Churchill and the Commons Chamber

In October 1943, following the destruction of the Commons Chamber by incendiary bombs during the Blitz, the Commons debated the question of rebuilding the chamber. With Winston Churchill's approval, they agreed to retain its adversarial rectangular pattern instead changing to a semi-circular or horse-shoe design favoured by some legislative assemblies. Churchill insisted that the shape of the old Chamber was responsible for the two-party system which is the essence of British parliamentary democracy: 'we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.'

Clearance of the site began in May 1945, and the new Chamber was completed in 1950. Designed by Giles Gilbert Scott along similar lines to the old, its small size (containing only 427 seats for 646 MPs) and confrontational design helps to keep debates lively and robust but also intimate.

It also remains the case that in the United Kingdom MPs can only transfer their allegiance from government to opposition, or vice versa, by crossing the floor in plain view. During debates, members speaking on opposing sides are also not meant to step over the red lines on the carpet, which are said to equal two sword lengths.

Making use of the old

Although the old Chamber was severely damaged, a certain amount of stone and timber was recovered. From this timber was made the present Commons' snuff box, the handle of the trowel with which the Speaker laid the new Chamber's foundation stone in May 1948 and various official and unofficial souvenirs (these were sold to the public for the benefit of charities). A charred Bible, recovered from the despatch boxes, was re-presented to the House in March 1991.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

Winston Churchill
Giles Gilbert Scott

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.

Did you know?

There is anecdotal evidence that the phrase €˜to toe the line€™ refers to the red lines in the Commons Chamber. However, it may also have a naval origin.

Related information

Take a walk around the Commons€™ Chamber on a virtual tour