Keeping up appearances: make do and mend in the old Palace of Westminster

Ahead of the first Parliaments, Politics and People seminar of the New Year at the IHR this evening, Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords 1715-1790 Section gives us a taster of his seminar paper from our last meeting before Christmas – interior design and the eighteenth century Palace of Westminster…

In October 1834 the old palace of Westminster suffered a devastating fire that gutted the House of Lords and severely damaged the Commons. The principal ‘ancient’ parts of the palace to survive the blaze were Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower and the old mediaeval cloister. For many, the fire was a convenient opportunity finally to put in hand the long-wished-for rebuilding of the crumbling mediaeval relic. Throughout the 18th century rather than agree to costly projects to redesign Parliament, officials had opted to patch, mend and alter as necessary. By the end of the century this had left the complex still more labyrinthine and, thanks to some fairly flimsy theatrical additions by James Wyatt, highly vulnerable to fire.

The refusal to grasp the nettle and design a new ‘fitting’ structure was in some ways at odds with the spirit of the age. During the 18th century significant areas of London were developed, notably by some of the great aristocratic families who increasingly opted to reside in substantial town-houses when in London in preference to making do with temporary lodgings. By contrast, some commentators were pointedly dismissive of the unimpressive, ramshackle palace of Westminster, which they felt did not adequately reflect the image of an increasingly confident imperial Britain. Samuel Molyneux found both Lords and Commons underwhelming, observing that their chambers were ‘handsome enough but have nothing remarkable’. Only the galleries in the Commons, erected by Sir Christopher Wren attracted much in the way of praise. However, in spite of occasional reports in the press that a new palace was to be erected no such plan came to fruition.

Cost and the complexities of negotiating with any number of vested interests in order to acquire the necessary permissions to demolish the old structure and create a new one, were no doubt the main reasons why Parliament was not rebuilt in the 18th century. But it is possible, too, that the regular round of refurbishment and provision of new fabrics and furnishings also helped to disguise the extent of the palace’s problems. Details of the materials ordered in at the beginning of each session offer an insight into the practicalities of maintaining Parliament within a crumbling mediaeval edifice.

In advance of most sessions, and sometimes in the midst of them, orders were despatched to the royal office of the removing wardrobe for a variety of ‘necessaries’ for the chambers and associated offices located within the palace. These ranged from large quantities of fabric for re-upholstering the benches, curtain material and wall hangings, to more mundane (but no less important) items like candlesticks, fire-tongs and bellows. In 1661 two chairs were commissioned for the House of Lords, one of them for use by the duke of York (the future James II), which were to be covered with crimson velvet, picked out with gold parchment lace, and secured with gold gilt nails. More prosaically, their lordships were also to be given six close stools (with twelve pans) and six chamber pots.

There was clear colour-coding apparent within the palace, which continues to be a feature to this day, but there were far more varieties on display than just greens and reds. The lord great chamberlain was granted 30 yards of ‘striped stuff’ for curtains in his apartments while the stool room (otherwise known as the bog house) was equipped with a yellow ground carpet. Chairs were upholstered in elaborate ‘Turkey-work’. The kinds of fabric employed were often lush and expensive: gold ‘galloone’ lace for royal furniture in the Lords and velvet for the Lords. More hard-wearing fabrics like baize, canvas, say and serge were employed for covering benches and providing hangings. These all demonstrate clearly that this was a colourful world, somewhat removed from the sombre monochrome hues suggested by film representations of Parliament such as that depicted in The Favourite.

If a grand scheme for rebuilding the palace was never realized, and problems masked with constant refreshment of soft furnishings, frequent alterations made Westminster an increasingly eccentric complex as the years passed. Galleries were erected in the Commons in the 1690s, but similar attempts to increase the seating capacity of the old House of Lords were less successful and lasted for just a few years before being torn down. Temporary offices were erected and removed and the interior layout of the palace adapted when necessary. In 1703 the staircase leading to the Prince’s Chamber was refashioned so that the chronically unwell (and by that point barely mobile) Queen Anne could more easily be manoeuvred up it in her sedan chair. Five years later, a wall had to be broken down by the stone stairs in Old Palace Yard so that the cortege of the queen’s consort, Prince George of Denmark, could be squeezed out on its way to Westminster Abbey for his funeral.

Towards the end of the 18th century more substantial alterations were made to the exterior of the palace, largely overseen by James Wyatt, who erected the much-mocked castellated additions to the House of Lords. These were then followed up over the next few years by more durable additions by John Soane. One of Soane’s most significant changes was the destruction of the by then thoroughly decrepit old House of Lords (the Lords having earlier decamped to the former Court of Requests). A few years later the great fire offered the modernizers an unrivalled opportunity to do more than patch, mend and adapt, and at last to replace the amorphous mediaeval palace with a purpose-built home for Parliament.


Further Reading:

The National Archives, LC5 (Lord Chamberlain’s papers)

History of the King’s Works, ed. Howard Colvin (6 vols.)

Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down

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