Why Is the Palace of Westminster’s Design so Iconic?

Alice Roberts

5 mins

31 Oct 2019

The Palace of Westminster has long been a seat of political power. However, after a devastating fire gutted the principal debating rooms in 1834, the Victorians became obsessed with rebuilding this beacon of democracy. How did they do it?

Fire breaks out

In 1834, the Exchequer was faced with a problem. Two cart-loads of wooden tally sticks, a type of recording device for an out of date accounting system, were taking up unnecessary space. The obvious solution seemed to be to burn them, so they were sent to the underfloor stoves in the basement of the House of Lords.

Parliament before the 1834 fire.

As workmen carried out their orders to dispose of the rubbish, there were concerns by a group of visitors above regarding the heat of the floor, which was also emitting smoke. The workmen below insisted on finishing the task, before they extinguished the fires. At 5pm, the premises were locked up as usual.

Turner watched the fire of 1834 and painted several scenes, including ‘The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons’ (1835).

Within an hour, the Palace was reported to be on fire, and it was soon totally engulfed in an angry blaze emitting black smoke. Both Houses of Parliament were destroyed.

As a result of heroic firefighting efforts, and a change in the direction of the wind during that night, Westminster Hall was saved. The Jewel Tower, Undercroft Chapel, and parts of St Stephen’s were the only other parts to survive.

The Westminster allure

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, politics was in limbo until a new venue for parliamentary debate could be found. William IV immediately offered Buckingham Palace, hoping to get rid of a residence he loathed. Some proposed moving to Charing Cross or St James’ Park.

However, it was felt the historical importance of the site of Westminster was too great, and all these options were rejected. Instead, the Painted Chamber and White Chamber were repaired for temporary use, and were put to use again in February 1835.

Neo-classical or Gothic?

The White House was built in the neo-classical style in the early 19th century. Image source: Cezary p, MattWade / CC BY-SA 4.0.

Whilst politicians were able to get back to business, a heated public debate flared up regarding how to rebuild the Palace. The neo-classical style was popular in the United States and used successfully for the design of the White House. However, it had an association with revolution and republicanism, which was unsavoury to Victorian tastes.

The Gothic style seemed to embody conservative values and represented a bygone age of inherent Englishness. In June 1835, the Royal Commission, which was appointed to cover the rebuilding of the Palace, announced the new structure was to be of Gothic, or Elizabethan, design.

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A winner is announced

In 1836, a public competition was launched to decide the specific design of the intended, Gothic structure. 97 entries were received, each one identifiable only by a pseudonym or symbol. Four of these were shortlisted.

The commissioners seemed to agree unanimously on entry Number 64, which bore the emblem of a portcullis. The winner was revealed to be Charles Barry, already a famous architect.

Sir Charles Barry conceived the winning design for the New Houses of Parliament.

This submission was aided in part by Augustus W. N. Pugin, who was paid £400 to assist with drawings. This agreement aided Pugin, who was prevented from entering under his own name because of a recent conversion to Roman Catholicism. The design was described as,

‘a quadrangular pile, with the principal front facing the Thames, and a tower in the centre, 170ft high’

The old and new were carefully welded together, enabling the surviving medieval buildings to blend seamlessly with the new Victorian Gothic structure.

Unlike the organically built structure before the fire, Barry’s design was custom designed for parliamentary use. The Sovereign’s throne, the Lords Chamber and the Commons Chamber were placed in a straight line, linking the three elements of Parliament in an unbroken form.

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Construction starts

In 1839, a committee including Barry, two geologists and a stone carver toured the country to find a suitable stone with which to build the new Palace. They settled upon the sand-coloured limestone from the Anston Quarry in Yorkshire.

It was chosen because it was cheap, it was good for intricate carving and it could be supplied in blocks up to four feet thick. By 1849, however, the stone began to decay as a result of atmospheric pollution from coal burning in London. Barry experimented with various compositions which seemed to halt the decay.

Barry’s award winning plan.

Construction of the new Palace began on 27 August 1840, as Barry’s wife laid the first stone. The site was extended to about eight acres by reclaiming land from the river. Barry estimated it would be completed in six years at a cost of £724,986.

As with every public project, it ran vastly over budget and over schedule. The project took more than 30 years to complete, at a cost of over £2 million.

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Controversy

There is great debate regarding who deserves greater credit for the design of the Palace of Westminster. Although Barry was officially the architect, he relied heavily on Pugin to execute these plans.

Every detail of the sumptuous Gothic interiors – carvings, gilt work, panelling, furniture, doorknobs, spill trays – were designed by Pugin. Pugin was also responsible for the four-faced clock on Elizabeth Tower – known as Big Ben.

Augustus Pugin designed the interiors of the Houses of Parliament.

His displeasure at Barry’s work on the exterior was summarised in a remark to an acquaintance,

‘All Grecian, sir; Tudor details on a classic body’

However, neither man would enjoy the success of their designs. Barry died 10 years before the Palace was completed, and, under the strain of his work, Pugin was committed to an asylum for the insane, and died soon after in 1852. Despite this, the genius of both architects has been immortalised in stone.

150 years later, the Houses of Parliament remains as impressive as ever.

The House of Lords. Image source: UK Parliament / CC BY 3.0.

Featured Image: Alvesgaspar / CC BY-SA 3.0.