Four prorogations and a conflagration: Parliament and its buildings in 1834

Continuing our series on the different buildings occupied by the House of Commons between 1832 and 1868, this blog looks at the makeshift arrangements made for the prorogation in the aftermath of the devastating Westminster fire of October 1834. The first blog, on the pre-1834 Commons chamber, can be found here.

On 15 August 1834 the House of Commons assembled for the last day of the 1834 parliamentary session. Around seventy members were present in the chamber – the former St. Stephen’s Chapel – when the Speaker, Sir Charles Manners Sutton, took the chair that afternoon.

A limited amount of business took place, including the presentation of petitions, questions to ministers and notices of future motions. In a reminder of how long Parliament has been subject to restoration and renewal, Sir Samuel Whalley asked when ongoing repairs to Westminster Hall would be completed and suggested that ‘the painting of the large window of the hall’ should be replaced with ‘some truly national subject’, such as William IV giving his assent to the 1832 Reform Act or the sealing of Magna Carta by King John. He was not the only MP to raise the issue of parliamentary buildings. Joseph Hume, one of the most persistent critics of the inadequacies of the Commons chamber, gave notice that he would move next session ‘for the erection of a new House of Commons’. He could hardly have anticipated the very different surroundings in which that session would take place.

The House of Commons, 1833, by Sir George Hayter. NPG under CC licence. The clerks sitting at the table are (from L to R) John Henry Ley, John Rickman and William Ley.
Sir Charles Manners Sutton by Samuel Cousins, after H. W. Pickersgill (1835). NPG under CC licence.

Proceedings in the Commons were interrupted by ‘the sound of artillery’, signalling the arrival of William IV at the House of Lords to prorogue Parliament. The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, Sir Augustus Clifford, entered the Commons chamber and ‘commanded the immediate attendance of the Commons upon his Majesty’. An estimated fifty to eighty MPs accompanied the Speaker to the Lords. They returned to the Commons after about twenty minutes, following which the Speaker read the king’s prorogation speech to the House. ‘This done, he shook hands with many of those present, and thus ended the second session of the Reformed Parliament’, according to the Morning Chronicle.

This was not the final occasion on which the former St. Stephen’s Chapel was used by the Commons. Parliament was prorogued until 25 September 1834, meaning that a further prorogation to extend the recess took place on that date, although with less ceremony than in August. The king delegated his duties to three commissioners – Lord Brougham (the lord chancellor), the Duke of Argyll and Lord Auckland – who took their places on the woolsack in the Lords. In the absence of the Speaker, who was away from London, the second clerk assistant, William Ley, led ‘about twenty Gentlemen’ from the Commons chamber to the Lords to hear the reading of the commission for Parliament’s prorogation until 23 October.

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

These sparsely attended and brief proceedings were the last occasion on which the Commons Journal recorded business being transacted in the former St. Stephen’s Chapel. On 16 October 1834 the Commons chamber was among the parts of the Palace of Westminster destroyed by a serious fire, the largest in London since 1666. The fire was started by the burning of wooden tally sticks – waste material from a system of accounting abolished in 1826 – in the heating furnaces in the basement of the House of Lords. A chimney fire which had smouldered throughout the day was finally noticed just after 6 p.m. Fire engines and hundreds of volunteers fought the fire throughout the night, and were able to save Westminster Hall. Fires continued to break out in the smouldering ruins for the next few days.

St Stephen’s Chapel after the fire of 1834 by John Le Keux; Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Despite the devastation, the Lords and the Commons met at Westminster only a week later to prorogue Parliament for the third time that year. By the time the new Parliament assembled after the 1835 general election, both Houses had been provided with temporary chambers, but for the prorogation proceedings on 23 October 1834, arrangements were rather more makeshift. The House of Commons met in one of the Lords committee rooms near the royal gallery; the gallery itself was ‘too full of furniture’ – presumably rescued from other parts of the Palace during the fire – to allow them to meet there. Provision was made for a table for the clerks, as well as ‘a door at which to knock’: as discussed in this blog, Black Rod knocking at the door of the Commons was a highly symbolic practice, marking the independence of the Commons from the Crown.

The House of Lords, meanwhile, assembled in its library, to which the books rescued during the fire were hastily returned, being ‘placed on the shelves in a most irregular manner’. The library was fitted out to resemble ‘a House of Lords in miniature’, with a small version of the woolsack, several benches, ‘duly covered with scarlet cloth’, and a table. A ‘handsome gilt’ chair was borrowed from St. James’s Palace to stand in for the throne, and ‘a bar was placed across the room, at which the representatives of the Lower House appeared, on being summoned to hear the royal commission’. The Morning Post’s report conveyed the improvised and last-minute nature of the arrangements:

Not more than ten minutes before the arrival of the Commissioners some poles were placed against the wall, and an awning hung upon them, to protect the Lords from the rain in passing from the House to their carriages. The Lord Chancellor experienced some difficulty in finding his way to the woolsack through the ruins. He was assisted in his search by Lee, the high constable.

By the time of the fourth and final prorogation that year, on 18 December 1834, the Lords library had ‘been fitted up in a very convenient manner’ for the purpose.

John Rickman by Miss Turner, after Samuel Lane (1831). NPG under CC licence.

As well as the furnishing of these makeshift chambers, careful attention was paid to other aspects of parliamentary ritual. The wife of the clerk assistant, John Rickman, told her daughter in October 1834 that,

The two Mr. Leys (Clerk and Second Clerk Assistant of the House) … desire your Papa to attend the Prorogation on Saturday, because they have lost their wigs! and Mr. William Ley says, “We shall follow you to the Bar in plain clothes.”

For the prorogation of 23 October, Rickman therefore led the way from the makeshift Commons to the makeshift Lords, accompanied by ‘nearly all the clerks and officers of the House of Commons’, as well as a small number of MPs, including the former minister Sir James Graham and James Alexander Stewart Mackenzie, MP for Ross and Cromarty. The attendance of peers was ‘more numerous than it has been for many years on the occasion of a prorogation’, prompted no doubt by curiosity about the unusual circumstances in which it was taking place. The Speaker’s wife, Lady Manners Sutton, together with Lady Burghesh and ‘several friends of the Speaker’ also witnessed events from below the bar.

Ruins of St. Stephen’s Chapel, Gentleman’s Magazine (1835). Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Once the formal proceedings were over, those present took the opportunity to explore as much of the ruins as possible, although The Times reported that ‘the view is now very limited, owing to the fencing off of most of the places, and the several door and window ways, in consequence of the very dangerous state of the ruins’. The dangers of the site were illustrated by the fact that a fire engine was still at work dealing with a fire in the cellars while the prorogation was taking place.

Ruins of the Houses of Parliament on the morning after the fire.
Image credit: Dr Philip Salmon

Further reading

Caroline Shenton, ‘The Fire of 1834’, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/modern/fire-1834

Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012)

Mary E. Palgrave, ‘A Prorogation under Difficulties’, The Leisure Hour (Feb. 1900), 336-41.

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1 Response to Four prorogations and a conflagration: Parliament and its buildings in 1834

  1. Pingback: Half a century at the table: John Henry Ley and the staff of the House of Commons | The Victorian Commons

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