On the evening of the 10/11 May 1941 the House of Commons Chamber was destroyed during the Blitz. In today’s blog, 80 years on, our Public Engagement Assistant Connie Jeffery explores the event and how Parliament rebuilt and recovered from the destruction…
Like much of the United Kingdom’s home front, Westminster was no stranger to the effects of the Second World War. Parliament’s recognisable home on the banks of the River Thames was a frequent target of aerial attacks during the Blitz, but it was the bombing on the night of 10 May 1941 that left a lasting impact. The House of Commons Chamber, built by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin nearly 100 years prior, was almost entirely destroyed.
Between 1940 and 1941 Britain was subject to sustained aerial bombing as the Luftwaffe targeted hubs of industry, civilisation, and in the case of Westminster, British identity. The Palace of Westminster was damaged on fourteen occasions throughout the Blitz; in September 1940 a bomb in Old Palace Yard damaged St Stephen’s Porch and the statue of Richard the Lionheart, and on 8 December a bomb destroyed much of St Stephen’s cloisters. But, despite the known threat, the Commons and Lords chambers remained in regular use until the night of Saturday 10 May.
This night was one of the most destructive the capital witnessed during the Second World War: fires from the bombing caused 700 acres of destruction – double that of the Great Fire of London. The attack on the Houses of Parliament was described in an article from The Times on 13 May,
First a large number of incendiary bombs fell on all parts of the building. They were dealt with quickly and efficiently by the fire staff, who put them all out, except one on the apex of the roof of Westminster Hall. The first high-explosive bombs came down about a quarter of an hour afterwards, killing two policemen who were acting as spotters.‘London’s Latest Ordeal: The Wreckage at Westminster, Commons Chamber Destroyed’ The Times, 13 May 1941
The article also describes the brave actions of Police-Sergeant Forbes, who climbed the scaffolding of the Victoria Tower with a sandbag to prevent further damage. But it was the role of MP Walter Elliot that proved most significant on this fateful night. Why Elliot was in the vicinity of Westminster during the air raid is unclear, nonetheless his decision making in the face of this crisis impacted on the future of Westminster’s architecture.
Walter Elliot entered Parliament in 1918 as MP for Lanark and remained a constant face in the Commons until his death in 1958. A medic and scientist, Elliot held various ministerial positions during his career including Minister for Health, 1938-1940, during which he was instrumental in establishing the pre-war evacuation scheme that began in September 1939. Left out of Churchill’s wartime coalition government, in January 1941 he agreed to become director of public relations at the War Office on Whitehall. It is most likely that Elliot was simply near the Palace as the bombs fell, and as fire consumed the building he rushed to help. Crucially, it was Elliot who ordered the fire service to stop their attempts to save the Commons Chamber and instead place all attention onto putting out the fire in Westminster Hall. The medieval hall, dating back to 1099, had remarkably survived the fire that destroyed much of the old palace in 1834 and thanks to Elliot’s order, today, remains standing as the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster.
As the smoke cleared on May 12 the true extent of the bomb damage became clear: the Victorian House of Commons Chamber and neighbouring Member’s Lobby were entirely lost.
Not since the fire of 1834, which destroyed the old Palace, has there been such a scene of ruin on this historic site. Only a shell of this part of the building remains; and the broken walls stand sentinel over an interior mass of debris.‘London’s Latest Ordeal’, The Times, 13 May 1941
From 13 May both Houses moved to nearby Church House in a move kept secret from both the press and public. However, just one month later they returned to their historic home. Although a bomb had hit the House of Lords on the same evening, it went through the floorboards and failed to detonate (the same occurred in the Victorian House of Commons Library, which was also unharmed). From June 1941 the House of Lords Chamber was occupied by the Commons, whilst peers moved to the neighbouring smaller Robing Room – where they stayed until the new Commons Chamber was completed in 1950.
Rebuilding became a top priority. A symbol of national identity and resilience, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was determined to construct a new chamber as quickly as possible. In October 1943 he presented a motion in the Commons to establish a Select Committee tasked with the rebuilding project. Churchill wanted the new chamber to maintain much of its previous characteristics, including the traditional ‘oblong’ shape and infamous too-small size:
It should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without over-crowding and … there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him… If the House is big enough to contain all its Members, nine-tenths of its Debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty Chamber.Hansard HC deb. vol.393 cc.403-46, 28 October 1943
On 9 December 1943 15 members, including Eleanor Rathbone and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, were nominated to the Select Committee on House of Commons (rebuilding) and on 25 October 1944 their report was published. It, too, recommended retaining the chamber’s small and intimate shape – something solidified by their experience of the slightly larger Lords Chamber – as well as recommendations for increasing the size of the galleries. Unlike when rebuilding the Palace after the fire of 1834, the committee decided against holding a competition to select an architect. Instead, ‘after taking the most authoritative advice’ the committee appointed Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who was, they felt, ‘best qualified’. [‘Report from the select committee on House of Commons (rebuilding) together with photographs, plans and sections, and the proceedings of the committee’, House of Commons Papers, 25 October 1944, p.5]
The resulting chamber was built on the footprint of its predecessor and echoed the gothic tone of the existing Victorian building. However, built in a time of austerity, Gilbert Scott made use of stonework and less ‘cumbersome’ detailing than Barry and Pugin’s previous rendering. Only one part of the old House of Commons was preserved: the entrance to the chamber from Member’s Lobby. When inspecting the rubble on 12 May, Churchill himself suggested rebuilding the arch using the original bomb-damaged stone. This feature, now known as Churchill arch and flanked by his statue, acts as a reminder of the impact of war and a symbol of continuity.
The new House of Commons Chamber was opened in the presence of King George VI on 26 October 1950, fitted with furniture gifted by many Commonwealth countries. But despite their new surroundings, MPs returned to Westminster for business as usual. Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared, ‘I think the British have the distinction above all other nations of being able to put new wine into old bottles without bursting them’. [Hansard HC deb. vol.478, cc.2705, 24 October 1950].
‘Bombing of the House of Parliament: 75th Anniversary‘, House of Lords: In Focus, 8 May 2016
Millar, Gordon F., ‘Walter Elliot’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 06 January 2011 [Online]