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A guest post by LH Member Caroline Shenton. This article first appeared in London Historians Newsletter of August 2014. The paperback edition of her book, Mr Barry’s War, has just been published.

Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860) is best-known as the architect of the new Houses of Parliament.  With the designer AWN Pugin (1812-1852) he created the most iconic building in London, familiar to millions the world over as a symbol of Britain and democracy.  It was a labour of love.  Barry was a Londoner through-and-through: he was born, married, worked and died in London and, apart from three years on the Grand Tour as a young man, he lived there all his life.  So where were the houses he inhabited in the city whose skyline he, more than anyone else, influenced by means of the biggest Houses of all?  And can these buildings tell us something about a brilliant man who was discreet and private while he lived, and who remains an enigmatic character since he destroyed many of his personal papers before he died?

Barry was the ninth of eleven children of Walter Barry, a government Stationery Office supplier.  He was born and grew up at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the northern side of New Palace Yard, Westminster.  Some fifty years later Barry would construct the famous Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster, to Pugin’s design, almost adjacent to his birthplace, which stood in its shadow until 1867.

The redbrick Georgian terraces of Bridge Street can be seen immediately to the right of the Palace in this 1860 picture in the Parliamentary Works of Art Collection (WOA 1164)

Barry was christened at St Margaret’s Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, just a few steps from home. In the final decade of his life he also designed and oversaw the construction of a new Westminster Bridge.  For the most of his life then, Charles Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, old and new.

When he returned to England in 1820 after travelling through Europe, the Levant and Egypt, he set up a home and office at 39 Ely Place, on the edge of Hatton Garden.  Today this is a gated road containing residential buildings and legal chambers, but until the end of the eighteenth century it had been the Bishop of Ely’s Palace.  It was sold off and redeveloped in 1772 and so Barry had chosen to live on a site with plenty of medieval resonance – including the gothic church of St Etheldreda – but in a house which by then was fifty years old and on the edge of a slum: definitely a first-time buyer’s option.  Two years later he married Sarah Rowsell, daughter of a stationer friend of his father’s whose sister was already married to his brother. Sarah had patiently waited for him to return from his travels and then for a year or two after his return before he had enough money to support them – again a sign of his good sense and prudence.

This is Ely Place today.  No 39 does not survive, having been destroyed by bombing
during World War II which hit the end of the terrace.  We can assume it looked very like this though.

The Barrys continued living at Ely Place until 1827, when they moved to 27  Foley Place with their two sons – Charles jnr (b. 1823) and Alfred (b. 1826).  In the previous seven years Charles had made a name for himself with projects in Brighton and Manchester and the young family’s move to the West End indicates his growing prosperity, and the fact that he was starting to socialise in fashionable Whig circles including members of the Devonshire House set.  Today Foley Place has become Langham Street in Fitzrovia – and is just a stone’s throw from the RIBA on Portland Place, an institute of which Barry was a founding member and whose library today holds significant collections of his papers and architectural plans.

Over the next thirteen years Barry won a series of brilliant competitions and commissions to design and build the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall (1829); the Birmingham Grammar School (1833); Trentham House, Staffordshire (1834); the Reform Club in Pall Mall (1837); Highclere Castle, Berkshire better known as “Downton Abbey” (1838); and Trafalgar Square (1840), among many others.  In 1840 Sarah Barry laid the foundation stone of the new Houses of Parliament, her husband’s most famous building, and that year the family (now including eight children and three servants) moved to a spacious mid-Georgian townhouse at 32 Great George St in Westminster – in fact, a continuation of Bridge Street where Barry had been born.  This was not only to accommodate his large family better but also so that Barry could be as close as possible to the site of his ‘great work’ which was now growing into the air just a few hundred yards away.  Great George Street was at that time a residential quarter favoured by politicians, civil engineers and railway contractors.  At one point this included Samuel Morton Peto, whose firm had the building contract for superstructure of the new Palace of Westminster, and at number 23 lived and worked James Walker, the famous civil engineer who took over Thomas Telford’s practice and whose firm built the river wall and embankment for the Houses of Parliament in the late 1830s. Across the road from the Barry household was the original National Portrait Gallery, run by the Scharf family of topographical artists, and so this neighbourhood nicely encapsulates the main themes of Barry’s career.  These houses no longer exist but a vestige of those times remain as 1 Great George Street is now home to the Institution of Civil Engineers.

At the very end of his life, Barry moved to the semi-rural delights of 29 Clapham Common North, to a grand mansion called ‘The Elms’.  Exhausted and fatally stressed by some 25 years of work on the new Houses of Parliament, he perhaps felt the need to at last relax in comfort and enjoy the semi-rural delights of the Common where sheep still grazed.  He died just a few months later, in May 1860, of a massive heart attack.  His funeral cortège set out from The Elms on 22 May and led to Westminster Abbey, where Barry was buried under a brass depicting the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster, which the great architect regarded as his masterpiece.  Today, no 29 is part of Trinity Hospice, which has occupied the building since 1899.


 


Caroline Shenton  was formerly Director of the Parliamentary Archives and is now a freelance writer, historian and heritage consultant. Her latest book Mr Barry’s War. Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the great fire of 1834   was a book of the year for BBC History Magazine and The Daily Telegraph. Follow her on twitter @dustshoveller or read her blog on Parliamentary history at www.carolineshenton.co.uk.

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Review: Mr Barry’s War by Caroline Shenton.

mrbarryswar“What a chance for an architect,” exclaimed 39 year-old Charles Barry as he observed personally the 1834 fire which destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. This was the subject of Caroline Shenton’s previous award-winning book, The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

And now the sequel. It’s all about how Barry won the bid to design and supervise the building of a new Parliament. Little did he know what troubles lay ahead, hence the title of this book, published today.

Sir Charles Barry was thoroughly a Westminster person, man and boy. Son of a local stationer, he was born a stone’s throw from the ancient parliament and the Abbey: he knew the area intimately. Orphaned at 10, he was raised by his stepmother and apprenticed to an architect’s practice. Substantial travel through Europe and the Near East combined with his natural talent turned him – by the mid 1830s – into one of the leading architects on the scene, a rising star. Sir John Soane by this time was on death’s door and Barry was clearly the superior of Robert Smirke, the man best positioned politically to win the job of rebuilding Parliament.

But it was decided to have a competition for the project. This involved the customary procedure of competitors submitting anonymous sealed designs. Barry won. His entry was Number 64 and his accompanying rebus – the diagram on all his drawings – was a distinctive portcullis with chains. This logo device featured heavily in the decor of the designs and eventually became the official logo of the Houses of Parliament to this day. That’s one of many interesting things I learned from this book and I shall try and keep further spoilers to a minimum.

From here, the narriative of Mr Barry’s War, takes us through the challenges, problems and obstacles that were the architect’s constant companions for the next 20 years and more. The first, and as it turned out probably the easiest, was about engineering. How to build an integrated four-storey estate with two massive towers on the swamp that was Thorney Island? Barry sorted this with brilliant common-sense solutions which worked but nonetheless drew criticism that he didn’t know what he was doing, it wouldn’t work etc. This was a taste of what was to come.

Barry’s problem and the main narrative of the book was to do with having over 1,000 masters: the MPs and Peers who waited impatiently for their new accommodation. He found himself answering to a great many of them in addition to corporate the strangely-named Office of Woods (which became the Office of Works late into the project), the Fine Arts Commission and over a hundred select committee enquiries. They meddled, they carped, they criticised. While royal visitors, heads of state, journalists, newspapers and the public were full of enthusiasm for the building; while RIBA presented Gold Medals and the queen bestowed a knighthood, many insiders were openly hostile to Barry (and indirectly, Pugin). For running over budget, for making alterations without informing anyone, and hundreds of other perceived shortcomings, large and small.

Much of the budget overspend and delay was entirely due to the demands of the critics themselves, but they didn’t see it that way. Barry did have supporters in Parliament, of course, otherwise he couldn’t possibly have won through. But his chief antagonists were Ralph Osborne MP and Joseph Hume MP, who never missed a chance to slight Barry in the House (but rarely outside). Then there was the ventilation expert, Dr Reid, appointed without Barry’s approval or reference. The Scotsman was responsible not only for ventilation, but also heating in winter. Unless the two men worked completely in harmony, delay and cost would escalate. They were barely on speaking terms throughout. Reid was eventually replaced, but too late.

In addition to all of this, the project encountered an all-out strike by the masons, the Great Stink of 1858. And managing Augustus Pugin.

Central to the story is, of course, the partnership of Barry and Pugin who largely uncredited and underpaid undertook most of the decor of the palace. Utterly reliant one on the other, the two in the main got on remarkably well considering their wholly contrasting personalities. Pugin was constantly fractious, lovelorn, angry and often emotional as the author demonstrates liberally with extracts from his letters to Barry, but more tellingly to his confidante and supplier John Hardman.

“I am almost wild… I will not go on as I have been – I will either give up altogether or I will not be the servant of a set of architects who get the jobs & leave me to do their keyholes.”

But Barry was always able to soothe the bruised Pugin with charm, flattery, kind words and fulsome praise – genuinely meant, one feels. But ultimately they both shared the same vision so completely that they were chained together, prisoners to the project, literally unto death. After a spell in Bedlam and other institutions, in poor Pugin’s case.

The historical backdrop to this story is also very influential of events. Chartism is at its height and organised labour is emerging (mason’s strike, above); railways have just arrived and London’s great termini are rising from the streets; the old regime under Wellington, Peel is leaving the stage as Gladstone and Distraeli begin to loom.

There are walk-on parts from many leading or interesting players of the time: the queen, Prince Albert, John Ruskin (hostile), Edmund Beckett Denison M.P. (a truly mediocre amateur architect with massively inflated self-worth: great character), Joseph Bazalgette, Thomas Wakley (founder of The Lancet), and more. But one of my favourite bits of the book was Barry’s tour of the country with geologist William ‘Strata’ Smith in search of the perfect stone for the palace. They visited dozens of quarries: thorough doesn’t nearly cover it. The stone they eventually selected was subsequently thought not to be the exact stuff they actually meant to order, but unbeknownst to them!

This is a wonderful tale, brilliantly told. I shan’t ever look at the Houses of Parliament quite the same again and can’t wait to visit soon with new knowledge from this exceptional book.


Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (288pp) by Caroline Shenton is published by Oxford University Press. Cover price is £25. Kindle edition available. It is London Historians book prize for September and there’s a special price offer for London Historians members coming up in next newsletter!

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