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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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The beautiful Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster has always been overshadowed by its famous sibling for lack of a large clock. It is not an attention-seeker in that way. And doesn’t need to be.

The tower was one of the last parts of the new Palace to be completed, in 1860, twenty six years after the destruction by fire of the old Houses of Parliament, and a matter of days after the death of Sir Charles Barry, its creator.

the victoria tower

Architecturally, the function of the tower is to lend symmetry as a counterweight to the Clock Tower at the Thames end of the palace complex. But more important than this, the Victoria Tower is the home of the Parliamentary Archives and designed specifically for this purpose. While most of the Commons’ records were lost in the conflagration of 1834, the Jewel Tower, housing the records of the House of Lords, fortunately survived and these documents are included in the collection.

The archives are housed in the floors above the entrance archway in fireproof and atmosphere-controlled conditions. They comprise (among many other items, see Factsheet, below), thousands of Acts of Parliament on parchment scrolls dating back to 1497. These come in all shapes and sizes, the biggest of which is estimated, unrolled, to be 345m long!

parliamentary archives westminsterparliamentary archives westminster

The tower was originally to be named the King’s Tower after William IV, the sovereign at the time of the 1834 fire, but since its building only started some seven years after his death, it became the Victoria Tower instead. It is 120m to the tip of the flagstaff and has twelve floors of archive space, accessed – before a lift was installed in the 1950s – by a 553 step cast-iron spiral staircase.

victoria tower

The staircase, from below.

An intriguing feature of the Tower is the octagonal aperture in the roof of the entrance. Its function is to allow the winching of heavy materials up to the first floor level. Even now its sliding door has to be hand-cranked to open it. I resembles a perfect execution mechanism used by a James Bond villain to drop its victim some 60ft (my estimate) to the pavement below. It’s also used by the army during the Opening of Parliament. Fully opened, an observer can see the exact moment that the Queen passes below and signal to the chaps on the roof to pull down the Union flag and to hoist the Royal Standard.

victoria tower

The partially-opened aperture for hoisting heavy items into the tower.

victoria tower

Clearly visible from below.

victoria tower

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View of the Clock Tower from atop Victoria Tower

To find out more about the Victoria Tower, there is an excellent book Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives by Caroline Shenton, David Prior and Mari Takayanagi. It is richly illustrated with stunning photographs. It’s available from the Parliamentary Bookshop at £17.99, here. (If you’re a London Historians member reading this, pull finger and enter the competition to win a signed copy by all three authors, per October members’ newsletter).

victoria tower treasures

My deepest thanks go to Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records (and London Historians member), for giving me a personal tour of the Tower. It was a privilege and a delight.

More information on the Parliamentary Archives.
Parliamentary Archive Services.
Factsheet (PDF file).

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