Old and New London: Volume 3. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.
THE NEW PALACE, WESTMINSTER.
Extent and Dimensions of the New Palace—Plans and Suggestions for Enlarging and Improving the Old House before its Destruction by Fire—Selection of the Design for the New Building—Description of the Exterior—The Victoria Tower—The Fresco Paintings—The House of Lords—Site of the Old House of Commons—The New House of Commons—The Speaker's Residence—The Clock Tower, and Vicissitudes of "Big Ben."
The site of the old Royal Palace at Westminster is now occupied by the Houses of Parliament, or, to speak more correctly, by the New Palace. This forms one of the most magnificent buildings ever erected in a single decade in Europe—probably the largest Gothic edifice in the world. The reader who has not yet had the good fortune to make a survey of this great temple of legislation may glean some idea of its vast proportions when we state that it covers an area of nearly nine acres; that to the eastward it presents a frontage of nearly 1,000 feet; that the great tower at the south-western extremity reaches the gigantic elevation of nearly 350 feet; that towers of lesser magnitude crown other portions of the building; that fourteen halls, galleries, vestibules, and other apartments of great capacity and noble proportions are contained within its limits; that it comprises eight official residences, each first-rate mansions, fit to receive families of distinction; that twenty corridors and lobbies are required to serve as the great roadways through this aggregation of edifices; that thirty-two noble apartments facing the river are occupied as committee-rooms; that libraries, waiting-rooms, diningrooms, and clerks' offices, exist in a superabundant measure; that eleven greater courts and a score of minor openings give light and air to the interior of this superb fabric; that its cubic contents exceed 15,000,000 feet, being one-half more than St. Paul's; and that the structure contains not less than between 500 and 600 distinct apartments, amongst which is a chapel for Divine worship, formed out of the crypt of old St. Stephen's.
For some years previous to the destruction of the old Houses of Parliament by fire, on the 16th of October, 1834, various plans had been suggested for enlarging and improving the buildings, especially the House of Commons, which, besides not affording adequate accommodation for its numerous members, was ill ventilated and unwholesome, and negotiations for building a new House of Commons were at that time in progress. Indeed, it was not only the House of Commons which was felt to be too incommodious and ill suited for its purposes, but the same might also be said of the "Upper House;" for, at various times between 1790 and 1825, the late Sir John Soane was instructed to prepare plans and designs for the rebuilding, or, at all events, for making most extensive alterations and improvements in the existing House of Lords; and drawings of these designs, dated in 1794 and 1796, are to be seen in the Soane Museum, in Lincoln's Inn Fields. By their side is a view of a design for the Royal Gallery, erected by the same architect, in the House of Lords, in 1823–24. In the same year he almost wholly re-modelled the Court of Chancery, at Westminster, and the Court of King's Bench, close by, in 1826.
After the fire in 1834, commissioners were appointed to take into consideration whether it would be practicable to restore any part of the old building for the future meetings of the Parliament; or if that were not possible, on what plan an edifice more suited for the assembly of the Legislature should be erected. The latter course being at last decided on, as many as ninety-seven sets of designs were sent in, many of them of complicated and elaborate detail, showing great skill and talent on the part of the architects who exhibited them. The designs of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Charles Barry, R.A., were at last selected, in 1836; but it was not until 1839 that preparations for the new building were actually commenced. The "first stone" was laid on the 27th of April, 1840. In the details of the building he was largely assisted by the late Mr. A. W. Pugin, whose familiarity with Gothic architecture was probably unequalled since the Middle Ages.
A vignette showing the first design of Sir Charles Barry, with the Clock and Victoria Towers at either end, as at present, but with great variation in the details of the main body of the structure, may be seen in the first volume of Dr. C. Mackay's "Thames and its Tributaries."
Viewed from the river, the building presents a frontage of nearly a thousand feet, and consists of a centre portion with towers, two wings, and wingtowers at each end. The wings have two storeys above the basement; the centre and wing-towers three storeys. The wings and centre portions are divided into thirty-five bays by hexagonal buttresses, with sunk tracery and pinnacles to each. Each bay contains, between the principal windows, the arms and supporters of all the sovereigns of England, richly carved, from William the Conqueror to her present Majesty, Queen Victoria; and on each side are panels, with sceptres, labels, and appropriate foliage. In a band underneath each window are the names of the respective sovereigns, with the time of their reign and the date of their decease.
The parapets to each bay are filled with rich tracery, in the centre of which is a niche, with the figure of an angel holding a shield, bearing the monogram "V.R." The towers have bold oriel windows, with armorial bearings on each, and panels containing the insignia of the present reign, with octagon turrets at the angles, and surmounted by an iron roof. Between the towers, at each end, are three bays, divided by smaller buttresses and bays, within which are windows and panels, containing the arms of the three kingdoms, with the rose, shamrock, and thistle entwined. The flanks of the wing-towers are divided into two bays by a square buttress, containing six niches, with statues of St. George, St. Andrew, St. Patrick, and St. David (the patron saints of the four kingdoms), and St. Peter and St. Paul. Between the windows are panels, containing angels supporting an imperial crown over the royal arms. In a band over the windows of the second storey are panels, with the devices assumed by each sovereign since the Conquest, with mottoes and foliage. In the parapet in front of the towers, supported by an angel corbel, is a niche containing a statue of her Majesty; and the parapets at the back of each have a niche with a statue of Edward the Confessor, the founder of the first Royal Palace at Westminster.
The north and south returns of the river front are also divided into bays by hexagonal buttresses. Each bay is divided into two parts by niches, containing the statues of the Saxon kings and queens, from Vortigern (first king of the Heptarchy) down to Harold.
The exterior of the edifice is built of magnesian limestone, from Anston, in Yorkshire, and the interior of Caen stone; all the beams and girders are of iron, with brick arches between the floors, making the building entirely fire-proof. The commission recommended the magnesian limestone of Bolsover Moor and its neighbourhood as the fittest and most durable material; but the quarry would not produce the quantity required, and the stone from Anston was used instead.
The residence for the Speaker is situated at the south end, the corresponding terminal towards the north being the residence for the Usher of the Black Rod. Between the two extremes, and comprising what are called the curtain portions, are the library of the House of Peers and the library of the House of Commons, in the immediate centre is the conference-room for the two Houses. All this is on the principal floor, which is some fifteen feet above the terrace, or high-water mark. The whole of the floor above the libraries, and overlooking the river, is appropriated to committee-rooms for the purposes of Parliament, the Peers occupying about one-third towards the south, and the Commons two-thirds towards the north. The House of Peers and the House of Commons are situated in the rear of the front next the river, and are inclosed also towards the west, so as to be entirely surrounded by Parliamentary offices.
The Royal or Victoria Tower, at the south-west angle, is one of the most stupendous works of the kind ever conceived. It is seventy-five feet square, and rises to the height of 345 feet. "Compared with this magnificent altitude," says a writer in the Illustrated London News, "all other towers that we know of shrink into insignificance. There are spires enough, undoubtedly, of greater height, but no towers: even that noble one at Mechlin, half spire, half tower, and which, perhaps, comes nearest to that at Westminster, is but 348 feet to the top of the vane; while to the top of the vane of the Victoria Tower is no less than 420, more than double the height of the Monument, more than sixty feet higher than the top of the cross of St. Paul's, and within a few feet of three times the height of the famous tower of Pisa. The visitor who wishes to ascend the tower passes at once to the south octagon turret, which he enters through a low iron door. At the first moment all seems wrapped in darkness, but after a while the eye, growing accustomed to the obscurity, discerns the last step of a well-staircase of iron, which winds up and up in apparently endless spirals, till the circling balustrade is merged together in the long perspective, terminating at a dim bluish spot no bigger than your hand, which marks the outlet on to the tower roof, nearly 350 feet above you. This tremendous flight of steps—the longest unbroken spiral staircase in the world—is illuminated only by the distant ray we have mentioned, and it is curious to note the solemn effect produced by the receding twilight as it penetrates deeper and deeper down the well till lost in almost total darkness. A dozen weary turns up this stair conduct the visitor by a passage to the first and largest floor in the tower—one which occupies the whole extent of the building over the great entrance archway. It is an apartment fifty-one feet square and seventeen feet six inches high, and this gives the visitor the best notion of the interior construction.
"The tower is constructed from top to bottom of brick, stone, and iron, without any admixture of combustible materials, being thus entirely fire-proof from base to summit. It was erected as a grand repository for State papers, records, and muniments of the nation; and for this purpose it is divided into eleven storeys, each of which, with the exception of the basement storey and the first floor immediately over it, contains sixteen fire-proof rooms. All these floors are made to communicate by means of a most singularly-constructed flying spiral staircase of iron, which passes through an octagonal aperture in all the floors, with each of which it joins by means of a short landing. The well of this beautiful staircase is about ten feet in diameter, and a similar aperture is made in the groined roof of the royal archway, but this is kept closed by means of a sliding iron door. When, however, it is drawn back, a person standing on the ground under the centre of the tower can see up at a glance, as through a telescope, from the bottom to the top.
"The roof of the tower is sloping, reaching sixteen feet above the parapet, and surrounded with a gilt railing six feet high. The four corners are guarded by four stone lions, twenty feet high, and from the base of the corners spring four cast-iron flying arched buttresses, which are formed in the centre in a kind of crown about thirty feet above the roof. The upper edges of these buttresses are decorated with a richly-gilt wrought-iron railing, which makes them, when united, still more resemble a coronet, and in keeping with the regal aspect of the tower. Seen from the outside, the great general features we have attempted to describe look bolder and more striking still; and though the ornaments are so numerous, the tracery so multiplied, and the height of the whole mass from the eye so great, there is still no confusion of parts. The mind fixes its massive and just proportions without distraction; and as the eye glances down its sculptured records of our line of kings, with all their bright historical associations connected with the very Parliament to which it marks the entrance, the visitor feels that it is more than a mere tower; it is a sculptured monument of our great history as a nation."
The royal entrance, beneath this tower, is probably one of the most striking and effective portions of the new Palace of Westminster. The loftiness of the vaulted groining, the rich and varied bosses at its intersections, the canopied niches over the doors, and the exquisite variety of the details, all unite in producing a charming whole. There are two lofty arches on the south and west sides, as entrances. Entering beneath the tower, the royal gateway is on the north side, and consists of a beautiful archway deeply recessed, having within it a lesser archway, serving as the doorway. Over this is a panel containing the royal arms, supported by angels, very elaborately sculptured. Above the outer arch the wall is panelled into five divisions, the three central ones having in them very beautiful niches, containing figures of the Queen, Justice, and Mercy, standing on short pedestals, bearing shields charged with devices, and further enriched with labels, &c.; and the two outer divisions are filled with angels holding labels. Round the outer edge of the arch is a peculiarly rich cresting of roses and leaves. On the eastern side the wall is divided, similarly to the northern, into a lofty arch containing a dwarf arch deeply recessed, which leads into a long and narrow passage communicating with the Royal Court, where the state carriages wait during the Queen's stay in the House of Lords. Over this dwarf archway the royal arms and the crest of the Prince of Wales are the decoration. There are five divisions on the main portion of the wall exactly corresponding to those on the north wall, three of them containing figures of St. George, St. Patrick, and St. Andrew, standing on pedestals bearing the respective crosses used as their symbols; and the remaining two, angels holding shields bearing the royal arms. The rose cresting adorns this as well as the other arch, and bosses of the utmost variety of design fill the hollow of the jambs in both the great arches. This stately tower (supplying what Wren considered Westminster so much to need) was finished, by slow degrees, in 1857, the architect deeming it of importance that the works should not proceed, for fear of settlement, at a greater rate than thirty feet a year.
The royal staircase is entered from the Victoria Tower, and is very beautiful in design. There are three flights of eight stairs each, leading to a vestibule of exquisite beauty, having clustered columns, supporting a very elegantly-groined roof, with bosses of great variety of design at the intersections of the ribs. Groups of pedestals, with statues, are at the bases of the columns. In this vestibule there are doors of entrance into a guard-room and into the Queen's Robing-room.
The Robing-room is a lofty and spacious apartment, with a canopied throne at the further end, opposite to which is Mr. Dyce's fresco from the "Legend of King Arthur." There are two doors to this room, one close upon the porch, the other nearer the throne; and Her Majesty, entering at the former, comes forth at the latter into a noble hall, 110 feet long, 45 wide, and 45 high. This is called the Royal Gallery, and is decorated with frescoes illustrative of the "Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar," and the "Meeting of Wellington and Blucher at Waterloo," by Mr. D. Maclise, R.A. The windows are filled with stained glass, and the ceiling is richly adorned with gilding and heraldry.
Passing from the Royal Gallery we enter the Prince's Chamber. This apartment is decorated with equal splendour to that just described; it contains a noble marble group, by Gibson, of the Queen, supported by Justice and Mercy.
The House of Lords, which we now enter, is nearly 100 feet long by 45 feet wide, and the same in height. The chamber presents a coup d'œil of the utmost magnificence, no expense having been spared to make it one of the richest in the world. The ceiling first attracts attention. It is not arched, but perfectly horizontal; massive ribs, carved and gilt, divide it into eighteen compartments, and each of these is subdivided into five minor compartments, or panels, the ground of the panels being azure, enriched with heraldic devices. The ribs are, of course, supported by corbels and by spandrils, perforated. At each point in the ceiling where the ribs intersect each other, there are pendants, which greatly enhance the beauty of that portion of the building; but there are no depending lights—no lustres, no chandeliers swinging from the roof, to conceal elegance or cover deformity. The length of the House of Lords extends from north to south, and during the day it is lighted by twelve windows—six on either side—which reach nearly to the ceiling, but do not approach within twenty feet of the floor. These apertures are double glazed, the inner portion being stained glass. Upon the same level with the windows, but on the northern and southern walls, are six compartments, three on each extremity of the house, filled with fresco paintings. The first of these frescoes, immediately over the throne, is the "Baptism of Ethelbert," painted by Mr. Dyce, R.A., and on either side are "Edward III. conferring the Order of the Garter on Edward the Black Prince," and "Henry, Prince of Wales, committed to Prison for assaulting Judge Gascoigne," both by Mr. Cope, R.A.; at the opposite end of the chamber are the "Spirit of Religion," by Mr. Horsley, A.R.A.; in the centre compartment, over the Strangers' Gallery, on either side are the "Spirit of Chivalry" and the "Spirit of Law," both by Mr. Maclise. Between the windows, and at either end of the House, are eighteen niches, containing statues of the Magna Charta barons.
Having now surveyed the upper portion of the House, we descend to the galleries. That which is for strangers bearing peers' orders occupies the north wall, and contains accommodation for about one hundred and fifty persons. The throne and the reporters' gallery fill spaces of pretty nearly equal extent, but at opposite ends of the House. With the exception of those spaces, there is carried round the entire apartment a light gallery, consisting of only one line of seats, and capable of containing nearly two hundred persons. The railing which protects these seats is a very beautiful specimen of brass-work and enamel. The reporters' gallery is placed in front of the strangers' gallery, but considerably nearer to the floor, and immediately over the bar.
The floor of the House presents to the eye of the spectator three principal divisions, which extend transversely, viz., from east to west, each occupying the full breadth of the apartment, but unequal parts of its length. In the upper or southern division is the throne, together with spaces on either side assigned to distinguished foreigners and the eldest sons of peers. Next comes the central region, or "body of the House," the table and woolsack occupying the middle portion of the floor. On each side of these are placed, on ascending steps, five lines of benches, covered with scarlet morocco leather, which are reserved for the exclusive use of the peers. The northern or lower boundary of this division is called the "bar:" here the Speaker, accompanied by the assembly over which he presides, stands when summoned to attend Her Majesty or the Royal Commissioners. From that place gentlemen of the long robe address the House in its judicial capacity; witnesses are also there examined, and culprits are arraigned. The space below the bar affords standing room for two or three hundred persons who are entitled to admission there.
The throne is distinguished by an airy, light, and graceful character, which harmonises at once with the building and its surroundings. The platform on which Her Majesty's chair stands is ascended by four steps, and constitutes a sort of central compartment, on either side of which, forming as it were two wings, are minor elevations, where stand two other chairs of state, one for the Prince of Wales, and the other was placed for the late Prince Consort; the former is on the right of the throne, and the latter on the left. The framework of Her Majesty's chair of state is carved in gilt, and studded with crystals. In other respects the structure of these seats is conformable with the established fashion of such furniture, being cushioned with velvet and gold embroidery. The royal arms are emblazoned on the central chair, those of the heir-apparent on the chair appropriated to the Prince of Wales; the other chair is adorned with the shield of the late Prince Consort, surmounted by the multitudinous crests which Germans of gentle blood are usually entitled to display. In the most elevated and conspicuous part of the throne are five niches, in which are placed statuettes, fully armed, each in the costume of one of the chief British orders of knighthood.
It was customary a century and a half ago, as now, for strangers, including ladies, to gain admission to hear the debates in the House of Peers, and probably in the House of Commons also. But in 1738 it was resolved to exclude the fair sex; and the attempt to enforce their exclusion led to an amusing scene which is described by Lady Mary Wortley Montague in one of her "Letters."
Passing southward, through the Peers' lobby and corridor, we reach the grand central octagon hall, above which rises the central tower, 60 feet in diameter, and 300 feet high to the top of the lantern surmounting it. The exquisitely-groined stone roof of this hall is supported without a central pillar, and contains a long series of elaborately carved bosses.
The central Hall is reached from the principal public entrances, both through Westminster Hall and Old Palace Yard, by St. Stephen's Hall, which occupies the same space as St. Stephen's Chapel of the ancient Palace. Ranged along either side of this hall are twelve "statues of men who rose to eminence by the eloquence and abilities they displayed in the House of Commons"—namely, Hampden, Falkland, Clarendon, Selden, Somers, Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chatham, Pitt, Fox, Burke, and Grattan. Visitors to the new Houses of Parliament entering through St. Stephen's Hall, if they halt under the west doorway, will see before them the area occupied by the "old" House of Commons and its lobby—the latter serving both as an outer hall and as a division-lobby. "About one-third of the pavement before us," says Mr. R. Palgrave in his "Notes to Lectures on the House of Commons," "was given to the lobby, for the partition that divided it from the House stood on the line between the statues of Chatham and Mansfield. The Speaker sat at the east end of the Hall, the one furthest from our station, as his chair was placed a few paces in front of the steps ascending to the Octagon Hall, and these steps cover the site of the little lobby at the back of the old House, called 'Solomon's Porch.'" On the left side of the entrance to St. Stephen's Hall is the Private Bill Office; the doorway leading to it is modern; so is a winding corkscrew staircase that leads thence down into the cloisters, as also a doorway that opens from those stairs into Westminster Hall; but both the doorway and the stairs are stated to occupy the same position as those which gave access to members to the House between the years 1547 and 1680—that is, from the time the Commons left the Abbey Chapter-house hard by, until the formation of a doorway in the south end wall of Westminster Hall, that led into a passage communicating with the west end of the Commons' Lobby. Here it was that Mr. Perceval passed along, on the 11th of May, 1812; for on the very spot where Burke's statue stands, by the left side of this very door into St. Stephen's Hall, stood, pistol in hand, the madman Bellingham, watching for his victim.
The walls of the corridor leading from the House of Peers to the grand central hall, and also the one leading thence to the House of Commons, are covered with fresco paintings in compartments, the subjects being historical, such as the "Last Sleep of Argyll," the "Execution of Montrose," the "Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers," &c. These frescoes were painted by Cope, Ward, and other Royal Academicians.
The Lobby of the House of Commons itself is a very fine apartment, square in plan, about fortyfive feet each way, and having a doorway in each side. It forms the chief vestibule to the House of Commons, and by a short corridor communicates with the great octagonal hall in the centre of the Palace, which, in fact, forms the only entrance to the Lobby. Each side of the Lobby is alike in its general features, being divided into three equal parts—the central portion containing a deeplyrecessed and lofty doorway, and the others being divided into two storeys. In this hall the messengers of the House sit waiting to be dispatched either to Government offices for documents, or, in the event of a division, to hunt out for members, however late it may be, or, rather, however early in the morning. In connection with this lobby an amusing story is told in Diprose's "Book about London," in which an Irish M.P. figured as the principal personage concerned. "He had taken—'his custom always of an afternoon'—some powerful potations of brandy, and falling soundly asleep in his seat in the House, was 'left alone in his glory.' Awaking about two o'clock in the morning, and finding his dormitory more capacious and costly in its fittings than his back attic in Manchester Buildings, he rushed out of the House into the Lobby, when two firemen immediately laid hold of the alarmed and half-sleeping M.P., and sternly demanded what brought him there. He goodhumouredly answered, that was what he wanted to ascertain himself; but of one thing the firemen might be certain, that he was not Guy Faux. The worthy guardians against fire and thieves assured the M.P. that he could not leave the House, so that he must rest contented until the morning. 'Well, then,' said the son of Erin, I will go back into the House of Commons, and sleep in the Speaker's chair; far better than a police cell. Some people have a difficulty in getting into this House: my difficulty consists in getting out of it.'"
In this lobby the "Whip"—or whipper-in of his party—spends most of his time, rarely entering the House, but "button-holding" every doubtful and recusant member preparatory to a division, and making as many promises within any given hour as would take him any given seven years to accomplish. The electric bell, which gives notice of a division, rings simultaneously in every department of the vast building, and then comes a schoolboy rush of the members, many of whom, perhaps, have never heard one word of the debate, and know as much about the merits of the question upon which the division is about to take place as does the bell which has summoned them to vote.
The House of Commons, which was first used for the sittings of members in 1850, is of the same height and width as the House of Lords, but little more than sixty feet long, being reduced to the smallest possible size for the sake of hearing. So far as decoration goes, this chamber, compared with the House of Lords, may be considered plain and unpretending. It is surrounded by galleries, which diminish its apparent size. The height of the House and the form of the roof are materially altered from the original design; but, though shorn of its loftiness, it is a magnificent and imposing apartment. The ceiling is divided longitudinally into three parts, the centre division being horizontal, the others inclined downwards; and these longitudinal sections are divided by massive ribs, resting on corbels, into square compartments, which are again subdivided, the horizontal into sixteen, and the other compartments into twenty, small square panels; and on these are painted alternately a rose and a portcullis within floreated circles. The massive ribs are carved along the sides with a very elaborate and beautiful label pattern. The corbels rest on elegantly enriched shafts, springing from brackets having shields supported by lions sculptured upon them; and these are placed on the level of the lower part of the windows. The walls from beneath the windows to the galleries are panelled, the panelling being crested with a very beautiful brattishing.
On the east and west sides of the House there are six windows, and at the north and south ends there are three compartments to correspond with the fenestral arrangement of the sides; these spaces are filled with a very pretty lattice-work of wrought brass, forming a screen to the ladies' galleries. The windows are filled with rich stained glass, displaying the armorial insignia of twenty-four of the English boroughs.
The galleries are particularly effective specimens of design in Gothic wood-work; and, with their hand-rails and trefoil ornament of wrought brass, are extremely fine. The side galleries are for the use of members of the House, and each contains two rows of seats. The northern gallery is for the use of the reporters, and to it there is a separate staircase with retiring-rooms. The southern gallery is divided into two portions, one being for distinguished visitors, the other for such of the public as may be fortunate to obtain admission; and to each of these portions there are separate staircases. The galleries are supported by pillars, and underneath, towards the wall, they are coved; which parts we hope will, at no distant day, bear on their gilded surfaces the achievements of the different speakers of the House of Commons, in similar style to the coved soffits of the galleries to the House of Lords. The fronts of the galleries, we should observe, bear on small shields the badges and monograms of the various Sovereigns of England. The Speaker's chair, at the north end of the House, is of very fine design. There are several rows of seats in the body of the House; and all being of ample dimensions, and covered with green morocco leather, harmonising delightfully with the warm brown tints of the oak panelling and framing to the seats, produce an air of repose and comfort. The clerks' table is panelled beneath with elaborately-carved work, and at its southern end are brass scrolls for the Speaker's mace to rest in during the business of the House; underneath there are wrought brackets for it to rest on whilst the House is in committee.
The seat of the Serjeant-at-Arms is near the bar, at the southern end of the House. There are two doors on either side of the House, to lead into the division-lobbies; and there are similar doorways as entrances into the galleries. Behind the Speaker's chair is a doorway leading to retiring-rooms for the Speaker, and communicating with corridors which give access to the Speaker's official residence.
The ventilation of the House of Commons is carried out on Dr. Percy's principle; the fresh warm air passing upwards through the perforated floor, and the vitiated air escaping through the ceiling into an air-shaft, its exit being provided for by the panels of the ceiling not being made to rest on the intersecting ribs, thus allowing a space of about three-quarters of an inch between the ribs and the panels.
Experiments were made in lighting the House of Commons with the Bude Light in 1839, and the plan was adopted in the following year. In 1852, further experiments were made in the present House by the introduction of Dr. Reid's system of lighting. This system rendered unnecessary the massive chandeliers which were originally suspended from pendants at the intersections of the great beams of the ceiling; substituting, in lieu of them, rings of gas jets pendant to about the level of the main beams of the ceiling. Panels of the flat part of the ceiling were taken out; and, in the openings thus made, pyramidal boxes, if they may be so termed, open at the top, and painted a brilliant white, were inserted; through the opening is pendant a gas-pipe, at the end of which is the ring of jets.
On building the temporary House of Commons after the fire in 1834, a little gallery for newspaper reporters was erected over the Speaker's chair. What would Woodfall and Perry have given to have been thus accommodated in the infancy of reporting? Is the reader aware of the particulars of the struggle of the press with the privileges of the House? They have been frequently recorded. A century ago, when the Gentleman's Magazine—that most venerable of periodicals—was in its first years of infancy, the editor, Edmund Cave, ventured to peep into the House, and give the public some brief hints of what was said and done. But this was soon put a stop to. The public, however, beginning to relish periodical news, and especially having acquired a slight taste of Parliamentary reporting, were willing to receive more. Their conductors ran risks to supply the demand, but were obliged to offer their contraband goods under fictitious names.
What we to-day think of as journalism began when young Samuel Johnson first composed Parliamentary speeches for Cave's Magazine, in 1740, which is equivalent to saying that it began in systematic deception. Johnson avowed the fact a few years later at Foote's table, and avowed it with feeling that seemed nearer akin to exultation than shame. A certain speech, attributed to the elder Pitt, being highly commended, one of the guests took down the magazine and read it aloud. When the company had given full vent to their admiration, Johnson, who had sat silent during the scene, startled them all by saying, "That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street." Responding to their amazement, he explained—"I never was in the gallery of the House of Commons but once in my life. Cave had interest with the doorkeepers. He and the persons employed under him had admittance. They brought away the subject of discussion, the names of the speakers, the side they took, and the order in which they rose, together with notes of the various arguments adduced in the course of debate. The whole was afterwards communicated to me, and I composed the speeches in the form they now have." Here, perhaps, we have the origin of Dr. Johnson's aversion to newspapers, for we all abhor our sins when another commits them. He wrote in one of his Idlers for 1758, that if an ambassador may be defined as "a person who lies abroad for his country's good," an editor is one "who lies at home for his own." Towards the end of 1770 a daring effort was made by a number of printers to break through the privilege of the House, and boldly publish its proceedings. This created a great storm. The subject was taken up by the House in the beginning of the year 1771, and a squabble ensued which we have described elsewhere (Vol. I., p. 409). From that period the proceedings of the House have been regularly published. The reporters' gallery of the present House occupies a similar position to that above mentioned, over the Speaker's chair, but is, of course, more commodious, and furnished with suitable retiring-rooms, &c.
The system of reporting, as it now stands, is as follows:—The Times, Standard, Morning Post, and other daily papers have each a staff of gentlemen trained by long experience, by the aid of shorthand, to take down verbatim reports of the speeches delivered in Parliament. Each member of the staff connected with these papers takes his "turn" of about twenty minutes in the gallery, and on being relieved by his successor, hastily writes out a full or condensed report of the speech from his shorthand notes, and dispatches it by a messenger to his respective journal.
Occasionally the reporters, together with other "strangers," have been ordered to withdraw, by some obnoxious member drawing attention to their presence. But in the session of 1875, one evening the "gallery" was ordered to be cleared, when the Prince of Wales was among the "strangers present;" and this was felt to be so outrageous a proceeding that, after much controversy, it was agreed by Mr. Disraeli and Lord Hartington, and definitely laid down for the future, "that if, at any sitting of the House, or in committee, any member shall take notice that strangers are present, Mr. Speaker, or the Chairman (as the case may be), shall forthwith put the question that strangers be ordered to withdraw, without permitting any debate or amendment; provided that Mr. Speaker and the Chairman may, whenever he think fit, order the withdrawal of strangers from the House."
Apropos of the above subject, we may add that the late Mr. Luke Hansard, who made a fortune by his business as printer to the House of Commons, and editor of the "Debates," several hundred volumes of which bear his name, came to London from Norwich in 1752, a poor friendless boy.
Sick of the drudgery of a solicitor's office, young Charles Dickens was placed, at sixteen or seventeen years old, with Messrs. Gurney, of Abingdon Street, the Parliamentary shorthand writers, where he soon learnt the use of his pen. He was a reporter in the gallery of the House of Commons at the age of eighteen.
The subject of taking oaths by members of Parliament previously to their being entitled to vote on any question has assumed considerable prominence within recent years—firstly, on account of the succession of attempts which have been made to modify the form of oath administered so as to admit of its reception by persons of the Jewish faith; and, secondly, because of the very wholesale performance of the ceremony which the election of a new Parliament necessarily causes. Apart from the religio-political view of the matter, it must be confessed that the proceeding is not very dignified or imposing. In the case of swearing-in of the members of a new Parliament, the Speaker sits from twelve to four o'clock every day for a week after the assembling of Parliament, for the purpose of administering the prescribed form of oath. On the first day the counties and boroughs are called out alphabetically, and any of the members for each place as it is named who happen to be ready, present themselves at a long drawn-out table, and range themselves, schoolboy fashion, along its sides. A number of oblong pieces of cardboard, on which are printed forms of the oaths, are then produced from the brass-clasped oaken boxes which flank each side of the clerks' table, and one of these is distributed to each member. A corresponding number of Testaments are then handed round to the members to be sworn; after which the clerk, in a more or less audible voice, reads aloud the form of words constituting the oath, and the representatives of the people repeat them after him in all sorts of tones, the only object, apparently, being to get over them as fast as they can, and to allow them to convey as little meaning to the mind and heart of the ministrant as possible. When the oaths are taken by members whom circumstances have caused to be elected in the beginning or in the course of a session, as contradistinguished from the opening of a new Parliament, the rule of the House was that the new members should be seated under the gallery below the bar before four o'clock; the oaths could not be taken after that hour, although during morning sittings they can be taken at any time the Speaker chooses between twelve and four. The time, however, now is not so restricted. As soon as prayers are over, the Speaker calls on "Members to be sworn to come to the table." This they do, each advancing up the floor of the House between two other members, who are styled their "introducers," and making three bows at intervals as they pass along, they go through the same course of cardboard and Testament as above described. In one single case the above rule was relaxed, and the newly-elected member was allowed to take his seat without the usual introduction. In all cases, as soon as the swearing-in has concluded, each member hands in a paper containing a statement of his election, and signs the Parliamentary roll in duplicate. He is then named to the Speaker by the clerk, receives a shake of the hand and a few words of welcome from the right honourable gentleman, and afterwards takes his seat.
Down to the year 1858, it was necessary that every new member on taking his seat should take the oaths prescribed "on the faith of a Christian." But the election of the late Baron Rothschild for the City of London and of Sir David Salomons for Greenwich, necessitated a departure from these words, and at last, after many delays, in 1860 the obnoxious words were omitted, and members of the Jewish community have since taken their seats along with others, being sworn upon the Old Testament only.
Connected with our legislative assemblies there are certain odd forms of proceeding, of which it may be presumed that very few but those acquainted with the details of Parliamentary business have any notion. Many persons, for instance, may have seen, while standing in the lobby of the House of Commons, the Speaker in his robes enter, preceded by a gentleman with a bag-wig and a sword by his side, carrying on his shoulder a heavy gilt club, surmounted by a crown—in short, a mace; but few people are cognisant how important this toy is to the legislative duties of their representatives. Be it known, then, that without it the House of Commons does not exist; and that it is as essential that the mace should be present at the deliberations of our senate, as that Mr. Speaker should be there himself: without a Speaker the House never proceeds to business, and without his mace the Speaker cannot take the chair. At the commencement of a new Parliament, and before the election of a Speaker, this valuable emblem of his dignity is hidden under the table of the House, and the clerk of the table presides during the election; but no sooner is the Speaker elected, than it is drawn from its hiding-place and deposited on the table, where it ever after remains during the sitting of the House; at its rising, Mr. Speaker carries it away with him, and never trusts it out of his keeping. This important question of the Speaker's duty in retaining constant possession of this, which may be called his gilt walking-stick, was most gravely decided in the year 1763, as appears by the "Journals of the House of Commons." On that occasion, Sir John Cust, the Speaker, being taken ill, sent to tell the House by the clerk at the table, that he could not take the chair. It appears that there was considerable discussion whether the mace ought not to have been in the House when this important communication was made. No one, however, presumed to say that it ought to have been on the table; but many maintained that it ought, for the dignity of the House, to have been underneath it. It was decided, however, that Mr. Speaker had done quite right not to part with his "bauble," and the House accordingly, as the "Journals" inform us, "adjourned themselves without the mace."
Down to the year 1853 it was not possible for the House to continue its sittings without the Speaker's presence; but in that year it was ordered that the Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means do take the chair in the unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker.
For a member to cross between the chair and the mace when it is taken from the table by the Serjeant-at-Arms, is an offence which it is the Speaker's duty to reprimand. If, however, a person is brought to the bar to give evidence or receive judgment, he is attended by the Serjeant-at-Arms with the mace on his shoulder; and however desirous any member may be to put a question to the person so standing at the bar, he cannot do so, because the mace is not on the table; he must, therefore, write down his questions before the prisoner appears, and propose them through the Speaker, who is the only person allowed to speak when his "bauble" is away.
If the House resolve itself into a committee, the mace is thrust under the table, and Mr. Speaker leaves his chair. In short, much of the deliberative proceedings of this branch of the Legislature is regulated by the position in which this important piece of furniture is placed: to use the words of the learned Hatsell, "When the mace lies upon the table, it is a House; when under, it is a Committee. When the mace is out of the House, no business can be done; when from the table and upon the Serjeant's shoulder, the Speaker alone manages."
It is a popular error that the mace now borne before the Speaker is the self-same "bauble" that Cromwell ordered away when he dismissed the "rump" of the Long Parliament in April, 1653. The Speaker's mace of the reign of Charles I. doubtless perished when the Crown plate was sold, in 1649. The Commonwealth mace, which came into use in that year, was ornamented "with flowers instead of the cross and ball at the top, and with the arms of England and Ireland, instead of the late king's." This was the "bauble" that Cromwell treated so disrespectfully; and it soon disappeared altogether, for the Restoration supplanted it with a new mace, "with the cross and his Majesty's arms, as they formerly were." The mace that now lies on the table of the House bears neither date, inscription, nor maker's name; but the initials "C.R." and the appearance of the workmanship, coupled with the order for a new mace in 1660, which appears in the "Journals of the House of Commons," fixes its origin.
Considering the very limited area of the House of Commons, a fair proportion of accommodation is afforded to spectators of the proceedings of the Third Estate of the realm. Immediately above the bar, and on a level with the Members' Gallery—in fact, quite within the precincts of the House proper—is a roomy gallery which is appropriated to members of the Corps Diplomatique, Peers, and distinguished strangers. A passage separates this from what is called the "Speaker's Gallery," access to which is gained by orders from the Speaker himself. It has two rows of seats, and will hold about 150 persons. Next to this, but entirely apart from it, access being gained to it by a totally different way, is the Strangers' Gallery.
Admission to the Strangers' Gallery is obtained by means of a written order from a member; each member is privileged to give one such order daily. There are three rows of seats, each accommodating about seventy persons, who, in common with all the occupants of the places devoted to the public, are subjected to very stringent rules of behaviour. No one is allowed to rise from his seat, except for the purpose of leaving, and silence as nearly absolute as possible must be observed. The privilege of entering the Strangers' Gallery is one which is very much sought after by enthusiastic constituents, who hunt after the "orders" of their members with considerable assiduity; and specimens of every class of the British elector and non-elector may be seen at times undergoing the rigid pleasure of seeing how things are done in Parliament.
In the course of the Crimean war in 1854–5, a military member of the House raised the question, and the Speaker decided that, although some such custom as the exclusion of officers or soldiers in uniform to the Strangers' Gallery had obtained, he knew of no order of the House to that effect; and now it is by no means an uncommon thing to see non-commissioned officers and privates in their regimentals listening with the prescribed gravity of demeanour to the emanations of the collected representative wisdom of the country.
Several amusing anecdotes are related with reference to the presence of strangers in the Houses of Parliament during the sittings of the members. In 1833, a Scotch Highlander, in full costume, seated himself to the right of the Speaker's Chair, with as much equanimity as if he were reposing among the heather of his native hills. In 1834, a lady entered by mistake, and "caught the eye of the Speaker," who continued to gaze on her with apparent admiration and satisfaction, quite inattentive to the discourse in progress from a masculine orator, till the fair intruder suddenly vanished. And it is said that in April, 1833, a young Scotchman, finding his seat under the gallery unfavourable for hearing the speech of a countryman, proceeded to establish himself on the back benches, and remained there for two hours, and even till the House adjourned, in spite of the glaring eyes of Mr. Joseph Hume, fixed on him all the time with scrutinising suspicion.
Writing of the Skinners' Company, in his "Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster," Stow says:—"I cannot pass over a passage of one of this Company by reason of the novelty of it. In the year 1584, a new Parliament sat in November, when one Robinson, a lewd fellow, born in Stamford, and a Skinner, had the confidence to sit in the House all the day, though no member, and heard all the speeches, wherein many weighty matters were uttered relating to the concernments of the Queen and the kingdom; which contained such notable passages of State that Fleetwood, the Recorder of London, and then a member, called them Magnalia Regni in a letter to the Lord Treasurer. One of these speeches was made by Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Walter Mildmay, which tended to a generality upon the safety of the Queen, whose life was then in danger by a discontented party. Another speech was made by Mr. Vice-Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton, which lasted two hours. His speech tended to particular and special actions, and concluded with the Queen's safety. When this fellow was discovered he was searched, and nothing found about him. Mr. Fleetwood, the Recorder, Mr. Beal, and other Parliament men and Papist-finders, were sent to search his lodgings, but found nothing. He remained for some time in the Serjeant's custody, and so, as it seems, was dismist."
A correspondent of the Times relates a curious incident which occurred to a country clergyman when the late illustrious Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister. "The said clergyman was a very plain country gentleman, the Rev. H. A. Hervey, of Bridekirk, in Cumberland. He walked very innocently into the House of Lords while their lordships were in debate, was not asked a question by any one; he took his seat among their lordships, having put down his hat near one that he saw lying in the neighbourhood where he was sitting; he felt himself very much at his ease, he did not for one moment think that he was out of his proper place there; and having remained until he thought it was time all good people who wished to keep good hours ought to be at home, he rose and went for his hat, but it was gone, and the one left in its place had written inside of it the word 'Wellington.' He was compelled to take it or go without one; and this he took down to his parish with him, and used to have great pleasure in showing it as the great Duke of Wellington's hat, which he was obliged to take, as, he said, 'no doubt the noble Duke had taken his hat by mistake.'"
Similar mishaps have occurred since, and will probably continue to happen. In 1875 an instance occurred in the House of Commons, of which the Times gives the following description:—"During the debate on Mr. Pease's motion, two strangers entered the House by the members' doorway, and passing unchallenged, took their seats in the body of the House, on the Liberal side, close by the chair of the Serjeant-at-Arms. There they sat, according to their own story, for over half an hour. How they passed the policemen and doorkeepers, by whom the entrance is so jealously guarded, it is hard to say. Probably they were helped by the easy unconsciousness which comes from ignorance of wrong doing. As they saw the gentlemen around them with their hats on, the two strangers observed what they thought was the etiquette of the place, and kept their hats on too. They had comfortable benches, were not at all crowded, and must have been charmed with the accommodation so thoughtfully provided by Parliament for visitors. At length a division was called The Speaker's wonted emphatic warning, 'Strangers must withdraw,' fell upon deaf ears, for the two strangers did not understand the summons, and remained in their places. When the doors were locked and tellers were appointed, and members passed leisurely into the division lobbies, the two visitors must have begun to feel uncomfortable, and see that they were not quite where they ought to be. By this time Captain Gosset's attention had been called to them, and the first order they received was, 'Take your hats off.' As the doors were locked the intruders could not be turned out; and it would have been against all Parliamentary precedent to unlock the doors for any purpose. They were therefore led upstairs into the gallery reserved for distinguished strangers, and after the division was over were severely taken to task by Captain Cosset, Colonel Forester, and the officials of the House. Their explanation was simple: they had orders for the Strangers' Gallery, signed, oddly enough, by Colonel Forester himself. They were told by a policeman in the Central Hall to walk 'straight on,' and having done so only too literally, they found themselves in the body of the House, where they sat down, knowing no better. By one of the Standing Orders of the Commons, the Serjeant-at-Arms is directed from time to time to take into his custody any stranger or strangers he shall see, or who may be reported to him to be, in any part of the House or gallery appropriated to the members of this House, and also any stranger who, having been admitted into any other part of the House or gallery, shall misconduct himself, or shall not withdraw when strangers are directed to withdraw while the House or any Committee of the whole House is sitting; and that no person so taken into custody be discharged out of custody without the special order of the House.' It was thought, on the whole, inexpedient to make too much of this incident by taking the delinquents into custody, as they really appeared to have erred through ignorance, and therefore no notice was taken by the House of their intrusion. But they were severely admonished, and, it is to be hoped, were duly scared by the representation of the penalties they might have incurred, and the serious breach of the Standing Orders they had committed."
We have already spoken of the frescoes with which the walls of the Houses of Parliament are decorated; but we may here observe that their apparently decaying condition, after having been painted scarcely ten years, gave rise to considerable discussion and uneasiness. The "decay," in the case of Maclise's famous water-glass picture of the "Meeting of Wellington and Blucher," showed itself by an efflorescence which spread itself over the whole surface of the picture; and towards the close of 1874, the picture was subjected to a chemical treatment, under the superintendence of Mr. Richmond, R.A., apparently with success.
The "division" lobbies are situated on the east and west sides of the House: herein is actually performed the act of governing this country, for, practically, the recording of the votes of members of the House decides every question of policy and administration. A "division" in the House of Commons is managed with great simplicity and adequate completeness. As soon as the moment arrives when it is the pleasure of the House to try the question before them by this test, the signal is given by the Speaker calling out, "Strangers must withdraw!" This order is obeyed only by the occupants of seats below the bar and the gallery just over the clock, both of which are actually within the House. The occupants of the Strangers' Gallery proper are now permitted to remain. As soon as the order to withdraw is given, a twominute glass is turned by one of the clerks, in order to give time to members dispersed all over the purlieus of the House—the library, refreshment-room, &c.—to come in, and notice is given to them by the ringing of bells all over the building, which is effected simultaneously by means of electricity. As soon as the sand has run out, the doors are closed and locked by the Serjeant-at-Arms, and all late comers are excluded. The Speaker then puts the question, and, having declared which side in his opinion has the majority of voices, his decision is questioned by some member, and he then gives the direction, "The 'ayes' to the right, the 'noes' to the left," and the former file out of the door at the back of the chair; the latter pass up the gangway on the Opposition side, and out at a small door at the lower end of the House, at the left side, under the gallery. The Speaker then orders two "tellers" to each door, and one of them reports to him that "the House is clear." The members thus driven out of the body of the House find themselves in a long corridor, represented in the engraving on the opposite page; and at the end of the corridor is a railing and a desk, between which sufficient space is allowed for one person to pass at a time, after the manner of pay-places at the theatres. On one side of these stand two "tellers" (one of each of the parties then voting against the other), and two clerks, both of whom are provided with printed lists of the names of all the members of the House. As each member passes through the teller counts him—he himself usually calls out his name—and the clerks tick it off on the list, with a view to its being inserted in due course in the division lists which are printed every morning with the orders of the day. The members then return one by one into the body of the House, the ayes entering at the principal door below the bar, and the noes by the door at the back of the Speaker's chair. When all have passed, the tellers make up the figures, and, all four advancing to the table, one of those on the winning side, in a loud voice, declares the respective numbers. Although in description this may appear a cumbrous mode of collecting votes, it is in practice remarkably expeditious and very precise; and it gives the members only the trouble of taking a short walk through the lobby—a far less tedious operation than any process of counting or registering within the House would prove to be.
That, in spite of all the money that has been expended on the Palace, the ventilation of the new Houses of Parliament is far from satisfactory, may be gathered from the following extract from the Lancet:—"Just now, as we all know, the purlieus of Westminster and Whitehall swarm with distinguished and undistinguished persons from the provinces, more or less concerned in private bills that are before committees of one or other House of Parliament. These persons pervade the hall, throng the lobbies and passages, and even crowd to suffocation the committee-rooms in which the actual business of the day is being transacted. As they pass by, diminishing gradations of space from the outermost to the innermost regions, the superlatively bucolic individual and the hardest-worked country lawyer alike become conscious not only of the absence of anything like fresh, but of the existence of positively foul air. And when the committee-room is reached, and the regulation five hours have been spent therein, we may fairly surmise that our country cousins, be they agriculturists, solicitors, agents, promoters, or oppositionists, go away to dinner with headache, indifferent appetite, and a profound contempt for sanitary legislation as indicated by the ventilating arrangements of the Palace at Westminster. A great deal has been said and written about a similar state of things in our law courts, both in the east and west of the metropolis; but any one who cares to penetrate into the innermost parts of the Houses of Parliament, and force his way into one of the rooms above quoted, will find that, though flanked by the Thames on one side, its stuffiness and odoriferous nastiness are really appalling, rivalling in these conditions the Old Bailey and an Eastend police-court in their worst days. The Lords, perhaps, in these respects suffer more than the Commons; but in either case there is a grim irony in taking evidence relative to some sanitary bill in an atmosphere utterly unfit for healthy respiration or for any sort of continuous mental exertion."
The Speaker's House occupies part of the two pavilions, if we may so term them, forming the north end of the river-front of the Westminster Palace, next Westminster Bridge, and is approached by archways from New Palace Yard. It is of considerable extent, comprising from sixty to seventy rooms, and is finished throughout in the style of the structure generally. The staircase, with its carvings, tile-paving, and brass-work, is exceedingly effective and elegant, and everywhere there is a large amount of painted and gilded decoration. Cloisters, approached from the House, surround a court, about twenty feet square; the windowopenings in the cloisters are filled with stained glass, containing the arms of all the Speakers, with the date of their election.
The first Speaker actually mentioned by that title in legal documents is Sir W. T. Hungerford, elected in 1377, in the reign of Edward III. We meet with the old name and armorial bearings of a Waldegrave as Speaker as early as 1382; in 1400, Sir John Tiptoft was elected, and he was the first Speaker elevated to the peerage, being created by Henry IV. of Lancaster, in 1406, Baron de Tiptoft, in return for certain "courtly compliances," which in those days meant a great deal. The Beauchamps are found as early as 1415, while the Baynards of Castle Baynard, in the City, where kings once stayed, and where the Duke of Buckingham offered the crown to Richard III., are seen no more after 1421. John Russell was Speaker in 1423 and 1432. From this date the election of Speakers seems to have occurred with each meeting of Parliament about once a year, till the time of Queen Elizabeth; when that arbitrary sovereign refused to ratify the election of Sir John Popham; afterwards, the great Edward Coke filled the chair. The year 1641 gives us the next name of great note—viz., William Lenthal, of Charles I.'s disordered Parliament—the man who refused to answer Charles's questions when he came to seize the members, and in that ill-advised act began the war in which he lost both crown and head. Sir Harbottle Grimston, chosen in the year 1660, whose arms are surmounted with the bloody hand of the Ulster knights, was the first Speaker whose election was never ratified by Charles II., though he still retained his Speakership. The haughty Edward Seymour, who used to speak of the Duke of Somerset as the younger branch of his family, followed the example of Sir Harbottle, though in a different way. Instead of asking Charles to ratify his election, which he knew the monarch never would do, he contented himself with announcing simply that he had been elected and was the Speaker—a statement which left no course open to the irritated king but to add sharply, in reply, "Very well." The House that was summoned in 1689, after the abdication of James II., elected its own Speaker, Henry Powle; this election, also, was never confirmed by William of Orange. Mr. Wyndham Grenville, also, was elected without the royal sanction, in the year 1789, at a time when George III. was mentally incapable of attending to any business.
The name and arms of Sir John Trevor are to be seen in the Gothic windows, though Sir John was expelled the House for taking bribes. Of the whole 132 Speakers only sixteen have been raised to the peerage—by the titles of Baron Tiptoft, Lord Hungerford, Lord Audley, Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, Lord Onslow, Earl of Wilmington, Lord Grantley, Lord Grenville, Viscount Sidmouth, Lord Redesdale, Lord Colchester, Viscount Canterbury, Lord Dunfermline, Viscount Eversley, and Viscount Ossington.
The Refreshment-rooms of the House of Lords are the most luxurious apartments imaginable—the beautiful ceiling, the richly-carved doors, screens, and panelling, the fittings-up, the crimson and green paper-hangings, and the general decorations, being extremely striking and harmonious. The Refreshment-rooms are situated in the river-front of the Palace, behind the Lords' Library, and are approached from the House of Peers by the Bishops' Corridor, which communicates with the Victoria Lobby. These rooms are divided from each other by an elaborately-carved screen, or bar, at which the refreshments are served by means of lifts from the kitchens below; and every modern appliance in the management of the cuisine has been carefully studied. The rooms are lighted by windows on one side only, which look into the Peers' Court; on the opposite side, the walls are panelled, and have fireplaces of rich and beautiful design, the stone chimney-pieces being highly decorated with bosses and foliage.
The clock-tower, situated at the northern end of the building, and closely abutting on Westminster Bridge, is forty feet square, surmounted by a richly-decorated belfry spire, and rising to the height of about 320 feet. The tower occupies as nearly as possible the site of the great clock-tower erected by Edward I. on the north side of New Palace Yard. That tower was built out of a fine imposed on a certain Chief Justice, who is said to have taken a bribe. At first it contained only a bell, "Great Tom of Westminster," which summoned Parliament and the four Courts of Law to their respective duties. In due time a clock was added, which, every time the bell told the hour, reminded the judges and legislators below of the words on its face, "Discite justitiam moniti et non temnere divos." Of this, the original clock-tower, we shall have more to say in our chapter on New Palace Yard. The clock of the present tower has four dials, and was constructed under the direction of the Astronomer Royal, Sir G. B. Airy, K.C.B. It may be added that most of the wheels are of cast iron; the hands and their appendages weigh about a ton and a half, and the pendulum 6 cwt. The dials are 22½ feet in diameter, or 400 superficial feet each, and are said to have cost more than the clock itself.
The first bell, which received the name of "Big Ben," was cast in 1856 at Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees, by Messrs. Warner, and weighed nearly 16 tons, with a clapper of 12 cwt. It bore the following inscription:—"Cast in the twentieth year of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, and in the year of our Lord 1856, from the design of Edmund Beckett Denison, Q.C.; Sir Benjamin Hall, Bart., M.P., Chief Commissioner of Works." On the waist or middle of the bell were the royal arms, and the names of the founders and patentees of the mode of casting which had been adopted for it, "John Warner and Sons, Crescent Foundry, Cripplegate, London." From the first, the fates seemed to be against the success of this bell, for on the voyage up to Westminster it was tossed about for several days at sea, and at the very starting stood a narrow chance of sending the vessel containing it to the bottom of the ocean. Arrived at Westminster, "Big Ben" found temporary shelter at the foot of the clock-tower, within hoarding and tarpaulin, and under a huge pair of cat-gallows; and here its sonorous tone was tested before it was finally hoisted to its lofty destination. Whatever may have been the opinion formed of its tone and quality at the trials to which it was subjected, certain it is that it had hung but a few months before it gave strong evidence of being cracked. Its real state was at once investigated by Dr. Percy, who reported that it was "porous, unhomogeneous, unsound, and a defective casting." Its doom was thus sealed. "Big Ben" was forthwith brought to the hammer, broken up and done for, and a new bell was at once cast in the foundry of Messrs. Mears, in Whitechapel. About this new bell there is no mistake. It is simply perfect as a casting in shape and in tone—the latter being E, which the late "Ben" was intended to produce, but which good intention was entirely frustrated by an undue thickness of metal in the waist of the monster. Of the former "Big Ben" it is not necessary to say more than that his successor is formed of the same metal. Unlike his predecessor, however, the present occupant of the loftiest belfry in London is tastefully ornamented with Gothic figures and tracery in low relief. On one side of his waist is the portcullis of Westminster; on the other are the arms of England, sharp and clear, as if chased by the hand. Round the outer lip is cast in Gothic letters: "This bell was cast by George Mears, of Whitechapel, for the clock of the Houses of Parliament, under the direction of Edmund Beckett Denison, Q.C., in the 21st year of the reign of Queen Victoria, and in the year of our Lord MDCCCLVIII."
This bell is estimated as being as nearly as possible fourteen tons, or about two tons lighter than the old bell. But though its form is somewhat different, and though there is less metal, its dimensions are the same as those of its predecessor. The head is more rounded, and the waist more sloped in. The sound-bow, or the place on which the clapper strikes, is also a trifle less in thickness than that of the old bell.
The work of getting the new bell into position took several days. On the 8th of October, 1858, it was placed upon its side upon a cradle, was run into the basement of the clock-tower, and placed under the shaft extending to the summit of the tower, up which it was afterwards hoisted by pulleys. The shaft is eleven feet by eight feet; it is intended for the descent of the clock-weights. Its sides were lined with timber and friction-wheels, to guide the passage of the bell upwards. The chain used in lifting the bell was 1,600 feet in length; it was made by Messrs. Crawshay, of Newcastle; and each link was separately tested. The beam on which the bell is hung is formed of oak and plates of iron, firmly bolted and riveted together, and it is fixed in the open lantern over the clock; it is twenty-five inches wide by nineteen thick, and is capable of sustaining a weight of 100 tons. Besides "Big Ben" there are four smaller bells, upon which the quarters are chimed.
"Who," asks Townsend in his "History of the House of Commons," "that has sat in the gallery of the old House—that venerable building which the calamitous fire of October 16th, 1834, reduced to ashes—can fail to recollect his first feeling of disappointment as he gazed with a sense of wounded pride around the dark and narrow room, and looked in astonishment at the honourable members grouped in various attitudes of carelessness and indifference? Yet such as it was, decked only with a new coating of paint and whitewash, destitute of all architectural pomp, unadorned by a single monument of sculpture or art—into that building what intelligent stranger was ever ushered for the first time without a throbbing heart and heightened pulse! Who but has lowered his voice on first entering that room as he felt the genius of the place compelling awe, the deep inspiration of the past! Mighty memories, sublime associations, breathe their subduing spells around the stranger. For not less than ten generations—ever since the gentle Edward VI. allotted that consecrated chamber to the great council of Parliament—the genius and virtue, the dignity and rank, the wisdom and eloquence, of the nation have been there represented. There blushed the chivalry of Raleigh. There wept the servile patriotism of Coke. There recorded its protest the faithful loyalty of Hyde. Its floor was once profaned by the hasty step of the unhappy Charles, who left his guards at the door as he faltered into the Speaker's chair, once far more basely desecrated by the stamp of Cromwell, as he crowded the benches of a truckling assembly with the myrmidons of a usurper. There, with an eye glowing fire, eloquent as his voice, Chatham spoke for immortality, and triumphing over physical weakness and bodily decay, made his very crutch an instrument of oratory. On the floor the mighty Burke—great even in his failures—threw down the dagger, a specimen of the presents which French fraternity was preparing for his countrymen. There Castlereagh walked proudly up the House, amid loud huzzas, with the treaty of peace, signed at Paris, in his hand. There Canning called the new world into existence, that he might redress the balance of the old. There the noblest sons of genius, Bacon, and Newton, and Wren, Addison, Gibbon, Mitford, have sat, 'mute, but not inglorious.' There Oglethorpe taught the lesson of humanity to inspect our prisons, and Meredith and Romilly pleaded against capital punishments that criminals were still men. Peals of laughter have awakened the echoes of that chamber to generations of wits—Martin, and Coventry, Charles Townshend, and Sheridan, and Canning. The hollow murmurs of sympathy have there rung back the funeral tribute to the elder and younger Pitt; to Grenville and Horner; to that eloquent orator, conspicuous among his countrymen, Grattan, who in his dying hour there poured forth his soul. What exhilarating cheers, the only rewards to St. John, for those lost orations which have perished for ever, have there rewarded the efforts of Pitt and Fox as they sank back exhausted! The forgotten oratory of that chamber would more than balance all that is recorded. Magnificent as the new building may be, adorned with paintings and embellished with trophies of our progress in the arts, far more convenient than the old chamber, in splendour not to be compared, can it ever rival, in the mind's eye, that humbler room empanelled with living memories, and blazoned with illustrations of the past?"
In closing this chapter, we cannot do better than quote the words of a writer in the Illustrated London News, when describing the progress of the new building:—"We cannot but think that its locality is most fitly chosen; the stream that bears on its bosom the commerce of a world flows before it, while close beside it are the venerable Hall and Abbey, rich with the recollections and associations of departed centuries. The very spirit of antiquity seems to hover over the walls and buttresses yet fresh from the hand of the artificer, shedding something of its venerable influence over that which dates but from yesterday. So is it with all the works and deeds of man; the present springs and takes its hue and character from the past, and both bear within them the seeds of the future. And with the future as it lies before us, how much will be linked with the edifice now springing into existence, under the eyes of the generation that saw its predecessor pass away like a dream! It may be long ere such recollections gather round the new Senate House, as hallowed the old Houses of Parliament, for in them the constitution of England was worked out through all the changes it has undergone since the first institution of Parliament as a recognised body. Much of evil, much of error, of passion and prejudice, found voice within those old walls; great and grievous was the wrong inflicted by many of the deeds there acted. But much also issued from thence of which we may be proud and thankful; wisdom, and eloquence, and patriotism, have spoke and wrought within them in troubled and dangerous times. May men of equal powers be found to meet the evil days which the brightest and most hopeful spirit must acknowledge are rising before us! But let those to whose hands Providence may commit the charge of this mighty empire, draw courage from the struggles of the past, and look back steadily to the recollections of the days of old—those imperishable associations which neither fire, nor storm, nor convulsion can sweep away!"
The destruction of the old Houses of Parliament, with a great part of the Speaker's official residence adjoining, occurred on the 16th of October, 1834. Mr. Raikes thus comments on the fire, in his "Journal":—"The origin of this public misfortune is not known, but it appears to have been caused by some negligence in the House of Lords. The reports are very vague and uncertain. There may be something ominous in such a catastrophe at such a moment; the two contending bodies of the State, just arrayed in dire opposition to each other—the one insolent and overbearing in aggression, the other strict and obstinate in defence of its privileges—both buried in one common ruin. It appears that many of the archives of both Houses have been preserved, but not without considerable damage. The tapestry in the House of Lords, representing the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was generally admired, has been a prey to the flames. Mr. Hume, during the last session, had been proposing, without success, a vote to build a larger House of Commons; a wag in the crowd, watching the progress of the conflagration, exclaimed, 'There is Mr. Hume's motion being carried without a division!' The old walls of St. Stephen's have witnessed a long career of British glory and prosperity: may it not have perished with them! Time will show that mystery; but if the character, talent, and honour of these public men who in years gone by have distinguished themselves within these walls contributed to support that career of glory, then may we own that they have not crumbled over the heads of men who are utterly incompetent, and incapable of maintaining it."
"Great," writes Dr. C. Mackay, "was the sorrow of every lover of his country, when the ancient seats of the British Legislature were destroyed; for, though they were but stones, and bricks and mortar, and wood, they were hallowed in the hearts of Englishmen. Who could help regretting that the very boards on which Chatham, and Pitt, and Fox, and Burke, and Canning trod would never more be trodden by the admirers of their worth; and that the walls that re-echoed to their words, and to the approving cheers of their delighted auditory, had crumbled in the flames? Not one who had a heart to feel, or a thought to bestow upon the matter."
The story of the burning of the Houses of Parliament has never been more truthfully or more comically told than by Charles Dickens, though we quote only from a humorous speech once made by him in Drury Lane Theatre, when the establishment of an Administrative Reform Association was publicly resolved upon, on account of the mismanagement of our army in the East. On that occasion he said:—"Ages ago, a savage mode of keeping accounts on notched sticks was introduced into the Court of Exchequer, and the accounts were kept much as Robinson Crusoe kept his calendar on the desert island. In the course of considerable revolutions of time, the celebrated Cocker was born and died; Walkinghame, of the 'Tutor's Assistant,' and well versed in figures, was also born and died; and a multitude of accountants, book-keepers, and actuaries were born and died. Still official routine inclined to these notched sticks, as if they were pillars of the Constitution, and still the Exchequer accounts continued to be kept on certain splints of elm-wood called tallies. In the reign of George III. an inquiry was made by some revolutionary spirit whether—pens, ink, and paper, slates and pencils, being in existence—this obstinate adherence to an obsolete custom ought to be continued, and whether a change ought not to be effected. All the red-tape in the country grew redder at the bare mention of this bold and original conception, and it took till 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose—what was to be done with such worn-out, wormeaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who live in that neighbourhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt. It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof; the national pig is not nearly over the stile yet; and the little old woman, Britannia, hasn't got home to-night."
The table of the old House of Commons, saved from the fire, is now in the office of the Board of Works, Whitehall Place. It was, it seems, part of the fittings of the House of Commons provided by Sir Christopher Wren, in 1706. The existence of this relic is generally unknown, and it has not yet been figured in any notice of the House of Commons.