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Westminster: A New Palace for a New Age

By Christine Riding
Working building

Image of Gilbert Scott's Commons Chamber
Gilbert Scott's Commons Chamber ©
The new Palace of Westminster may have looked like a medieval royal palace, but it was also a modern working building, employing up-to-date construction and ventilation methods.

Charles Barry had to balance the complex ceremonial, residential and working needs of Parliament, making provisions for the State Opening, parliamentary debates, accommodation for officials (the most important being Speaker’s House), committee rooms, offices, kitchens, refreshment areas and so on.

This was no easy task, as the palace was the working environment for thousands of individuals - from the monarch, Lords and MPs to librarians, clerks, catering staff and household servants.

'... in the 1820s the MPs demanded a smoking room.'

Beyond the ceremonial core, as represented by the Royal Approach and the two debating chambers, the new building was to contain facilities specified by the two houses in accordance with modern expectations of comfort and convenience. The most important of these new facilities for MPs and Lords lay on the principal floor, with libraries and refreshment rooms near the debating chambers, which were the heart of parliamentary life.

This focussing of utilities on site was a relatively new development. For example it was only in 1794 that the Speaker’s House was introduced, and in 1817 that the House of Commons had a library. In the 1770s, John Bellamy had begun to provide refreshments within the Palace of Westminster in two improvised spaces near the old Commons Chamber. And in the 1820s the MPs demanded a smoking room.

All of this underlined the fact that MPs and Lords were spending longer at the palace than before. Not surprisingly, their expectations of what the new palace should provide was based on the new gentlemen’s clubs that were then springing up down Pall Mall, which was just across St James’s Park from Westminster.

'... the Palace of Westminster was described as "the best club in London".'

Barry himself was the architect for the Travellers' Club (1829-32) and the Reform Club (1837-41), both of which provided a grand setting with all the modern conveniences. As the century progressed the facilities increased - to such an extent that in 1905 the Palace of Westminster was described as ‘the best club in London’.

As with the ceremonial areas of the building, these parts of the palace were specifically designed and decorated in the Gothic style - in everything from wallpapers, carpets, tiles and ceiling panels to mirrors, hat stands and desk calendars. All of these employed the same hierarchy as set out in the royal apartments and the Chambers, but this time also taking into account the function of the room - the residences, libraries and dining rooms were more richly furnished than the cloakrooms or bathrooms.

The interiors also (to an extent) followed the colour code established elsewhere in the building, where the House of Lords areas were predominantly red, a royal colour, and the House of Commons predominantly green. The colour coding is still used today.

Published: 2005-02-07

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