In St Stephen’s Tower a clock, asserted to be of unparalleled accuracy, projected time as recorded at Greenwich.  Less prominently, within the walls of Parliament, a set of Imperial standards for weight, distance, and volume were deposited.  Parliament was thus within a few short years constructed as the political centre of British measurement, both of time and space.  Yet these measurements were immensely controversial and secured contrasting degrees of national acceptance: while the clock became a national icon, by 1863, while radical Free Traders campaigned for the metric system, few MPs could even remember exactly where Parliament’s Imperial standards had been bricked up.

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It was not just measurement, but science more broadly that was embodied within the architecture of the new parliament.  Chemists were appointed to regulate the building’s air; mechanics and engineers employed steam-powered cranes and industrially-produced iron for the structure; mathematicians oversaw its internal time-keeping; optical specialists regulated new gas lighting; and geologists selected stone for the Palace’s exterior.  Much of this work can only be fully understood by considering the political context of the new parliament.

Between the 1820s and late-1840s Britain witnessed rapid political change.  Among other reforms, Catholic emancipation came in 1829, followed by the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, and the 1832 Great Reform Act extending the franchise to increase the electorate from 500,000 to 813,000.  Within this crucible of social reform was an awareness among Britain’s political elites that government, and specifically Parliament, had to appear legitimate with a population with which it seemed increasingly disconnected, and for many, this was best achieved with science.

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In the 1830s there was an increasing desire to make politics scientific.  Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill believed that scientific methods could be employed for social problems.  Whigs were equally eager that politicians cultivate knowledge and approach their work in an objective and empirical manner.  This had architectural ramifications which were realized at Westminster.  The construction of Parliament was guided by a commitment to a broad conception of ‘being scientific’.  Throughout the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, efforts were made to ensure that the Palace of Westminster utilized, embodied, and reflected the latest learnings in British natural philosophy.

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‘Parliament and the Laboratory’, (artwork by Sarah McAuliffe, 2017)

Historical comparisons are always risky and to be avoided, but it is hard not to feel that now is an appropriate time to revisit the mid-nineteenth century with a focus on the new parliament building.  Built in an age of great social and political uncertainty, where existing institutions struggled to survive in the face of radical and popular pressures, this was a time when both the physical form of Parliament and the British state were recast.  And at the centre of all this turmoil was the problem of knowledge.  With religious teachings and aristocratic powers challenged, new bodies of scientific knowledge, such as geology and chemistry, provided alternate cultural authorities.  If 2016 was the year in which substantial elements of society ‘had enough of experts’ and the Oxford Dictionaries opted for ‘post-truth’ as their Word of the Year, then the 1830s was a time when purveyors of science worked hard to fashion their knowledge as ‘truth’ and build cultural authority for themselves.  In The Victorian Palace of Science, it becomes clear just what a central role Britain’s new parliament building played in forging this new relationship between science and state.


Click here for the full Parliaments, Politics and People seminar series schedule at the Institute of Historical research.

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