Posts Tagged ‘Palace of Westminster’

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.


Read Full Post »

A guest post by LH Member Anne Carwardine.

Source: Parliamentary Archives.

Source: Parliamentary Archives.

As a woman, if I had wanted to observe proceedings in Parliament two hundred years ago I would have had to crane my neck and peer down through a ventilation shaft. One hundred years ago I would have been in the Ladies Gallery, high above the Speaker’s Chair, with a heavy metal grille blocking much of my view and making it difficult to focus. (Campaigner Millicent Fawcett described this as like looking through a gigantic pair of spectacles which did not fit).

On a recent tour of Parliament, which focussed on connections with the Votes for Women campaign, the group I was in (mostly women) stood on the floor of the House of Commons looking up at the Ladies’ Gallery and wondering what it would have been like to be confined there.

In October 1908 Muriel Matters and Helen Fox of the Women’s Freedom League chained themselves to the grille, while Violet Tillard lowered a banner demanding that women be given the vote in the current session. The grille had to be removed temporarily in order to saw off the protestors’ chains; it would be another nine years before it was removed permanently and another ten before any women were able to vote.

The Ladies' Gallery (Source: parliament.co.uk)

The Ladies’ Gallery (Source: parliament.co.uk)

Beyond doorways to each side of the Commons we could glimpse the division lobbies, through which MPs pass when there is a vote. In November 1910 Emily Wilding Davison, one of the more militant protestors and most famous for her death at the Epsom Derby, threw a hammer through a window between the lobby and the main chamber.

We returned through the Central Lobby, where the original grille from the Ladies Gallery has been installed as a reminder of how things once were. Opposite it is a tall bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher (apparently she was disappointed that it was not made of iron). I had the impression that there were differing views in the group as to how much she did for women.

Next was St Stephen’s Hall, with statues of Walpole, Seldon, Somers and Falkland. In April 1909 four members of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) chained themselves to these statues to advertise a rally at the Albert Hall. You can still see where the spur of the Falkland one was broken off during this incident. No longer visible is the passage from the Bill of Rights which campaigner Marion Wallace-Dunlop (the first hunger striker) printed on the wall, having smuggled in a small printing press.

Falkland statue

The boot with broken spur on the Falkland statue in St Stephen’s Hall.

In one corner of St Stephen’s Hall is a more recent memorial to the suffrage campaigners – a tall stained glass window, designed by Shona McInnes, which was installed in 2002 and incorporates symbols, such as handcuffs, connected to the movement.

Suffrage window

Part of the stained glass window in St Stephen’s Hall

Disappointingly we did not have the opportunity to see the cupboard in the Chapel where Emily Wilding Davison hid in on census night, so that her address would be recorded as the Palace of Westminster, with a plaque that Tony Benn had installed to commemorate this protest.

The talks which followed the tour were mainly concerned with art in the Houses of Parliament. Unsurprisingly, given the male bias of most of the institution’s history, representations of men predominate. However, the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art has commissioned artist Mary Branson to create a piece to honour the women’s suffrage campaigners. Entitled ‘New Dawn’, it will consist of a sun made up of many glass circles, lightening and darkening in synchronicity with the Thames’ tides, and will be installed at the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall in 2016. Sunrise was an image used frequently by suffrage campaigners and so this seems an appropriate memorial to them.

The recent release of the film ‘Suffragette’ has drawn attention to the Votes for Women campaign, much of which was played out in London. I am currently working on a book about campaigners including Violet Tillard from my home town of Tunbridge Wells.


The Sufragette Season of tours at the Palace of Westminster runs until the end of October. You may get on if you’re quick. Look here.

Read Full Post »

victoria tower palace of westminster

Her Majesty arrives via the Sovereign’s Entrance in the Victoria Tower (ie not the Elizabeth (“Big Ben”) Tower).

victoria tower palace of westminster

When her vehicle pulls up here, and is directly under the octagonal oculus…

victoria tower palace of westminster

…an army signalman stationed up here radios up to his colleagues on the roof who switch the union flag for the royal standard.

More on the Victoria Tower here.

Read Full Post »

the day parliament burned down caroline shentonNot too long ago, the author of this book wrote on her blog what constitutes a good history book: The Good History Book Checklist. Hostage meet Fortune, perhaps, now that her new book is virtually on the eve of publication! But I can tell you right away that the boxes have all been ticked. This meticulously-researched book is both pacy and informative as befits the spectacular, calamitous subject matter. One has to wonder why it hasn’t attracted such a comprehensive modern treatment before now.

On the evening of 16 October 1834, the old Houses of Parliament at Westminster – an ancient compound comprising buildings of widely varying merit and age – went up in flames. It began as a result of the basement furnace being employed to burn several wagon-loads of redundant tally sticks (find out what these are in the book!), a use for which the furnace – and its copper-lined flues – were not designed. After several hours, highly dangerous overheating turned into a catastrophic inferno. Before this happened, several people in the building saw the build-up of smoke in the Commons chamber and felt the unnaturally hot floors and walls. Yet no action was taken, nothing was reported (or reported to the right people). Once the disaster was fully realised, it was too late.

jmw turner burning of the house of lords and the house of commons

JMW Turner’s famous depiction of the disaster.

The book is arranged one hour per chapter, taking us through the fire’s progress throughout the evening and into the night in a very structured narrative. Within this framework, the author tells us about the buildings; the players in the drama, from the lowest Parliamentary servant through to the Prime Minister, heroes and villains alike; the archaic way in which the palace was staffed; conspiracy theories; precisely what was lost in terms of buildings, treasure and records; and what survived. Although this is a perfectly enjoyable book for the general reader, the historian in particular will shudder at the sheer loss of priceless documents. And not only the burned ones; it’s a difficult read finding out about the bundles of records which were hurled from windows by perfectly well-meaning rescuers doing the right thing, bursting open on the street and then being either taken by souvenir hunters or soaked by  firehoses and trampled into the cobbles.

But while there is much to mourn, there is probably as much if not more to celebrate, in a way. The process of saving records met with not insignificant success and thanks to the shambolic nature of the palace as a whole, many were stored off-site in any case, for example in the nearby Jewel House. The feel-good story of the whole crisis has to be the saving of Westminster Hall, constructed in the late 11th Century the same age as the White Tower itself. Contemporaries knew full well this was the most important building in the complex, if not London itself. Even the massed crowds, many of whom we discover witnessed the conflagration not without a certain cheerfulness, were alarmed at the threat to the hall. So we discover how James Braidwood, London’s first proper fire chief and the hero of the book, directed every resource available to him at saving the building, today over 900 years old and still with us.

So a taste then of what you’ll find in this most accessible and precise of history books; there is much more to look forward to: Chance, the firemen’s dog; Prime Minister Melbourne’s sanguine reaction to an excitable messenger’s news that Charles I’s death warrant had been rescued; and the snapshot of 1834 fire-fighting, a time when the service was mid-transition between the old insurance company bands and the modern integrated operation we know today.

The book has 35 black-and-white images which include the Turner (above) and very good maps at the front depicting the immediate local area and two detailed plans of the ground and upper floor of the palace. It’s a shame though that modern books tend not to carry these as larger fold-out items as in days of yore, most likely due to cost. There are also a full 60 pages of meticulous bibliography, footnotes and index which include periodicals, manuscripts and newspapers.

I recommend without reservation this superb account of the disaster which transformed the Mother of Parliaments forever .

London Historians members will be interested to learn that a signed copy of this fine book is our August members’ newsletter prize.

The Day Parliament Burned Down (333 pp) by Caroline Shenton is published on 9 August by Oxford University Press with a cover price of £18.99 but available for quite a bit less. Pre-order today or order from Thursday!

Read Full Post »

Today it was announced that the Palace of Westminster would not, after all, be making an entry charge to the Clock Tower to visit Big Ben. Not until 2015, in any case. The House of Commons Commission seemingly backed down after protests from a group of MPs. The suggested ticket price was £15. Yes one-five pounds.

Instead of coming up with a sensible and fair price, the default position was immediately to fleece the punter. Why? Because they can, and there’s plenty of precedent. The Monument – a not dissimilar experience, I would suggest – charges a sensible £3, and I look forward to going up there soon. Most boutique museums and “lesser” historic sites tend to charge £5 – 7. Fair enough. My nearest, the Kew Bridge Steam Museum, charges £10. A tad pricy, perhaps, but your ticket does at least last for 12 months. I wish more museums would do this.

Sites which were once free but have recently introduced entry charges are the Temple Church (£3, I think, info not available on their web site) and Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (£7). Not too bad, on the face of it, but again, once the charging principle has been established, price inflation is much easier to implement: the thin end of the wedge.

Remember Kew Gardens. It famously used to cost a penny to get in. When I first visited in the early 80s this had gone up to a few shillings, I can’t remember the exact amount. Today it costs a whopping £13.90. Other entry prices I find quite frankly shocking, include: Tower of London, £20.90; Hampton Court Palace, £16.95; St Paul’s, £14.50; Westminster Abbey, £16.00.

Now, I am a believer in the free market and the idea that you can price anything at what the market will bear, supply and demand and all that. But there are punters out there who will, for example, stump up £150 or more from a tout for a ticket to see, I dunno, let’s say U2 or Blur. Doesn’t make it right. No, my problem is that residents of this country, and Londoners in particular, are being priced out of big swathes of their heritage. And I include myself in this, incidentally. I strongly believe there should be a two-tier pricing system to take this into account.

Thankfully, many of our biggest museums and galleries are still free, and I congratulate them and the government for maintaining this situation. Long may it continue. My favourites are the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, the National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

What do you think about ticket pricing in our museums and heritage attractions? Do you know of other examples of charging being introduced?

*Prices cited here are from the relevant web sites of attractions themselves at time of writing.

Read Full Post »

new year's fireworks, westminster

Pretty good effort, I thought. Happy New Year to all our readers, followers and Members.

Read Full Post »

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

victoria tower

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).

Read Full Post »