Parliaments, Politics and People seminar – The ‘Gothic slum’: MPs and St Stephen’s Cloisters, 1852-2017

In May 2018, Dr Elizabeth Biggs and Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith introduced the IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar to the early history of St Stephen’s cloister, Westminster, presenting recent findings from their research project (funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and conducted in association with the Houses of Parliament and the University of York). In June this year, we welcomed Elizabeth Hallam Smith back to continue the story. The oral history data below was gathered by Elizabeth Biggs…

In 2018 we uncovered the first hundred years of St Stephen’s cloister, a ‘battered but spectacular remnant of the medieval palace of Westminster’. This blog traces its equally checkered history since 1852.  The central location of this masterpiece of Tudor perpendicular architecture, close to the House of Commons, makes it prime political space, despite its patent shortcomings as parliamentary accommodation.

In 1852, the cloisters, having survived the fire of 1834 relatively intact, had just been painstakingly restored by Charles Barry.  Whilst retaining much of the surviving fabric, he had embellished them with new gothic revival stonework and tracery, Minton tiles and stained glass designed by A. W. N. Pugin.  But before the work was completed MPs decided to install a cloakroom beneath the Tudor vaults. Barry reacted strongly: ‘the lower cloister is turning out so beautiful that I cannot reconcile it to my mind to make it an old clothes shop,’ he wrote to Thomas Greene MP, one of the commissioners supervising the works at Westminster. But Barry, over-ruled, had now to install half-height panelling for cloakroom furnishings, with Pugin designing the requisite coat hooks, along with gas lights and umbrella stands, some of his final work for the Palace before his death.  Despite press criticism that a ‘depository for cloaks and umbrellas’ encumbered a formerly sacred space, the cloisters were also furnished with chairs and tables and soon became an important waiting and meeting area for MPs.

The cloisters as restyled by Scott, but still the Members’ cloakroom, 1952-1967

A century later, in 1952, the cloisters were still being used as the members’ cloakroom, but they had also seen many changes.  The eastern and southern ranges had been blown apart by a high explosive bomb in 1940, but in 1950-1 had been rebuilt to a very high standard by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, using traditional methods.  At the same time Scott had replaced Barry’s Victorian styling with a crisp mid-20th century aesthetic.  The cloisters were given plain glass windows, bronze vertical wall-lights, high-end wooden doors and panelling, and elegant new cloakroom fittings.  The surviving north and west walks, which had been restored by the Ministry of Works at great expense, were similarly fitted out.

Why then in 1982 did Jack Straw MP describe the lower oratory in the cloisters as ‘the Gothic slum’?  In the post-war era, pressure on space in the Palace became acute.  Thus, when in 1967 a new cloakroom for MPs was created in the Star Chamber court building, the cloisters were partitioned and set up as desk space for MPs.  For a quarter of a century, until 1992, backbench Conservative and Labour MPs, crammed into up to 38 desks and with shared filing cabinets, occupied three sides, with Government Whips’ staff on the fourth.

The cloisters as office space for Members and party staff, 1967-2017

The poor quality of the accommodation, with cramped spaces, fluctuating temperatures and inadequate lighting, was raised frequently at successive Accommodation Sub-Committees, and lodged unfavourably in Members’ minds for many years after they had escaped.  Accommodation was allocated by the Party Whips, and as a result most of the occupants were newly elected.  Reactions were immediate, the new arrivals expressing their shock to the Whips and to the press. The desk arrangements were often excoriated in the House: ‘that dark, damp, dingy desk in the dump known as the cloisters;’ ‘an occasionally water-logged slum;’ ‘the dreaded cloisters.’  So cramped was the oratory that the 4 MPs sharing it ‘cannot get to the bookcase because of the filing cabinet and we cannot get to the filing cabinet because there is a desk in the way.’

The space was wholly inadequate for the working needs of MPs, as summed up by Labour’s Clive Soley.  ‘Members lined up in the corridor, people passing to and fro along the corridor and groups of people having conversations there. I was supposed to run my office and my constituency and other work from that desk. It was utter nonsense.’The lack of privacy also infuriated Conservative Member Emma Nicholson, who complained: ‘In the cloisters, my hon. Friend and I have no privacy for our telephone calls. [And] my desk is still labelled “Enoch Powell”’.  

Yet despite the space’s shortcomings Emma Nicholson’s strong sense of its history also gave her pleasure in working there.  ‘It is an extraordinary feeling when one looks up at the vaulted ceiling in the middle of the night and remembers that, with the exception of Westminster hall, the cloisters are perhaps the oldest part of the House. This is an historic place, of truly great proportions both physically and because of its uniqueness.’

During the 1990s occupancy of the cloisters thinned out as other office accommodation came onstream for MPs. By 2001 the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Conservative Parliamentary Resources Unit had replaced the Members here, still sharing the space with the Government Whips’ staff.  The discomforts continued, but some of the new occupants were more appreciative of their eccentric and historic surroundings than most of the MPs who had preceded them here. Regrets were expressed when in 2017 the cloisters were cleared for repairs to begin: ‘The whole thing is a terrible office [but] a wonderful place to work!’


For other blogs from the Parliaments, People and Politics Seminar click here.

Next term’s seminar schedule will be available via the IHR website in the coming weeks.

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