The Old Palace of Westminster

By the eighteenth century, if not before, the palace of Westminster was considered insultingly inadequate as the home of Parliament. It consisted of a ramshackle set of decaying structures, connected by narrow lanes and dark corridors, with a mixture of new and old chambers set on different levels, and surrounded by a bewildering maze of other buildings, which ranged in importance from the law courts and Westminster Abbey at one end of the scale, to pubs, shops and booksellers’ booths at the other. Plans for major reconstruction of the site were occasionally considered, but it was not until the disastrous fire of 1834 that the construction of a new palace became a necessity.

In his New Critical Review of the Publick Buildings, Statues and Ornaments, in and about London and Westminster of 1736, James Ralph wrote that:

’tis certain nothing can be more unworthy of so august a body as the parliament of Great Britain, than the present place of their assembly: it must be undoubtedly a great surprize to a foreigner, to be forc’d to enquire for the Parliament House even at the doors; and when he found it, to see it so detach’d in parcels, so incumber’d with wretched apartments, and so contemptible in the whole.

Ralph was a supporter of the plans to build a new Parliament that were being put together during that decade by the architect William Kent, with the backing of Lord Burlington, the leading patron of the Palladian style. Various versions show a symmetrical floor plan with the Commons and the Lords facing each other along a straight axis, which would have been covered with a classical facade. These plans got nowhere, perhaps because they would have been seen as unsuitable when placed close to Westminster Hall and other surviving medieval buildings. In any case, the overwhelmingly popular architectural style remained the comfortable if muddled Gothic.

Thomas Hutchinson recorded in 1776 that ‘the remark is too general, that the horse stables of the French Monarque [monarch] are more elegant than the Palace of a British King’ (The Diaries and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Esq., ed. P. O. Hutchinson, 2 vols [1883-6]), ii. 109). Here, Hutchinson was not just repeating a commonplace about the inferiority of the palace of Westminster. He was also hinting at a comparison between the British way of governing through Parliament, which injected an element of public involvement, and the French system of arbitrary rule, which was typified by Louis XIV’s Versailles. For the Gothic style, and the inconvenience of having a cramped and fetid Commons chamber, underlined a particularly British form of understatement, one which implicitly elevated the substance of a limited monarchical system above the superficiality of grandeur and fine style.

Not least because of the problems of overcrowding, poor acoustics and unsatisfactory ventilation, there were again sustained calls for a rebuilding scheme in the 1790s. Once more, little progress was made, partly no doubt owing to limited financial resources, but also because – at a time of war against revolutionary France – Gothic remained the patriotic idiom. Even as late as the mid-1820s, the architect John Soane was forced by a parliamentary committee to modify the frontage of his law courts, which were erected alongside Westminster Hall, because it was too classical in appearance.

In a sense, the chaotic medievalism of the old palace of Westminster reflected the labyrinthine complexity and inconsistency of the unreformed electoral system. With the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, which did much to straighten out the representative structure of the Commons, the time was ripe for a review of what was required in a parliamentary building. For all his abhorrence of public expenditure, this was presumably the motivation of the Radical MP Joseph Hume, who chaired a select committee on this subject in 1833. But the fire of 16 October 1834 swept away almost all of the old palace, leading one eye-witness to declare that, ‘Mr Hume’s motion for a new house is carried without a division’. Out of the ashes of that fire would eventually arise the new Palace of Westminster.

Author: Stephen Farrell