A troubled project - ended by a fire: restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster before 1834

5 Oct 2017
'The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons' – painting by J. M. W. Turner. Photographed at the Cleveland Museum of Art / Public domain
'The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons' – painting by J. M. W. Turner. Photographed at the Cleveland Museum of Art / Public domain

The troubled progress of the Restoration and Renewal project for the current Palace of Westminster turns out to be only a contemporary echo of a 17th and 18th century experience. Personal feuds, 'inconvenienced' Members and a Byzantine management structure were just some of the challenges faced by the reformers of the medieval Palace.

Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the House of Lords (1660-1832), History of Parliament Trust
Editor of the House of Lords (1660-1832), History of Parliament Trust

Dr Robin Eagles

Dr Robin Eagles
Editor of the House of Lords (1660-1832), History of Parliament Trust

Dr Robin Eagles is Editor of the House of Lords (1660-1832) section at the History of Parliament Trust, currently working on the history of the Lords, 1715-1790. His publications include an edition of the diaries of 18th-century radical MP John Wilkes and numerous entries in the History of Parliament: the Lords 1660-1715 (CUP, 2016). You can follow the progress of the ‘Georgian Lords’ on Twitter, @GeorgianLords, and via the blog series.

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On 16 October 1834 fire raged through the old Palace of Westminster. By the time the blaze was brought under control much of the medieval complex had been destroyed, although significant parts of the old structure survived. Despite this, the long-neglected decision was made at last to take the opportunity to rebuild.

The story of the construction of the current Palace of Westminster is well known (especially since the publication of Caroline Shenton's recent volumes). So too is the process by which from the mid-18th century onwards substantial additions to the old Palace were made by John Vardy, James Wyatt and John Soane. What is less familiar is the longer tale of the constant tinkering and updating of the old palace that took place throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

As early as the 1720s there were calls for a 'grand scheme' to be adopted to deal with the problems of the increasingly impractical spaces. During the 1730s detailed plans were drawn up for reconstructing what was already recognised as a crumbling and increasingly unsuitable labyrinth. Time and again, though, the nettle was not grasped.

Sketch of the old Palace of Westminster before the fire of 1834
Sketch of the old Palace of Westminster before the fire of 1834

One of the reasons for the failure to make extensive alterations until the end of the 18th century may have been the Byzantine management structure within the complex. Nominally at the head of affairs in the Palace of Westminster, then as now, was the Lord Great Chamberlain. This was an hereditary office, which from the Restoration through to the end of the 18th century was held by a member of the Bertie family, earls of Lindsey and later dukes of Ancaster & Kesteven. By virtue of this position the Berties, technically, were the senior officers in the palace and responsible for overseeing the building's management and the appointment of staff.

However, while the Lord Great Chamberlain was the principal official within Parliament, in reality he had to coordinate his efforts with a variety of other people. Among these were the Lord Chamberlain, head of the royal household; the master of the Great Wardrobe; the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod (and staff); and the members of both chambers and their respective committees - in the case of the Lords, the Committee for Privileges. Management of Westminster Hall was technically in the hands of the Warden of the Fleet Prison.

The extent of the Lord Great Chamberlain's problem in trying to get things done is indicated by a minor warrant of August 1678 by which Lindsey sought to have new matting provided for the floor of the Lords' chamber and new coverings made for the furniture. To achieve this he had to request that the Lord Chamberlain issue his own warrant to the Wardrobe so that they could then provide the necessary materials to Black Rod.

Given these overlapping roles, on occasion - unsurprisingly - the Lord Great Chamberlain and Lord Chamberlain found themselves at loggerheads over their rights and responsibilities within the palace, as in one high-profile dispute that took place shortly after the accession of James II.

The Members themselves were far from shy of making their own demands too. Thus, in 1692 it was the Lords Committee for Privileges that was responsible for making out an order for the table in the Lords' chamber to be lowered and the clerks' seating sunk into the floor to improve the sight-lines.

In addition to all these potentially conflicting official bodies within the palace, there were a variety of private individuals who had influence by virtue of their positions as tenants of the various houses, apartments, stores, coffee shops and taverns which were scattered throughout the complex. Cotton House was one of the more famous private residences that sat in the midst of the palace, but many other private individuals, such as Colonel Cooke, who fed news to the duke of Ormond, inhabited lodgings in houses in Old Palace Yard.

Westminster Hall was, as well as home to the law courts, the most public of the palace's venues. It was in effect used as a 'shopping mall' for much of the period, with its sides crammed with a variety of stalls selling books, prints and other items.

It was also occasionally pressed into service for major state events, such as treason trials and coronation banquets. During state trials the storekeepers were forced to shut up their shops and were compensated for their lost trade by being offered window seats to view the proceedings. Despite this, some made their resentment at being temporarily turfed out of their places more than apparent. One such, Samuel Drybutter, was forced to apologise for declaring that he 'did not care if all the place was on fire' when scaffolding was erected for the trial of Earl Ferrers in the summer of 1760 [PA, LGC/5/1, f. 156] . Others clearly did not feel that the Lord Great Chamberlain's elevated status should be any impediment to them making clear their own rights within Westminster. Thus when permission was granted to a coffee-seller to set up shop in the Court of Wards, Lady Beach wrote in strident terms to assert the right of her husband, Sir Richard, as proprietor there and to insist that Lindsey back down. To make quite clear that they meant business, the Beaches made overt their willingness to go to law if Lindsey proved obdurate.

Westminster was far from the only place to prove resistant to any 'grand scheme' for redevelopment through the 17th and 18th centuries, despite complaints of the place being cold, damp and plagued by inefficient chimneys that smoked. However, the tendency there to tinker rather than undertake a substantial programme of modernisation was practically an art form.

In 1660, following the Restoration of the Monarchy and House of Lords (both having been abolished in 1649), new offices were hastily put together for the returning peers and their officials. In 1672 a two-storey addition was tacked on next to the bishops' rooms for the use of the Earl Marshal; and further overflow accommodation for the Lord Great Chamberlain himself was ordered to be built on the river front.

Internal alterations included the construction of galleries in both Lords and Commons. Those in the Commons constructed by Wren were much admired, but the Lords never seem to have accepted the 'inconveniences' that resulted from loss of light and the tendency of 'strangers' to make use of the extra seating; thus on the two occasions when galleries were imposed on them they lasted for less than a decade before being ripped down again.

By the 1730s there were calls for a more systematic response in preference to the constant minor refurbishments that had been the norm. This followed the 1719 scare precipitated by William Benson, surveyor general, who had reported to the Lords that the whole place was about to collapse. Although the Benson report was quickly dismissed as scaremongering (and Benson sacked), by the summer of 1739 progress finally appeared about to be made. That summer, plans were drawn up for 'a more spacious and convenient edifice... for the reception of parliament'. The proposed scheme was for an elegant, classical building. A variety of internal arrangements were suggested, including the innovation of circular or oval debating chambers.

A sketch of the facade to the old Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, UK
A sketch of the facade to the old Palace of Westminster, Houses of Parliament, UK

Needless to say, the scheme was not adopted. Expense was clearly part of the problem. The programme was estimated to cost £160,000 (approximately £9,500,000 in modern terms) but this did not include the cost (and no doubt intricate legal negotiations) involved in acquiring the land and houses not owned by the Crown. Westminster may well have been a royal palace but it was also home or workplace for a number of others, and some (like Drybutter and Beach) did not take kindly to their interests being upset by even small-scale disruptions. It thus took the more extreme event of an inferno to bring about the kind of dramatic change that had long been needed.

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