‘Like herrings in a barrel’: the chamber of the House of Commons prior to 1834

In this new series of blogs on the Palace of Westminster, we look at the three different debating chambers occupied by the MPs who sat in Parliament between 1832 and 1868, beginning with the Commons chamber in use until the fire of 16 October 1834.

‘I shall not soon forget the disappointment which I experienced on the first sight of the interior of the House of Commons’. This was how the parliamentary reporter James Grant opened his ‘random recollections’ of life at Westminster between 1830 and 1835. Despite being warned that the chamber ‘ill accorded with the dignity’ which might be expected for ‘the first assembly of gentlemen in the world’, Grant was still surprised to find a space which he described as

dark, gloomy and badly ventilated, and so small that not more than four hundred out of the six hundred and fifty-eight members could be accommodated in it with any measure of comfort.

The House of Commons, 1833 (by Sir George Hayter, 1833-43; NPG)

During major debates, the members ‘were literally crammed together’, with matters made worse by ‘the heat of the House’. Grant’s assessment was echoed by the Radical MP Joseph Hume, who complained in 1833 that in some parts of the chamber, MPs were ‘wedged in, almost like herrings in a barrel’. Hume suggested that only 294 MPs could be seated comfortably, less than half the total membership, or 348 MPs ‘inconveniently crowded together’. In addition to the benches on the floor of the chamber, MPs could sit in the galleries on the left and right of the chamber, although it was generally accepted that those who did so would not be able to contribute to the debate. Alongside the lack of space, the chamber’s variable acoustics and its adverse effects on MPs’ health were further causes of complaint. The issue became more acute as greater numbers of MPs wished to participate in the business of the House during the highly contentious debates of the late 1820s and the early 1830s, and – in the aftermath of Reform in particular – to be seen by their constituents as effective representatives.

Cross section of St Stephen’s chapel as in 1834 (E. W. Bayley & J. Britton, The history of the ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1836); Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

These problems stemmed primarily from the fact the building occupied by the Commons had not been designed for that purpose. It was housed in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel, close to the river Thames. This four storey building ran perpendicular to the House of Lords, ‘among the rambling assortment of offices, law courts, kitchens, printer’s shops, store rooms, official residences, inns and general housing that comprised the Palace of Westminster’. The debating chamber, which measured around 15 metres by 10 metres in area and was 10 metres high, was two storeys high, with galleries fixed to three of its walls. It had been extensively remodelled by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Survey drawing by Sir John Soane, May 1826, General plan of the rooms & c adjoining, and belonging to the House of Commons (C) Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. The Commons is to the left of the coloured areas at the top of the plan.

There were further changes at the beginning of the 19th century by James Wyatt, who reduced the thickness of the chamber’s walls to enable the provision of extra seating to help accommodate the 100 Irish MPs who would be sitting at Westminster following the Union in 1801. Extra doors and stairs were added to the galleries in 1818 to make it quicker for MPs to leave for divisions. Until the creation of a second division lobby in 1836, those voting on one side of the question were counted in the chamber, while the opposite side gathered in the single lobby which adjoined the entrance to the Commons. Grant recorded that with many MPs not even able to get standing room in the Commons when it was busy, they ‘were obliged to lounge in the refreshment apartments adjoining St. Stephen’s until the division, when they rushed to the voting room in as much haste as if the place they had quitted had been on fire’.

St. Stephen’s chapel (on the left) from the river (A. Picken, c. 1835, after J. Shury; Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection). The spires on the towers were removed c. 1826.

Members of Parliament were not the only occupants of the Commons chamber. Male visitors were able to watch debates from the strangers’ gallery, situated opposite the speaker’s chair, on payment of a fee to the doorkeeper or by obtaining a written ‘order’ from an MP. There was no separate press gallery at this date, which meant that around one-third of the 120 places in the strangers’ gallery were occupied by newspaper reporters, whose proprietors paid a fee each session. They had their own door giving access to their seats at the back of the gallery, with a small rest room nearby. Visitors and reporters were cleared from the galleries and the lobby during divisions, which sometimes made life difficult for reporters when it came to recording the start of the ensuing debate.

One area which was not cleared during divisions was, however, the space in the attic from which a small number of women were able to listen to – and catch a glimpse of – debates from the ‘ventilator’ which sat above the chandelier in the middle of the chamber. First used in 1818 by Elizabeth Fry, this space was described by Maria Edgeworth in 1822 as

what seemed like a sentry box of deal boards and old chairs placed around it: on these we got and stood and peeped over the top of the boards. Saw the large chandelier with lights blazing, immediately below: a grating of iron across veiled the light so that we could look down and beyond it: we saw half the table with the mace lying on it and papers, and by peeping hard two figures of clerks at the further end, but no eye could see the Speaker or his chair – only his feet; his voice and terrible ‘ORDER’ was soon heard. We could see part of the treasury bench and opposition in their places,– the tops of their heads, profiles and gestures perfectly.

Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT
Interior of St. Stephen’s chapel after the 1834 fire (E. W. Bayley & J. Britton, The history of the ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament at Westminster (1836); Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

The ‘inadequate’ and ‘unwholesome’ nature of the accommodation provided for MPs in the Commons chamber prompted select committees in 1831 and 1833 which investigated the possibilities for change. In October 1831 the first of these committees reported that it ‘could not contemplate any other alternative than to recommend the Construction of a New House of Commons’. However, given the significance and expense of such a decision, it hesitated to do so without consulting the opinion of the Commons. The second committee, reporting in May 1833, had no qualms about making a clear recommendation that a new House should be built. Despite this, efforts by Joseph Hume to put these proposals into action failed to win sufficient support from fellow MPs. However, the catastrophic fire of 16 October 1834 – which prompted one onlooker to remark that ‘Mr. Hume’s motion for a new House is carried without a division’ – meant that building a new chamber could no longer be avoided.

Further reading

  • M. Escott, ‘The fabric of the House’, in D. R. Fisher (ed.), The House of Commons, 1820-32 (2009), vii. [https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/survey/vii-procedure-and-business-house]
  • J. Grant, Random recollections of the House of Commons (1836)
  • M. H. Port, The Palace of Westminster surveyed on the eve of the conflagration, 1834 (2011)
  • P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911‘, in C. Jones (ed.), A short history of Parliament (2009)
  • P. Seaward, ‘“A sense of crowd and urgency”? Atmosphere and inconvenience in the chamber of the Old House of Commons’, Parliamentary History, 2019, 38:1 (2019), 103-18
  • C. Shenton, The day Parliament burned down (2012)
  • C. Wilkinson, ‘Politics and topography in the Old House of Commons, 1783-1834’, Parliamentary History, 21:1 (2002), 141-65
  • The Virtual St Stephen’s Project’s website has a wide range of resources relating to the history of St Stephen’s Chapel: https://www.virtualststephens.org.uk/

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