The Palace of Westminster: the balance between the traditional and the practical

In this week’s blog Rebekah Moore, one of our AHRC collaborative PhD students, recalls an earlier debate about the cost and location of the UK’s Parliamentary buildings …

Last week, a report examining the necessary repairs and alterations to the Palace of Westminster suggested that if MPs and Lords remained in the Palace, the repairs would cost £5.7 billion over the course of thirty-two years. However, if the building was vacated, the cost would be reduced to £3.5 billion over six years. This has prompted debate over whether parliament should vacate its ancient home for a more practical building, better suited to the demands of modern parliamentary business.

The 'Black Hole of Calcutta' Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

The Black Hole of Calcutta Chamber of the House of Commons in 1834

These debates mirror those that took place between 1830 and 1834, when MPs discussed whether the Reformed parliament should move to a more suitable location. Following the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, St Stephen’s was home to 658 MPs, yet the floor of the House of Commons could only seat 300. The cramped conditions led one commentator to remark that the House of Commons was reminiscent of ‘the second edition of the Black hole of Calcutta’.

The inconvenience of the Commons chamber led to two Select Committee inquiries, in 1831 and 1833 to discuss potential improvements to the House of Commons. In 1833, twenty-two plans were submitted, with suggestions about where a new House could be constructed. Many of these proposals suggested alterations to the existing Commons chamber. However, the parliamentary estate was increasingly cramped, and there were no opportunities to expand the House of Commons without significant disruption and expense.

By the 1830s, Westminster was an increasingly inconvenient location for parliament. The proximity of the river to the ancient Palace posed a risk of flooding, and MPs were forced to endure the stench of the Thames. In addition, Westminster was home to some of the worst slums of London. In 1832, a cholera epidemic claimed around 22,000 lives across England and Wales, with Westminster being one of the areas worst affected.

Both Hyde Park and St James’ Park were suggested as alternative locations for the new Houses of Parliament. There were several advantages to these sites. There was sufficient space to construct a building that contained all the requirements for modern parliamentary business. Also, both sites were close to Buckingham Palace, which was nearing completion. This provided increased convenience when the monarch was required for the State Opening of Parliament at the start of each session. Despite attracting support from radical MPs, however, alternative sites for parliament were never seriously considered.

The debate was briefly reignited by the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in October 1834. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, William IV offered Buckingham Palace for the use of parliament, hoping to dispose of a residence he disliked. However, Lord Melbourne, the Whig Prime Minister, was ‘unwilling to be the Minister who should advise your Majesty, upon his responsibility, to remove the Houses of Parliament from their ancient and established place of assembly at Westminster’.

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

The attachment to the site of the Palace of Westminster remained throughout the 1830s. The Palace provided a link with the past, supporting a narrative of political progress. It evoked the memories of great parliamentarians, such as Charles James Fox and William Pitt the younger, whose political rivalry was associated with one of the great ages of parliamentary oratory. After the political upheaval of Catholic emancipation (1829), followed by the 1832 Reform Act, the Palace of Westminster also provided an important symbol of stability and continuity. As a result, despite the extensive damage caused by the fire of 1834, parliament continued to meet in temporary accommodation constructed within the ruins of the Old Palace until the occupation of the New Palace of Westminster in 1852.

In 1835, a Select Committee published a list of requirements for the New Palace. Whilst most detailed the architectural requirements, it also stipulated that the new building should be constructed on the traditional site, effectively ending discussions about the location of the Houses of Parliament. The victor of the architectural competition was Charles Barry with his gothic palatial design, which has now been used by parliamentarians for over 150 years. The current debates on how to deal with the growing strain placed on this nineteenth century building by the demands of a twenty-first century Parliament have clear echoes of the debates on parliamentary accommodation in the 1830s.

Further reading:

Andrea Fredericksen, ‘Parliament’s Genius Loci: The politics of place after the 1834 fire’, in Christine and Jacqueline Riding (eds.) The Houses of Parliament. History, Art Architecture (2000).

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