Victorian London - Buildings, Monuments and Museums - Houses of Parliament

    Good God! I am just returned from the terrific burning of the Houses of Parliament. Mary and I went in a cab, and drove over the bridge. From the bridge it was sublime. We alighted, and went into a room of a public-house, which was full. The feeling among the people was extraordinary—jokes and radicalism universal. If Ministers had heard the shrewd sense and intelligence of these drunken remarks! I hurried Mary away. Good God, and are that throne and tapestry gone with all their associations!
    The comfort is that there is now a better prospect of painting a House of Lords. Lord Grey said there was no intention of taking the tapestry down; little did he think how soon it would go.

source: B. R. Haydon, Memoirs. Oct.16, 1834

Houses of Parliament ... Persons desirous of hearing the parliamentary debates must bear in mind, that a peer's order will alone admit to the House of Lords, and in like manner by an order from a member only can admission be obtained to the House of Commons. When Parliament is not sitting either of them may be seen for a small fee.

The House of Lords.-The Houses of Lords and Commons having unfortunately been nearly destroyed by fire on the evening of the 16th of October 1834, some small portions of their remains have been incorporated in the present temporary buildings, in which, until the more magnificent edifices that, from the very beautiful designs prepared by Mr. Barry, and in a course of erection, shall have been completed, will in future be conducted the business of both Houses of Parliament. The remains of the former buildings have, with sundry alterations and additions by Sir R. Smirke, been thus appropriated: -The Painted Chamber, formerly used as the place of conference between the Lords and Commons, has been converted into a House of Lords. The walls of this building have been considerably heightened, and it now forms a room of fifty feet in length, twenty feet in breadth, and twenty-eight feet in height; the whole being tastefully decorated. The throne, formerly in Carlton Palace, is situated at the upper end between two windows; and at the opposite end is the gallery for members of the other house, strangers, and reporters. The seats for the peers are formed of fine oak, and are covered with crimson cloth. The approach to the house for the queen and peers is that formerly known as the king's entrance.
The House of Commons.-The present House of Commons is that formerly occupied by the peers of parliament, and is considerably larger than the present house of Lords. The seats, of which there are four rows on each side, have a slight elevation above the level of the floor, as have those upon the right and left of the entrance. There are long galleries on each side for the reception of members; a smaller one at the back of the speaker's chair for reporters only; and at the entrance end, a large and commodious gallery for strangers, capable of containing from 250 to 300 persons. The accommodation for the public is therefore most ample: the speaker's chair, as in the old house, faces the entrance; the whole being decorated in a style of great neatness and simplicity. Admission, heretofore attainable by a fee of half a crown, or upon presentation of a member's order, is by a recent regulation entirely confined to the latter.

source: Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

These railings and the wide open street leading to the south, to Vauxhall Bridge, intervene between the Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. When these are completed in this direction, then will the place which holds them, and the Abbey, and other public and private buildings, assume a different and more satisfactory aspect. At present, the workmen are still occupied with the colossal Victoria tower, whose portal is among the grandest monuments of Gothic architecture. At present the northern tower is still incomplete, raw, and ugly, and the whole space in that direction is boarded up, and covered with loose earth, bricks, and mortar. But when all is completed, then will dust, smoke, and fog lend their assistance, and the new buildings will soon be in keeping with the venerable colouring of the old Abbey.
    In front of the new, there is an old stone building, with quaint narrow windows, low doors, and curious turrets. It contains some Government Offices, and Courts of Justice, and the famous Westminster Hall, which is said to be the largest of all covered spaces in the world unsupported by pillars.
    Here we find the last remains of the walls of old Westminster Palace, such as it was in the days of King Rufus of traditional and fabulous Norman hospitality. The kings of England resided here for 480 years. The conflagration of 1834 destroyed the last traces of the splendour of olden times, and Westminster Hall alone remained to give us an idea of the grand style of Gothic palaces. But it is only an approximating idea, for with the exception of the northern portal and the window above it, all we now see is a creation of later days. More especially since the Hall has been brought into connexion with the new houses, its character has been changed. On the southern side there are at present broad steps, leading to a sort of balustrade, communicating with the corridors and outer halls of the houses. The quaint old window over the chief portal, with its Gothic ornaments and gigantic dimensions, forms a strong contrast with the new window opposite. And in the evening, when the old house is lighted up with gas, the illumination produces a striking mixture of ancient and modern colouring, which, however, far from impairing the effect of the whole, shows parts of the massive ceiling to the greatest advantage.
    While we have been looking at the hall, it has been invaded by about two hundred persons, who form in lines through the whole length of it. It is half-past four, the time at which the Members of Parliament make their appearance, and there are always crowds of idle and curious persons, who, whenever they cannot obtain admission to the gallery, will come and wait in the hall, that they may gaze upon the faces of some of the parliamentary grandees.
    We are just in time, for the open place in front of Westminster Hall assumes an animated appearance. Half a dozen policemen come, I know not exactly from which quarter, and take up a position near the gate. Old and young representatives of the people arrive from all parts of the town; some dressed in yellow breeches, and black long-tailed dress coats, come in cabs. They carry ponderous club-like umbrellas. Others arrive in heavy coaches, with a retinue of powdered giants; some come on foot, and others on horseback. Some are dressed down to the laid ideal of quakerish plainness; and others are dressed out with a foppish sort of elegance. The majority drive themselves in two-wheeled vehicles to the temple of their eventual immortality. The latter—and, indeed, those who are on horseback— have their grooms to take care of the horses; and though the masters have the appearance of decent civilians, still the number of servants who assemble in front of the building, impart to the scene a tinge of aristocratic colouring. The difference between the English parliament and our defunct German chambers, is at once apparent, even before we enter the house. In Germany, there were but few servants and carriages. But the English parliament is chiefly composed of wealthy men ; for not only do the “necessary expenses” of an election represent a large capital, but the members must also prove a property qualification of £300 per annum in land. This law alone would suffice to exclude men of humble resources, but such are still more effectually excluded by the expenses of that position in society which every member of parliament is compelled to assume. Whatever his profession may be, he must sacrifice it for the time being to his parliamentary duties, and that, too, without any pecuniary indemnification, since the English representatives are not paid, as was the case with their ephemeral colleagues in France and Germany. Life in London is expensive to every one, but the expense becomes serious in the case of temporary residents. Add to this, that every member is, in a manner, in duty bound to be attentive and hospitable to the influential among his constituents. Say, Mr. Jedediah Brown goes up to London for eight days or a fortnight; Mr. Jedediah Brown knows what is proper, and would not, on any account go back to St. Alban's, or Canterbury, Blackburn, Birmingham, or Clitheroe, without calling on the honorable Mr. M. P., the member for the borough, for whom Mr. Jedediah Brown voted at the last election. Mr. Jedediah Brown is an influential person in his own borough; the name of his uncles, aunts, and cousins, is legion ; and so is the name of his wife's uncles, aunts, and cousins. The Brown interest is of the utmost importance at election times, and he who would stand well with the borough should, by all means, conciliate the Browns. There is no help for it. Mr. M. P. cannot do less than ask Mr. Jedediah Brown to dinner, drive him out in his carriage, and offer him a box at the opera. Well and good. Mr Jedediah Brown cannot always remain in London, but he is followed by Mr. Ebenezer Smith, a wealthy man, and one whom the honourable and learned gentleman cannot afford to offend, for the Smith interest, too, is powerful, and the family very large. And after Mr. Ebenezer Smith, comes George Damson, the popular lecture; and the Rev. Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jones, and the Misses Jones; and Mr. M. P., is compelled to have them all to dinner, and take them down to the house, and get them seats in the speaker's gallery, and platform places at Exeter Hall. All this is very expensive. And, if Mr. M. P. is a married man, of course his wife insists on sharing with him the “gaieties” of the London season; she must go to routs, reunions, balls, and drawing-rooms, and these amusements, though innocent, are vastly expensive. Nor is Mr. M. P. allowed to imitate his Continental colleagues, and take his dinner in a chop-house, or at some cheap table d'hote; the aristocratic laws of decency preclude him from adopting that course. He must dine at a club, or at a first-rate hotel He is compelled to have a large house, or, at least, to inhabit one of those “splendid drawing-room floors,” which are advertised, as “suitable for members of Parliament and gentlemen of fortune.” In short, he must is in duty bound to be a gentleman of fortune. The income of £300, as required by law, is, after all, a mere formality; and Lord John Russell could, without any tendency to radical reform, move for the abolition of the property qualification, since no one, but a man in a perfectly independent position, would ever think of aspiring to the expensive honour of a seat in the House of Commons.
    The interior of the Houses of Parliament is grander and more imposing than the exterior. This does not apply to the rooms where the sittings are held, but rather to the entrance hall and corridors. As you enter you come at once into a hall, long enough and high enough to suit any second sized Gothic dome. High Gothic windows, Mosaic floors, palm-tree ceilings, heavy brass candelabras in the old church style, and marble statues on ponderous blocks of stone—such are the chief characteristics of the corridor which leads to the interior of the sanctuary. Doors of solid oak, with massive plate-glass windows, heavy brass handles, and neat ornaments, open front this corridor into a round airy hall, with a number of other corridors opening into all the other parts of the building. This hall is, so to say, the centre of the whole; and the two Houses if we may say so, are on either side of it—the Commons to the north, and the Lords to the south. The other corridors communicate with sundry other parts of the building, with the refreshment-rooms, the library, etc. The Gothic style is adhered to, even in the minutest details, and contrasts strangely with the busy life of the nineteenth century.
    The refreshment-rooms, of course, abound in all imaginable creature-comforts. But it is a strange fact, that the Restaurant is even more exorbitant in his charges than the common herd of London hotel-keepers. The legislators of England are shockingly imposed upon in their own house ; they are far more effectually fleeced than is the case in the hotels on the Rhine, or in the Apennines. Every drop of sherry and every ounce of mutton is charged as if it were worth its weight in gold. There have been grievous complaints in the House, but the unpatriotic landlord sticks to his prices; he taxes the legislators with as little compunction as those gentlemen show in taxing him and the whole fraternity of licensed victuallers.
    The libraries of the House—one for the Lords and one for the Commons—are splendid in all their appointments, and useful, comfortable, and elegant in their arrangements; large fires burning brightly in massive grates, and surmounted by gigantic marble chimneys Sardanapalian arm-chairs that invite you to read, ponder, and doze; costly carpets; servants in livery waiting upon the Members; large tables covered with portfolios, paper, envelopes, and all imaginable writing materials; splendidly bound books in massive book-cases; and gas-lights most advantageously placed—all combine to make this the most desirable retreat. Two librarians preside over the rooms. Existence is more delightful in these reading-rooms than in the House itself. The debates are sometimes very long, and malicious persons say that now and then they are not very interesting. It is, therefore, but natural that many of the chosen of the people prefer the arm-chairs in their library to their seats on the stuffed benches of the House. Here they may sit and doze or write, even more comfortably than in their clubs; and if a member wishes indite a letter to his constituents or creditors, he has the accommodation of a special parliamentary post-office within the walls of the building. All this shows that the honourable and learned gentlemen have very correct ideas, and an acute per­ception of what is truly comfortable.
    But even perfection itself is imperfect in this world of ours. A small matter has been neglected in the building of this palace, which has already cost the nation above two millions of pounds. It is the old story. The Houses proper, the saloons in which the sittings are held, are altogether bad in the plan, in their arrangements and appointments, with respect to acoustics, optics, rheumatics, catarrh, and gout.
    In the Lords these faults are less obtrusive. The architect's task was easier, and there are in the Lords scarcely ever so many visitors, that the artist, as in the case of the Commons, had to provide for the accommodation of six hundred members, with galleries for ladies, reporters, and the ordinary and extraordinary public, while the room was required to be of moderate dimensions, and comfortable as the old-established domestic English parlour. In the House of Lords the red morocco seats are marvellously comfortable, even for those who cannot boast of a coronet. The high, small, and painted windows admit but of little light; but the men who meet in this room do not care much whether or not they see one another very distinctly. They meet after the sitting in the brilliant saloons of the Earl of Woburn, or the Marquis of Steyne, where they can contemplate one another to their hearts' content. In some parts of the room you cannot very well hear what is said; but even that does not matter: in the first instance, because generally what is said is not worth hearing; in the second, because many noble lords cannot, or will not, speak distinctly; and, in the third, because the reporters help one another whenever they lose the thread of the debate, so that the speeches make quite a figure in the newspapers. Certain very modest lords rely greatly on the talents of the reporters; they mutter, and stutter, and leave out half sentences, and next morning at breakfast it is quite a pleasure to see what a lucid, reasonable, and consistent speech' (thanks to the reporters!) they have managed to make in last night's debate.
    Twice in the course of the year, a great many persons are anxious to obtain admission to the Lords, and to see and hear everything that is done or said. This is on the occasion of the Queen's opening and proroguing parliament. But on such days, the London sun, loyal throughout, volunteers some extra service, and the Queen speaks more deliberately and distinctly than the majority of the old gentlemen who, on ordinary days, are “but imperfectly heard.” And lastly, the Queen's speech is usually printed before it is delivered. The optical and acoustical shortcomings of the room are, for these reasons, by no means striking. The saloon itself, with all its gilt carvings, looks splendid, if not tasteful.
    Originally, it was the architect's intention to execute the saloon in which the Commons sit in a very elaborate style; indeed, the ceiling was already covered with paintings and gilt ornaments, when the Commons proved contumacious, and opposed the plan. Speeches were made on that occasion, which would have done honour to an assemblage of Spartans. Indignant remonstrances, which savoured of Puritanism and democratic prudery, were hurled at the head of the unfortunate architect. All this was very natural. Ever since the burning of the old Houses of Parliament, the Commons had sat in some provisional locality. It was a wretched place, with narrow doors, and little windows the floor was covered with an old carpet; the walls presented a mixture of yellow, grey and black; the stairs were narrow and ricketty; the galleries, corridors, and committee rooms, impressed the beholder with the idea that they formed part of some very poor provincial theatre. In short, everything was exquisitely rough shabby, and dirty. We are all creatures of habit; and in the course of time we become attached, even to nuisances. The members of the old house felt comfortable in their ricketty provisional booth ; they liked the stairs, the dark corridors, and the narrow cloakroom; they liked the benches -everything suggested reminiscences, and they clave unto the old house. But they had no choice left. It was impossible to promote their provisional abode to the rank of a permanent dwelling. But then, they insisted that the new house should not be much more splendid than the old.
    The architect, in his turn, could not conveniently either create dirt, or erect a wooden booth in the centre of the Gothic palace. He adopted a middle course. lie removed the more glaring among the ornaments and gildings; the saloon was grained in oak colour; the ceiling was laid in oak-panels; he shut out the light by narrowing and painting the windows; and he made a saloon which is neither old nor new ; neither grand nor comfortable; neither modern nor antique; neither simple nor highly ornamental; and neither clean-looking nor dirty; a saloon, in fact, which looks as if it were made of gingerbread.
    But the artist, foiled in his attempt at decoration, took his revenge secretly, but terribly. He ventilated the place. Towers were built, which would have served as church steeples, but which, in the present instance, were intended to conduct the atmospheric air upwards, to press it downwards, and finally, to smuggle it into the lungs of honorable members. A steam-engine was erected for the purpose of creating artificial currents of air. He built and pulled down, in order to build and pull down again. All this was very bad. The steam-engine was soon stopped, for the saloon, surrounded as it is by long corridors, has the advantage of such powerful currents of air, that they would serve to create colds, ague, and rheumatism, for all the inhabitants of the United Kingdom. The ceiling had to be brought down, because it interfered with the laws of acoustics. The artificial system of lighting the place had to be reduced to a more simple apparatus, for it endangered the safety of the members, and of the public in the galleries. The currents of air, through the artificial air-holes in the floor, were at once shut out, because they blew up the dust. In this manner, was the much vaunted system of ventilation demolished by bits, until nothing was left except the palpable uncheerfulness of the room itself. But let us enter, and pass the evening within its sacred precincts.
    The grand corridor, which leads, from Westminster-hall to the Central Hall shelters a great many persons, who sit, walk, or stand about: Many of them look weary and impatient. Who are they? They are the British public. They have orders to the gallery of the House, and wait until their turn comes. Each member is entitled to give an order. There are about six hundred members, and six hundred orders may be issued for every night. But the gallery cannot accommodate more than seventy or eighty persons. Those who come first are first admitted; and when the gallery is full, there is no help for it, the rest must wait. Their turn is, however, sure to come ; sometimes much sooner than they had a right to expect. The debates are in many instances so dry and uninteresting that the galleries get emptied almost as soon as they are filled. But on an important night, when the leaders of the house are expected to speak, it may now and then happen that an unfortunate “stranger” waits from three P.M. until past midnight without gaining admission. It is, however, perfectly absurd that, in the construction of the new Houses, no adequate accommodation was made for the public.
    As for ourselves, we are in no danger of waiting for admittance, because we had the good fortune to obtain orders for the Speaker's gallery, a place in front of and a little below, the stranger's gallery. The right of admission to this place is confined to the Speaker; and since that dignitary is not too lavish in his favours, the lucky possessors of orders can be quite certain of ample and convenient accommodation.
    It is five o'clock, and we take our seats. At the further end of the room, just opposite to us, we see the Speaker reclining in a comfortable leather-covered arm-chair with a case of solid wood, open in front, and bearing a strong resemblance to an academical pulpit. The Speaker is in his official costume, that is to say, he has a powdered wig and a black silk cloak. But in spite of these venerable attributes, he is by no means staid and majestic, and reclines with the greatest carelessness in his easy-chair, shutting his eyes as if he were going to sleep and again opening them and looking at papers, or talking to some of the members who have sauntered up to the chair. The whole house follows the Speaker's example ; the members stand in groups of twos and threes, talking, or they sit on the broad, stuffed benches, with their legs stretched out and their hats on their heads. They seem intent upon nothing but killing time. The sitting has commenced, but the fact is, that one of the clerks is reading a paper, the contents of which are pretty well known to every one, but which, according to the rules of the House, must be read.
    Our friend, Dr. Keif who, by some malicious contrivance of his own, has managed to get a full mastery over the English language, and who speaks that language with a correctness which is altogether scandalous in a ‘foreigner' — our friend Dr. Keif, I say, sits leaning over the gallery, with his hands behind his ears and his mouth wide open, anxious to know what the clerk is reading. But even he given it up in despair.
    “Impossible !“ says he. “The men down below talk and laugh and chat as schoolboys do when the schoolmaster is away. What's the good of that wigged fellow reading when no one listens to him? I'd like to throw my gloves down in order to awaken in those members some respect for the galleries. They are not by any means polite. I can't say I like their manners. Am I indeed in an assembly of English gentlemen, most revered and respectable Sir John ?”
    Sir John is quite an habitue in the house, and as such, he informs the Doctor, that these are mere preliminaries, and that everybody will be quiet enough when the debate has once commenced. Very well. We must have patience. And while waiting, we shall have plenty of time to examine all the parts of the house.
    We are, as has been mentioned, in the Speaker's gallery. Behind us is a small and crowded place devoted to the English public, and at its side is the members' gallery. The reporters' gallery is opposite to us, and above it, something like a gilt cage, in the shape of a shut-up verandah, in which a couple of ladies have found a temporary asylum. We cannot see them, but Sir John will have it that one of them is Lady John Russell. A true John Bull is lynx-eyed in matters aristocratic. But what pleasure the ladies can take in being in that gallery, is a mystery to me. They cannot see, they cannot hear, and, what is much worse, they have no chance of being seen.
    Dr. Keif cares not for the ladies. All his attention is devoted to the reporters. He is astonished to find them much graver and older-looking, and withal much more ennuyrs than the reporters of our extinct German parliaments. There are among them men who have grown old and grey in the profession, and who are likely to belong to it as long as they can hold a pencil.
    A few yards from the Speaker's arm-chair there is a table. Who has not heard of that famous article of furniture? It is the table of the House, on which all parliamentary documents are laid. That table has no affinity to the Presidents' bureaux, such as we have seen them in the chambers of Germany and France; it stands on the floor, like any common table, and is covered with green cloth. Seated at this table, their backs turned to the Speaker, are the clerks of the House. They are wigged and powdered, and have heaps of papers and petitions before then~ together with some bulky volumes in leather bindings. In short, the table has the appearance of the common domestic writing-table of the study or office. But there is something on the table which at once distinguishes it from all similar articles of furniture, viz., a heavy golden mace or sceptre. So long as this sceptre remains in its place, it is considered that the sitting continues; its removal signifies that the House is adjourned or that it has resolved itself into a committee.
    Look there just by the door is an arm-chair; and seated in it a gentleman in a dark uniform-coat with embroidered collar, knee breeches, black silk stockings, and a small sword. He is the Sergeant-at-Arms, the only armed person in the House; in a manner, the warden and chief door-keeper of the House, whose duty it is to execute the Speaker's warrants against members of Parliament and others who are guilty of a breach of privilege. Such persons are taken into custody by the Sergeant-at-Arms, who confines them in some very snug retreat within the precincts of the Parliamentary palace. While under his protection they are well taken care of~, and provided with all the necessaries and luxuries of life, at prides which are by many considered exorbitant. This man with the sword—whose income, by-the-bye, is about double the “gage” of a German general—has just risen from his comfortable seat. He is moving towards the table. On his arrival in the middle of the room, he stops and bows to the Speaker. He proceeds a few yards, and makes another bow—a few yards more, and bows again; and having thus arrived at the table, he makes a very low bow indeed.
    Dr. Keif is quite flushed with excitement and curiosity. “What is that man after?” says he. “He dances and jumps about, as if he were asking the Speaker to join him in a minuet!”
    The Sergeant, however, standing in front of the table, mutters a few words, which none but the initiated can understand. He takes the sceptre, removes it from the table, and puts it on something like a stool under it. Next, his face still turned towards the Speaker, he walks backwards, bowing at intervals, gains the door, and introduces two men with wigs on their heads, who, with many low bows, advance into the centre of the room. They are officers of the House of Lords, with some document or message, for which no one cares, because the majority of the members know all about it. Of course we take no interest in the message which has just been delivered to the Commons. The two Houses observe in their intercourse a great many ceremonial laws, the exact details of which are familiar to the older members, while no one else cares for them, but which, nevertheless, are observed by either House with a scrupulous punctilio. The two messengers from the Lords had to be duly announced; they were obliged to bow to the Speaker; they were not allowed to enter while the House was sitting, and for that reason the sitting was adjourned by the removal of the sceptre; they had to walk backwards to the door, looking at and bowing to the Speaker; and after the door had closed upon them, and not before, the Sergeant-at-Arms placed the sceptre again on the table, and the debate was resumed.
    All these ceremonies strike a stranger as exquisitely comical and they are enough to puzzle even an Englishman, who witnesses them for the first time, accustomed though he be to the quaint formalities and observances which are still prevalent in the Law Courts. Certain it is, that most of the continental states would long since have abolished all these traditional ceremonies. The Continentals would have been ashamed of the wigs and silk cloaks; they would have declared, that those old-fashioned attributes of official dignity were an insult to the spirit of the age, and they would have consigned them to the lumber-room; they would never for one moment have stopped to think that dangerous conflicts might possibly result from the condemnation of those insignificant and harmless formalities. Such things have happened in France, and in Germany, too. In the revolutions of either nation, much energy and valuable time has been wasted in an onslaught on mere outward formal and petty abuses, on diplomas of nobility, orders of knighthood, upper chambers, church privileges, and prerogatives of the crown. But there never was a compact majority, which, looking only at the chief points, sought to reconcile the lesser among the conflicting opinions, for the purpose of obtaining those results which every revolution should aim at—personal liberty, and the promotion of the national prosperity. These gained, the rest must follow. When every individual citizen and the nation altogether are interested in the maintenance of the liberties and improvements they have acquired, there can be no idea of a reaction. No person, no class is injured; and peaceful progress, and slow and sure reformatory action, are not only possible, but also necessary and unavoidable.

source: Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

Houses of Parliament - An immense Tudor Gothic building, covering nearly eight acres of ground, and constructed on the designs of the late Sir Charles Barry at a cost, up to the present date, of about £3,000,000. The best view at present is from the river— the end near Westminster-bridge being much injured in effect by the abandonment of the northern facade which formed part of the original design, and that towards the Abbey being as yet marred by the ugly and incongruous mass of the Law Courts. The ordinary public entrance is through Westminster Hall, on the right side of which are the entrances into the principal courts, while on the left is the private entrance of the members of the House of Commons. At the south end of the hall is a flight of steps leading through St. Stephen's Porch and Hall to the central hall, on the left or north side of which lies the portion of the building allotted to the Commons, and on the right or south side that belonging to the Queen and the Peers. A corridor leads in either direction to the “lobbies” of the respective Houses, where such of the public as have the entree can communicate with the members and immediately out of which the House itself opens; the Speaker's chair occupying the end opposite the door in the House of Commons, and the Throne a similar position in the House of Lords, the Woolsack being at some little distance in front of it. The various libraries, refreshment-rooms, &c appertaining to each are grouped around their respective Houses; the libraries occupying the river front, and the Conference Room being placed between them. Beyond the Commons Division are the Speaker's house and the offices, &c., of the Commons; and beyond that of the Peers the royal apartment, the Queen's entrance being through the Victoria Tower. The Committee Rooms are, for the most part, upstairs. The internal arrangement of the Houses proper is entirely different from that which obtains in France and elsewhere. There is no permanent “Right” or “Left,” nor any political distinction between the two portions; the right hand side of the House being always occupied by the party in power and the left by the Opposition, whatever may be their respective principles. Along the right and left sides of the House of Commons run the Division Lobbies—quite distinct from “the” lobby at the farther end—into one or other of which the members walk when a division is called, according as they desire to vote Aye or No, being counted by the “tellers” of the respective sides as they return into the House. Admission to the strangers' gallery of the House of Lords to hear debates is by a peer's order. An order from a member, or (preferably) from the Speaker, admits to the strangers' galleries of the House of Commons. These galleries are not very convenient, and hold but a small number of persons. It is therefore only the fortunate few who can obtain good places on great occasions, and then only after many weary hours of waiting. When Parliament is not sitting, admission to the Houses may be readily obtained. NEAREST Railway Station, Westminster-bridge; Omnibus Routes, Parliament-street, Victoria-street and Westminster-bridge; Cab-Rank, Opposite.  
source: Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

    Leaving the New Law Courts, and making our way once more towards Westminster Bridge, we come to the grand pile of buildings which contains the two HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT and all their belongings, and which, when seen from the river or the bridge, presents a very striking appearance. The buildings, though no longer new, are quite modern, and replace the old and inconvenient rooms in which the Lords and Commons used to sit and debate. It was on the evening of October 16th, 1834, that sheets of flame were seen to rise just behind Westminster Hall, and the news soon spread all over London that the Houses of Parliament were on fire. I scarcely need tell you that an immense crowd speedily assembled at Westminster. The bridge was all alive with spectators, some of whom even ventured to stand on the narrow ledge outside the parapets and next the water. Quickly the engines arrived, and water began to combat fire. The battle raged. for many hours, and it was feared that Westminster Hall, so venerable and so rich in historic memories, would fall a victim to the audacious flames. But as morning dawned, the ancient Hall was found still standing. The old House of Commons-  St. Stephen's Chapel -was utterly destroyed, whilst the old House of Lords, adjoining it, had been spared. 
    What was to be done? The members of Parliament must have some place to meet in. So the Lords were put for a time into another ancient room-the Painted Chamber-and their House was assigned to the Commons, till a new palace for both of them should be built. Accordingly Sir Charles Barry was employed to design and build the needful Houses; and after the lapse of several years this noble structure was completed. The front towards the river and that towards the land are splendid pieces of architecture; and the Victoria Tower, rising high above the southern end of the land front., seems like the main shaft of some gigantic cathedral built by the mighty men of old; whilst at the northern end, next the bridge, rises the lofty Clock Tower; to which we will presently pay a visit.
    This immense pile of buildings is so well proportioned in its various details that we do not at first realize how great its bulk really is. It actually covers nearly eight acres of ground. It has eleven hundred rooms, one hundred staircases, and more than three miles of corridors, or passages! Its river front is nine hundred feet long, and is decorated with the statues and arms of the kings and queens of England from the Conquest to our own days. The Victoria Tower is seventy-five feet square, and rises to the height of three hundred and forty feet.
    These new Houses take into their precincts old Westminster Hall, and the crypt of St. Stephen's Chapel-an ancient cellar, or vault, which has been brightened and decorated, and is fitted up as a chapel, for the use of members of Parliament. Passing through the fine old Hall, with its marvellous roof, we come to the Central Octagon Hall-a grand apartment, eighty feet high-from which the right hand passage will take us to the Lords,' and the left to the Commons.' The House of Peers is a noble room, magnificently fitted up, having eighteen niches for statues of the Magna Charta barons, and twelve windows of staiiied glass, which at night are lighted from the outside. Amongst the notable things in this apartment are, the throne on which the Queen sits when she opens Parliament, the chair for the Prince of Wales, and the ' woolsack' for the Lord Chancellor; the large frescoes, or pictures painted on the walls themselves; and the Reporters' and Strangers' Galleries. The House of Commons is not so highly adorned as the Lords', but it is also very beautiful. Its windows are of stained glass, and its walls are lined with carved oak.
    The royal entrance is under the Victoria Tower, and leads to the Norman Porch; then on the right hand is the Queen's Robing Room, ornamented with frescoes representing (imaginary) scenes in the life of King Arthur. Thence we pass along a grand room, lofty, wide, and long-the Victoria Gallery, the ceiling of which is richly gilt and emblazoned, while its windows are of stained glass, and its walls are decorated with frescoes depicting scenes in English history. One of the largest shows us the meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the battle of Waterloo; and on the opposite side is a painting of the death of Nelson: both pictures of intense interest, and not easily forgotten.
    We will now pass on to one of the most remarkable portions of this wonderful block of grand buildings. The CLOCK TOWER was, as its name imports, mainly built for the purpose of supporting the great clock and its monster set of bells; and since the machinery for measuring time was first invented, no clock-case so large and elaborate has yet been contrived. Its whole height is divided into nine storeys, exclusive of the clock-room, bell- chamber, and lantern. Each of these floors is divided into at least four, and sometimes many more apartments, which run parallel with each of the four faces of the tower. The inside of the tower (within these rooms) is twenty- eight feet square, and is occupied first by an air-shaft, eight feet wide, for ventilating the whole of the Houses of Parliament, and which rises to the very top; and secondly, by the clock-shaft, a small inner tower of brick~vork. This latter is the shaft on which the great clock stands, and down which its weights descend. It is one hundred and sixty feet high, eleven feet long by eight feet six inches wide, and its wall is twenty inches thick. This space was only just enough to admit of ' Big Ben' getting to the top of the tower: he had to go up sideways, for he is nine and a half feet in diameter and seven feet ten inches high. The lower floors of the tower are ordinary offices.
    Access to the upper parts of the tower is gained by a spiral staircase, which is of a great length. For the first hundred steps or so, the way is lit with gas, and the air is close and oppressive. With the next hundred you emerge into the dim daylight, which now and then one of the sixty-eight windows that adorn the tower throws across the staircase. A hundred steps more, and the way is dark again, and you instinctively feel you have attained a great height, and walk with nervous caution, or look shudderingly over the rails down the well-stairs, which seem to end in a faint bluish light, dimly seen far beneath. Another effort, and sorely out of breath-for you have climbed three hundred and thirty steps in all-you are in the clock-room. It is a lofty, dark chamber-twenty-eight feet by nineteen, and some twentyfive feet high.
    If the whole apparatus of the great clock were made to be wound by hand, it would require four or five hours' continuous winding each day; and even then would cause such hard labour as would be too much almost for convicts; the handle would have to be turned some four or five thousand times, and weights of many tons drawn up to a height of one hundred and fifty-six feet. It is, therefore, wound up by water, by means of a self-acting machine. Every dial-frame-and there are four of them-weighs four tons, and is twenty-two feet six inches in diameter. The space between each minute-mark on the face is one foot two inches; the figures are upwards of two feet high, and nearly six feet apart. The minute-hand is sixteen feet long, and notwithstanding that it is made of copper beaten out as thin as is consistent with its length and strength, it still weighs two hundredweight. The hour-hand is nine feet long, and is fastened with the minute-hand to the centre of the dial by a huge gilt rose, (part of the arms of Westminster,) which is about the size of a small table. All the spaces between the figures and work on the clock-face are glazed with enamelled glass, so as to present the appearance of a white dial in the day, and allow it to be illuminated during the night. Each dial is lit with sixty gas jets, which are turned on and off by a peculiar adaptation of the clock-work. The cost of the gas for this is £500 per annum. The single-dial clock at Mechlin, in Belgium, is larger than these dials, but for a four-dialled chock there is none in the world with such large faces. St. Paul's chock has only two seventeen feet dials, and is wound up every day; and next to this, the largest clock in the United Kingdom is that of Shandon Church, at Cork, which has four dials, each sixteen feet in diameter.
    Leaving the dial-rooms, we again ascend that wearisome staircase, till at last it terminates in the bright sunlight, more than two hundred feet above the streets, amid light handsome arches, with the outside Gothic work of hammered iron, all richly gilded. This is the bell-chamber, where the iron tongues of the chock below are placed. The mechanism by which Big Ben' and his chiming smaller bells are suspended is simple, yet. beautifully adapted to its purpose. The whole apparatus only weighs some fourteen tons; yet it is no exaggeration to say that it is almost strong enough to bear the whole tower. The actual weight of the five bells it supports, with their hammers, is upwards of thirty tons. Big Ben' hangs in the centre of a beam called the collar,' and weighs sixteen tons. His thundering note is E natural. The hammer and lever which strike the note weigh together one ton.
    So much for the bell-chamber and its hard, gloomy inmates. They are fixed in their places, and can never ring a joyful peal, but only mark the passage of the fleeting hours, or be tolled slowly for some great calamity, which shall bow our heads in mourning. From the bell-chamber the works go higher still, but the stairs cease, and the lofty points beyond are only to be gained by mounting ladders, which are raised from one perilous scaffolding to another. Slowly the visitor climbs, creeping from ladder to ladder, catching through small openings now and then a dizzy glimpse of roofs and tops of lofty buildings, with the mighty city half hidden in its smoke, spread like a map far down beneath him. A short ladder leads from this place to the lantern gallery, where you seem suddenly to enter fairy-hand, and are dazzled with the brilliancy of gold and colour around. You are now high over the clock, and~ beneath the pointed roof. The work which from below seemed such light tracery and network of golden lines, is suddenly transformed to beams, shields and flying arches, so massive in themselves as almost to form another tower and so thickly gilded that they seem as if wrought from the solid precious metal. Higher than this lantern-gallery the visitor cannot go, though the pointed roof is still one hundred feet above him, and, light and graceful as it appears from the ground, yet it nevertheless actually contains four hundred tons of iron!
    Once again upon the ground, the great Clock Tower seems to us more lofty and magnificent than ever. It is merely one ornamental portion of our Houses of Parliament, but if it stood alone it would still be a grand monument of taste and skill.

source: Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)

HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT ... This handsome pile of buildings, situated on the left bank of the Thames, between the river and Westminster Abbey, is one of the most magnificent structures in Europe, and the largest Gothic edifice in the world, covering an area of nearly eight acres. There are 100 staircases, 1,100 rooms, and more than two miles of corridors. Erected (1840-58) by Sir Charles Barry, at a cost of nearly three millions sterling. The Victoria Tower is 75 feet square, and rises to a height of 340 feet. The Clock Tower is 40 feet square, and rises to a height of 320 feet. Admission to the Stranger's Gallery of the House of Commons during a debate is by a member's order. The interior may be viewed on Saturdays by tickets obtainable - gratis - at the Norman Porch, Victoria Tower, from 10 to 3:30 p.m.
WESTMINSTER HALL, NEW PALACE YARD ... adjoins the Houses of Parliament, to which it now forms a handsome vestibule. This noble hall was erected by Richard II, 1398, and formed part of the old Palace of Westminster. Within its walls the great State trials of former times were held. The building is particularly noticeable for the beautifully constructed timbering of its roof. The dimensions of the Hall are, length, 290 feet, breadth, 68 feet, height, 90 feet.

source: Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895


To gain the best view of the Houses of Parliament it is necessary to venture upon the Thames. This new Palace of Westminster dates from 1840; and Sir Charles Barry's designs were adopted in preference to ninety-six other plans submitted in competition. It belongs to the Tudor style of architecture, and is highly ornate. The Houses cover eight acres, boast more than 1,100 rooms, and have cost some three millions. The Clock Tower is easily distinguishable, and is 318 ft. high, or 18 ft. more than the Middle Tower, while the Victoria Tower is 340 ft. in height. Through the Victoria Tower the Queen passes when she opens Parliament, and beyond it will be noticed the towers of Westminster Abbey. By the riverside is the Terrace, where, in summer, legislators seek fresh air and entertain ladies at afternoon tea

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Visitors to the Central Hall of the Houses of Parliament, whither they go in search of Lords or Commons, are familiar enough with St. Stephen's Hall, through which they have to pass, or in which they have to wait for admission to the Strangers' Gallery on a full night in the Lower House. It stands on the site of St. Stephen's Chapel. which was built not far short of 600 years ago, and was once the meeting place of the Commons. The statues on either side of the Hall are marble effigies of celebrated statesmen. On the south side (the right in our view) are Hampden, Selden, Walpole, Chatham, Pitt, and Grattan; on the north, Clarendon, Falkland, Somers, Mansfield, Fox, and Burke. The handsome doors at either end swing between niches containing statues of early English Sovereigns and their queens.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Not without reason is the house of Peers known as the Gilded Chamber. Under the canopy at the south end is the Throne, with a seat on the right for the Prince of Wales and on the left for the Monarch's consort. In front of the throne is the Lord Chancellor's Woolsack. In the foreground of our view is the Bar to which the Commons are summoned, where also barristers plead in appeals to the Lords. The red benches accommodate 550 members. In the galleries flanking the Throne are places for ambassadors and distinguished strangers; the side galleries are for peeresses. The Chamber is embellished with portraits of Kings and Queens of England since the Conquest, with statues of King Johns barons, and with frescoes illustrative of scenes in English history.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Her Majesty's faithful Commons meet in a chamber 75 feet by 45 feet and the green benches on the floor and in the side galleries contain 194 fewer seats than there are members. The Speaker's chair is at the north end of the House. In front of it is the Clerk's table, the resting-place of the mace and above it the reporters' gallery, while behind the iron grille, higher still, are the ladies' seats. Peers and strangers, distinguished or otherwise, are admitted to galleries at the opposite end. The party in power occupy the seats on the Speaker's right, the front bench being reserved for Ministers, while on the left sit the Opposition, and on the same side, below the gangway, the Irish Nationalists. The House is lighted at night from above the ceiling, which is of glass.

source: The Queen's London, 1896


Although now nothing more than a vestibule to the Houses of Parliament, there are few buildings in London with such interesting historical associations as Westminster Hall. This view of it is taken from the New Palace Yard end, looking towards St. Stephens Porch. It formed part of the Palace founded before the Norman Conquest, and used as a royal residence until the time of Henry VIII. William Rufus began the Hall, which is a building of unusual size and beauty. here Charles I., William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and many another, were condemned to death, and the Seven Bishops and Warren Hastings were acquitted The entrances to the old Law Courts (now demolished) through the wall on the right of our view have been blocked up; the statues on the left are those of various British monarchs.

source: The Queen's London, 1896

George Birch, The Descriptive Album of London, c.1896

see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here