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18 September 2014
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St Stephen's Chapel: From the Crown to the People

By Jacqueline Riding
'First Commoner'

Image of Henry Addington, Speaker of the Commons
Henry Addington - Speaker of the Commons 1789 to 1801 ©
After the Glorious Revolution the position of Speaker became pre-eminent within the House of Commons, and 'ranked next to the peers of Great Britain both in and out of Parliament'.

The rise of the status of the Speaker reflects the rise of the Commons itself. By the late 18th century, an area along the river front adjoining St Stephen’s was designated the residence of the Speaker. As part of these changes, the lower chapel became the Speaker’s dining room. Prior to this, Speakers had lived in houses in and around London at their own expense.

'What had been the residence of kings, was now the residence of the principal figure of the House of Commons.'

But such was the increased pressure of Parliamentary business, and therefore the requirement for the Speaker to be present, that it became prudent for the incumbent not only to live on site, but adjacent to the Commons Chamber. What had been the residence of kings, was now the residence of the principal figure of the House of Commons.

As head of the social as well as political life of the Commons, the Speaker was required to entertain on a regular basis. A protocol was formed under the first resident, Henry Addington (Speaker 1789 to 1801), as described by Charles Abbot:

'The rule is for the Speaker to give his first Saturday’s dinner to the Ministers and their friends in office, who are Members of the House of Commons. His first Sunday is for the Opposition, and afterwards his parties are promiscuous [ie mixed or casual] - chiefly his private friends and those who visit his levee on Sunday evenings.'

Amongst Addington’s dinner guests in the former under-chapel were some of the great politicians of the day, including William Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (politician and playwright), William Wilberforce (campaigner against slavery) and Lord Castlereagh.

The tradition, or indeed necessity, for the Speaker to reside at the Palace of Westminster continued within the new palace. Sir Charles Barry (designer of the Houses of Parliament after the fire in 1834) provided a magnificent sequence of apartments, located within the river front pavilion beneath the clock tower, with a suitably grand entrance hall and staircase.

The Residence reflected the status of the office of Speaker and its incumbent, and continues to be used for its original purpose to this day.

Published: 2005-04-02

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