Today (February 3) in London History – here’s how to “read” the building

Another important London anniversary. A ribbon-cutting day – on February 3rd, 1852  the House of Commons first sat in its new chamber. This podcast tells the story.


It was a work in progress. But today was a big day.

Yes, it was February 3rd 1852 that the House of Commons first sat in its new chamber.

170 years ago to the day. 

The old Palace of Westminster had burned down in a terrible fire in October of 1834. It was the largest metropolitan conflagration since 1666. I think we’ll probably “do” that fire when the date comes round. That’ll be one for your diary – October 16th.

Anyway, in 1835 a competition was held for a new design. Architects were given five months to submit their entries. Let that sink in. 150 days to design that building – it’s almost inconceivable. We’re talking about a building that covers some eight acres, has over a thousand rooms, 100 staircases and 11 courtyards.

150 days to design – and 35 years to complete.

A parliamentary committee laid down the parameters of the competition. It prescribed the “national style” of Gothic or Elizabethan and it spelt out the accommodation requirements. 

The competition was won by Charles Barry. 

Barry’s wife laid the first stone. That was in 1840.

The House of Lords Chamber was completed in 1847.

Five years later – today’s milestone. The House of Commons chamber completed. Completed and after a wait of nearly 20 years open for business on this day, February 3, 1852.

Quite a fortnight for Charles Barry – in 11 days he’ll be Sir Charles Barry.  Knighted for his efforts. 

Astonishing to think, though, that 17 years after he started the project, it’s only about halfway completed. 

Big Ben, for example, is still seven years in the future. 1859. 

Victoria Tower – where the Queen enters for the State opening of parliament – won’t be completed until 1860.

And there’s still ten more years to go after that before the building is finally completed. 

Sir Christopher Wren got to see his masterpiece – St. Paul’s cathedral – completed. Sir Charles Barry didn’t. He died in 1860. Well, in its externals it was pretty much completed by the time he died. But the interior won’t be finished until 1870.

So over a third of a century in the making. 

That’s some overrun for a building that was supposed to take six years and cost just over £700,000. The final bill was £2 million. It was a Herculean task. It shortened Barry’s life. The figures are off the scale. 9,000 drawings he and his team produced.

Even one of the problems Barry faced would have been daunting. The full panoply of them was all but overwhelming. What he had to overcome – it was unprecedented. Nothing like it had been done before. A building covering 8 acres with an 800-foot long riverfront. A building site that was riddled with quicksands and had to be stabilised with a concrete raft. A building site much of which was still covered with buildings in use by a parliamentary government and all its attendant functions and operations. In consequence, a building that had to be started on land that had to be reclaimed from the river Thames. A building that had to be fireproof. A building that pushed the envelope in so many ways. Iron roofs, for example. Towers so huge they required innovative engineering. The taller of the two – Victoria Tower – was for many decades the tallest square tower in the world. 

A building that had to be expressive of both modernity and the past. Indeed, expressive of this country’s history. And expressive of the very lineaments of the country and the way they’re ordered. 

The Houses of Parliament are laid out according to the original chain of command. Down at the far end is Victoria Tower, where the Queen enters for the State opening of parliament. Along from there is the House of Lords. And then at the Westminster Bridge End, the House of Commons. That’s the original chain of command: crown, Lords, Commons. As everyone knows, that chain has now reversed itself and the real power is now there in the House of Commons. It’s important to “read” the building – it can be read, it was meant to be read. We “read it” on our Old Westminster Walk. By way of example, Victoria Tower, the Sovereign’s entrance, is taller than Big Ben (the Queen Elizabeth Tower, as it’s known today). There’s a power relationship set out in the relative heights of those two towers.

But there’s even more going on there. The vertical accents of the towers were demanded by the lowness of the site, particularly seen from Westminster Bridge. 

Similarly, the external ornamentation was limited in size in order to increase the apparent scale of the building. 

All things considered the Houses of Parliament may well be the most remarkable 19th-century building in this country. Bears repeating: it exacted a terrible toll on its creator. On Charles Barry. Sir Charles Barry. It shortened his life. 

And that litany of problems I’ve just set out doesn’t mention the biggest headache of all: the project had three taskmasters, each of them alone would have been difficult to answer to. Together, what a rat’s nest to have to deal with. Those three taskmasters – all of them endlessly putting their oars in – were the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the executive government acting through the office of works. Barry’s biographer, M.H. Port – I’ve learned so much about the project from him – Barry’s biographer describes that triumvirate as a multi-headed monster. 

This has been the briefest of notes – there are libraries of books on the Palace of Westminster – and deservedly so – but I think there’s some call for a last poignant observation. We’re in a strange time, a deeply unhappy time in this country. A time that to a very considerable extent has been brought about, mid-wived by a group of ideologues in the House of Commons. The so-called European Research Group that pushed for Brexit, tirelessly and unceasingly, for many years. And finally got their way. Ideologues who’ve made no secret of their loathing of Brussels and aspects of Europe. Their parochialism and ignorance shielding them from the fact that the artist – which was what Charles Barry was, he wasn’t a draughtsman, he was an artist – the artist who conceived of and brought into existence the magnificent building they work out of owes just about everything to Europe. To a young Charles Barry’s three-year apprentice – grand tour – of Europe, drinking in, drawing, wondering at, admiring, figuring out the great buildings. Learning their secrets, learning lessons from them that would find expression in his masterpiece. And then, long after that apprenticeship and just before he started to work on his award-winning design, Charles Barry went to Belgium to study the famous town halls.

Bottom line: the Palace of Westminster is shot through with European models, Europe is all over the Houses of Parliament. Without Europe that most famous building would not exist in its present form. The ironies of history and politics, eh. To say nothing of the ignorance and stupidity of so many of our leaders. 

Good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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