British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Following a disastrous fire in 1834, construction of the new Houses of Parliament began in 1840 under the direction of architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. Built in Perpendicular Gothic style, the Lords’ Chamber opened in 1847 and the Commons opened five years later. In addition to their importance as the center of the British government, the structures have become enduring landmarks that have helped to define London’s Thames riverbank.

Summary of Event

At about 6:00 p.m. on October 16, 1834, a fire Fires;London broke out under the debating chamber of the House of Lords in Westminster Palace, the formal name for the Houses of Parliament. Multitudes watched from both shores of the Thames River, and artist J. W. M. Turner Turner, J. M. W. [p]Turner, J. M. W.;and London fire[London fire] recorded the sight for posterity. A very low tide made it impossible to pump enough water to fight the fire effectively, but the oldest portion of the structure, Westminster Hall, was saved from the conflagration. London;Houses of Parliament Barry, Sir Charles Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore Architecture;British Houses of Parliament Great Britain;Houses of Parliament London;Westminster Palace [kw]British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt (Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852) [kw]Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt, British (Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852) [kw]Parliament Are Rebuilt, British Houses of (Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852) [kw]Parliament Are Rebuilt, British Houses of (Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852) [kw]Rebuilt, British Houses of Parliament Are (Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852) London;Houses of Parliament Barry, Sir Charles Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore Architecture;British Houses of Parliament Great Britain;Houses of Parliament London;Westminster Palace [g]Great Britain;Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852: British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt[2180] [c]Architecture;Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852: British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt[2180] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 27, 1840-Feb., 1852: British Houses of Parliament Are Rebuilt[2180] Barry, Edward Middleton

Now a part of London, Westminster was for many centuries a suburb of the city and home to the royal family. White Hall, Westminster Abbey London;Westminster Abbey Westminster Abbey , and Westminster Palace, dating back to the days of King William II (r. 1087-1100), constituted the royal precincts. The king and his counselors resided there when they were in London until 1512. The nobles of the House of Lords met in the king’s or queen’s direct proximity, while the Commons generally met in the refectory or chapter house of the nearby abbey. During the Reformation, private chapels, including that of the king, were outlawed, and the palace’s St. Stephen’s Chapel became home to the Commons in 1547. As royal power and authority waned and Parliament’s grew during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Westminster Palace truly became the center of the kingdom and the nascent empire, though it remained a haphazard collection of medieval structures. The fire Fires;London wiped the slate clean.

London’s Houses of Parliament.

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

While conservatives lamented the destruction of the ancient seat of government, liberals, who held sway in the 1830’s, saw the project as a great opportunity to re-embody the newly reforming Parliament. Some wanted to relocate the Houses (they resented the term “palace” with its undemocratic overtones) on a new site, away from the traditional royal neighborhood. Proponents made much of the odd shape of the original building site and problems of drainage and flooding. King William IV William IV (king of Great Britain and Hanover) [p]William IV (king of Great Britain and Hanover)[William 04 (king of Great Britain and Hanover)];and Houses of Parliament[Houses of Parliament] offered Buckingham Palace London;Buckingham Palace , but the radical member of Parliament Joseph Hume countered with the idea of St. James Park or behind the National Gallery. Sydney Smirke Smirke, Sydney and the Westminster Review Westminster Review championed Green Park, across from Buckingham Palace. The editor of Architectural Magazine, John Loudon Loudon, John , suggested Leicester Square, and Alexander Rainy preferred to see the buildings constructed at Charing Cross, connecting them to the development of Regent Street and London’s broader urban development.

In March of 1835 the House of Commons appointed a select committee to advise on sites and architectural styles. The original site was kept, but arguments now centered on the style of the Houses. The classical style traditionally had great appeal in England, but so did the flavor of continental revolution and Catholic monarchism. Given the aesthetic sway of Romanticism, a more native style such as Gothic or Elizabethan proved more popular. A design competition was organized around these two choices and announced on June 3. Any republicanism embodied in the Classical was obviated, while English tradition and the stability it implied carried the day. A royal commission was empaneled to judge the architectural drawings and plans, and on January 31, 1836, Charles Barry’s entry was chosen.

Barry had selected a fifteenth-century Perpendicular Gothic style that echoed the Henry VII Chapel in the abbey. It was a style he had worked with in Birmingham Birmingham, England;architecture of . Barry had studied architecture on the Continent, and his first important work had been St. Peter’s Church in Brighton. After additional churches in Manchester Manchester, England;architecture of and Oldham, he had his first significant commissions in London. He employed the designer Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin to draft his entry for Westminster Palace, a natural choice since Pugin was a vociferous advocate of authentic Gothic revival and a past collaborator with Barry in Birmingham. Pugin also was a Catholic convert, a Shakespearean set designer at Covent Garden and King’s Theatre, an architect, and a firm believer in medieval-style social and political hierarchy. The pair continued fine-tuning the plans until May, when they published the final design. At this point Pugin left to pursue other projects, and Barry proposed the cost estimate of £700,000, which was quickly raised to £865,000.

To help dispel fears of hydraulic problems, work on the Thames embankment was accelerated, a project that increased and regularized somewhat the new building’s footprint. Barry’s wife ceremonially laid the keystone on April 27, 1840, and work began in earnest. The firm of Grissell and Peto carried out most of the construction. The stone selected for the exterior was carefully chosen, but unfortunately it began to wear soon after placement. Nonetheless, the walls rapidly went up on the long building with its great courtyards and rows of windows. Barry relieved the potential monotony of this type of edifice by applying asymmetry to the elevation itself and to the two main towers, the one over the royal entrance—King’s and later Victoria Tower—at 336 feet tall and the clock tower at the opposite end, home of Big Ben, which is 316 feet tall. A third tower was added for ventilation over the central lobby, adding further interest to the skyline if not cleaner air inside.

In 1844, when Barry’s plan for the structure was finally completed, he brought in Pugin once again, this time to carry out the design work for everything from inkwells to door frames to wallpaper and furniture Furniture design . Pugin’s taste for and knowledge of “authentic medieval” enabled him to create a unified and meaningful program of decoration that runs from the austere in the Commons Chamber, to the lush and extravagant in the royal rooms. Pugin and Barry established the so-called Thames shops to carry out the exquisite manual craftwork in metal, wood, plaster, stone, and glass. Although Pugin died in 1852, his designs continued to shape the decorative work in its latter stages.

In April 1847 the Lords’ Chamber was opened to Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen [p]Victoria, Queen;and Houses of Parliament[Houses of Parliament] , and three years later the Commons Chamber debuted, to the great displeasure of the members. True to the architects’ sense of hierarchy, the “lower” House was left small, cramped, and underdeveloped, especially when compared with the sumptuous Lords’ Chamber with the royal throne. By February, 1852, the necessary alterations had been carried out, and the State Opening of Parliament, with the queen present, took place. Victoria knighted Barry and provided him a commission of £40,000, while Pugin received little attention.

The Pugin-designed clock tower was completed only in early 1857. The great bell in the carillon, nicknamed Big Ben for Benjamin Hall, the first commissioner of the office of works, cracked in October and had to be recast and remounted a year later. Work on the speaker’s house ceased in January, 1859, and Barry died the following year. His second son Barry, Edward Middleton , Edward, completed work on St. Mary Undercroft Chapel, the central lobby, and the robing room. First Commissioner Acton Smee Ayrton dismissed Edward Barry in 1870, marking the formal end of the project.

Significance

As with the choice of site, the selection of the northern European, medieval, and High Church Gothic styles over the pagan and Roman Classical—or any other competing—style was significant. The style played neither to the democrats nor to the imperialists but reinforced the sense of English tradition, directly connecting the “new” both to what had been in the place of the Houses and what remained. Architecturally, the chosen style also helped legitimize the Gothic Revival movement, which had often drifted downward into the silliness of “follies” and architectural frippery that trivialized the tradition. Gothic Revival would now move from the outer ring of the eccentrics to the very heart of the empire.

Even in the early twenty-first century, the Houses of Parliament visually, more than any other structure, define the Thames River bank, clearly eclipsing the royal Tower of London at the other end of the older city. Symbolically the Houses articulately link the political tradition of popular government with the storied past and the roots of English world power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atterbury, Paul, ed. A. W. N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, for Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 1995. A catalog published to accompany an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center. Contains ten essays about Pugin, including a biographical sketch and discussions of the Gothic sensibility, Pugin’s interior design, Pugin’s Catholic churches in England and Ireland, and Pugin and the Gothic Revival movement in France and North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cannadine, David, et al. The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture. London: Merrell, 2000. An illustrated history of Barry’s most famous work, placing the buildings in a historical, political, and cultural context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Kenneth. The Gothic Revival: An Essay in the History of Taste. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1964. The most popular and readily available work on the peculiar zest for making everything old that seized the Victorians. A classic, scholarly read.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, Robert. The Palace of Westminster: Houses of Parliament. London: Burton Skira, 1987. An illustrated overview of the history of housing Parliament, including the rebuilding after the 1834 fire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riding, Christine, and Jacqueline Riding, eds. The Houses of Parliament: History, Art, Architecture. London: Merrell, 2000. A large-format, well-illustrated collection of essays on the historical building and its rebuilding and uses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rorabaugh, W. J. “Politics and the Architectural Competition for the Houses of Parliament.” Victorian Studies 18 (1973) 155-175. A brief but careful study of the politics surrounding the choice of the site and Barry’s plan for the palace.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solender, Katherine. Dreadful Fire: Burning of the Houses of Parliament. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1984. An exhibition catalog of contemporary views of the disaster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stanton, Phoebe. Pugin. New York: Viking, 1972. A critical discussion of the architectural style and works of Pugin, including the Houses of Parliament.

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