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

By Jacqueline Riding
A new chamber

Image of Joseph Nash's interior of the Commons' Chamber, 1858
Joseph Nash's interior of the Commons' Chamber in 1858 ©
By 1833, it had been accepted that remodelling the existing chamber was futile and that a new chamber was required.

Joseph Hume - the great economic radical - assumed the role of chief agitator for new accommodation but was thwarted (ironically perhaps) for reasons of economy. The fire of 1834, which destroyed so much of the palace and completely gutted St Stephen's, resolved the issue. As one observer commented, 'Mr Hume's motion for a new house is carried without a division'.

'... such buildings became valued as "memories and living records of the past" ...'

To the more conservative commentators, this calamity was perceived as rightful retribution for the passing of the Great Reform Act, which in their eyes damaged the natural right to rule of the aristocracy and in the process also unbalanced the constitution. Others saw it as wiping the slate clean - an opportunity to create a modern, forward-looking chamber that exactly reflected the progressive nature of Parliament itself.

The fire did more than offer the potential for the creation of a purpose-built modern legistature. It reminded people that ancient buildingsshould be valued as 'memories and living records of the past' – witnesses of great events. As one observer of the fire commented:

‘I felt as if a link would be burst asunder in my national existence, and that the history of my native land was about to become, by the loss of this silent but existing witness, a dream of dimly shadowed actors and events.’
The Gentleman's Magazine

Published: 2005-04-02

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