Adapting the chambers of Parliament: from the galleries of the 18th-century Lords to the division lobbies of the 19th-century Commons

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Robin Eagles and Dr Kathryn Rix, of the History of Parliament. On 4 May 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., they will each be giving a 15 minute presentation, followed by a joint Q & A session, looking at adaptations to parliamentary architecture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting Please note that this is a late replacement for the previously advertised speaker and therefore on this occasion there will not be a pre-circulated paper.

The galleries of the House of Lords in the eighteenth century

One of the most admired features of the old House of Commons were the galleries erected by Sir Christopher Wren in the late seventeenth century. Visitors appreciated their elegance and they provided much-needed additional space in the otherwise cramped conditions of the former St Stephen’s chapel. There have recently been new insights into these structures and the people who were able to gain access to them by Paul Seaward and by the ground-breaking research of the St Stephen’s Chapel project.

Tillemans, Peter; The House of Commons in Session; Parliamentary Art Collection;

Much less attention has been paid to the ill-fated galleries of the old House of Lords. Like the Commons, members of the Lords complained frequently of the conditions in which they were required to deliberate and of the occasional ‘inconveniences’ caused by members of the public and other interlopers attempting to gain access to their chamber. To solve this, under Queen Anne, George II and again under George III orders were given for the construction of galleries over the lobby to increase the capacity of the chamber and offer privileged outsiders the opportunity of observing proceedings at a respectful remove. Twice the galleries were installed only to be torn down a few years later; a third attempt failed before work could commence.

Why did the Lords’ galleries prove so ephemeral? Like the Commons’ galleries, the design for the new structure in the Lords was initially devised by Wren, but for some reason it failed to please. For some members of the upper House, their objections appear to have been based firmly on practical considerations. For them, the new galleries were an infelicitous addition, which took away their light and restricted the remaining space in the chamber. Besides, although on occasion the Lords was well-attended, as the century progressed it was much more normal for the chamber to be half empty, so the need for additional space may have seemed much less pressing. But for others, the question of privilege was the crucial one. Ever since the Lords had been restored in 1660 the question of their privilege had been to the fore in their deliberations. On numerous occasions there were complaints about non-members taking up space that should have been reserved for the lords and bishops, worries about the decorousness of their proceedings and concerns about ensuring that the Lords were accorded proper respect and distinction when meeting with members of the lower house.

(c) Trustees of the British Museum

The construction of galleries revived this issue of the privileged space of the Lords and to what extent it was thought reasonable, or desirable, for non-members to observe the Lords’ proceedings. When the Commons finally gave way over press reporting of their debates following the Printers’ Case in the 1770s, it was noticeable that the Lords attempted to hold out for several more years before finally bowing to the changing circumstances.

Was the Lords’ objection to what should have been thought of as an improvement to their environment more to do with a consistent reluctance to adapt and an insistence on their continued exclusivity, rather than concerns about the practicalities of constructing ungainly structures within a confined space? Further examination of the Lords’ galleries will help to provide a more complete understanding of the Lords in the period and how they viewed their role within Parliament.


The division lobbies in the nineteenth century House of Commons

In 1847 The Times suggested that ‘in the eyes of the people generally, and of their constituents in particular’, having accurate information about how their representatives voted in the division lobbies at Westminster was ‘of far greater importance than a thousand speeches and the most elaborate displays of eloquence’. For many MPs, not least the numerous silent members of the nineteenth-century House of Commons, their most significant contribution to parliamentary business came not in the visible arena of the debating chamber, but in the more confined spaces of the division lobbies. Yet while the physical act of voting with the ‘Ayes’ or the ‘Noes’ took place away from the public gaze, the publication of official division lists from 1836 meant that MPs’ actions within this particular parliamentary space could readily be subjected to scrutiny.

The Aye lobby of the new House of Commons

The compilation of more accurate division lists for official publication, in contrast with the unofficial lists previously produced, was facilitated by a significant alteration to the architecture of the House of Commons. In 1836 a second division lobby was added to the temporary chamber in use following the major fire of October 1834, which had destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster. Before this date, the presumed minority on any question had gone out of the Commons chamber into a single lobby to vote, while the presumed majority had remained in their seats. The fact that two separate division lobbies first came into existence thanks to this adaptation of Parliament’s temporary accommodation has received little attention in histories of Parliament.

The 1834 fire viewed from the south bank of the Thames, T. Baynes

There were several factors which prompted the development of this new parliamentary space. The 1832 Reform Act had a significant impact on perceptions of MPs’ representative functions, increasing the desire for constituents to be able to scrutinise MPs’ participation in the activities of the legislature. The need to create a temporary chamber for the Commons following the fire of October 1834 offered important opportunities for architectural innovation and experimentation in catering for the needs of 658 MPs in the post-Reform era. Alongside the second division lobby, other new features tried out in the temporary Commons included a separate press gallery and a ladies’ gallery. The two lobby system trialled in the temporary House was subsequently incorporated into the new Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry. The division lobbies were among the facilities given a test run in May 1850, ahead of the new Palace’s official opening in 1852. While voting was the key activity which took place within these lobbies, pressure on space on the parliamentary site meant that they also had other functions.

The division lobby, Illustrated London News, Dec. 1857

These adaptations to the physical space of Parliament had an impact on MPs’ behaviour, both within the confines of the Commons, and in their relationship with their constituents. By enabling the publication of authoritative division lists, the two lobby system focused greater attention on MPs’ levels of attendance (as highlighted in ‘league tables’ published in the press) and their voting record on particular subjects. This had important implications for the development of the two-party system and in shaping the interactions between politics at Westminster and in the localities, key factors in understanding the evolution of the modern British political system.


Robin and Kathryn will be taking questions about their research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 4 May 2021. To register for this virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question, please send it to

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