COMMONS

Petitions and the building of the new Houses of Parliament

27 September 2016

With Restoration and Renewal of the Houses of Parliament in the news, Dr Caroline Shenton looks back at the petitions which occurred when the building was originally constructed in the nineteenth century.

A replacement palace

Following the disastrous fire which destroyed a large part of the old Palace in 1834, a government competition took place to design a new Houses of Parliament.  The winning entry came from the architect Charles Barry, whose initial drawings submitted in December 1835 underwent very considerable changes over the following eighteen months as requirements were finalised and the budget calculated. By the summer of 1837, plans were at last approved. Significantly for the Palace’s neighbours the overall length had increased greatly since his first proposal, extending the building along Abingdon Street to the south and up to Westminster Bridge to the north.  Residents and businesses adjacent to the old Palace would no longer have access to the river, and some properties were slap-bang in the path of the area to be developed.

Un-neighbourly conduct

Grumbles swiftly started. The headmaster of Westminster School requested an alternative way for his boys to get safely to their boats, ‘which they had heretofore been enabled to do from Parliament stairs and cause-way now removed for the works for the new Houses of Parliament’.  Thames watermen plying the stairs of Westminster Bridge complained about the disruption to their customary landing place, due to the building of the great coffer dam to provide a dry dock inside which the river foundations of the building would be constructed.  Mud stirred up by the swirling currents being redirected round the piles was pushed downriver, provoking further annoyance, while on the land side the laying of sewers to the building site disturbed the drainage of affluent residents in Old Palace Yard.

Compulsory purchase

None of these concerns resulted in a formal petition, but the attempts by the government to forcibly purchase the occupied buildings which now fell within the boundary of the new Palace or which were needed for landing wharfs for building materials caused uproar.  The proposed ‘Houses of Parliament Bill’ of December 1837 provoked six separate petitions from the churchwardens of St Margaret’s Church and St John’s Smith Square; the overseers of the of the parish responsible for the operation of the Poor Law and the workhouse; the well-to-do owners of houses on Abingdon Street which were to be knocked down; and finally the timber, coal, and oil merchants on Canon Row to the north and Millbank to the south, ‘being persons who are interested in certain wharfs and waterside premises situate at Westminster, abutting on the River Thames’.  They prayed that, ‘the Houses of Parliament Bill may not pass into a Law as it now stands’ and that, ‘such alterations may be made…as may be thought necessary for the protection of the interests of the petitioners’.  This was the only form of redress for them in an age before planning appeals: a total of 41 local people objected, in arguably an early example of Nimbyism. Despite their complaints, the bill became an act and in 1838 £42,000 was paid to the owners for their properties - which were then flattened.   

A silver lining

Not everyone in the neighbourhood was unhappy. For the Navigation Committee of the City of London, which had oversight of the whole river, it provided the perfect opportunity to put into action plans to embank the Thames which been under discussion since 1830. This would make the course ‘uniform and beneficial to the river, the Parliament Houses and the public’, a project which continued into the middle of the century and eventually enclosed the main artery of Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer network for London, still in use today.  Others were quick to seize upon the commercial opportunities.  A new venture, the Westminster Steam Packet Co., appealed for shareholders in its innovative ‘water-omnibus’ service, which would chug ‘incessantly from the terrace of the new Houses of Parliament to the Greenwich railroad station, London Bridge, and touch off all the intermediate bridges’.

Caroline Shenton was Director of the Parliamentary Archives from 2008 to 2014 and is the author of Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 (OUP, 2016).

Image: The Houses of Parliament, from across the Thames, Watercolour by Herbert Menzies Marshall, 1891.

© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 5963.

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