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Designing a New Palace of Westminster

After the old parliament building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1834, Britain needed a new home for Parliament. 

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Above: New Houses of Parliament 1840, Unknown. © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 4690

The old Palace of Westminster was almost burned to the ground by an accidental fire in 1834. Only a few parts survived and still stand as they did in medieval times. They are Westminster Hall, St Stephen’s Cloister and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. The United Kingdom needed a new Parliament building, so in 1835 a Royal Commission was appointed.  

The Commission agreed on design that retained the architecture of the surviving parts of the medieval buildings including Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey nearby. In June 1835, they organised a public competition to design a new Palace in either Gothic or Elizabethan style.  

Of the 97 proposals submitted, the Commission was unanimous in its decision. Entry number 64 proposed a Tudor style palace in harmony with the surviving buildings. 

Charles Barry was the architect behind the plans. His winning design included two towers in the New Palace of Westminster: a grand royal entrance to stand south of the main building and a smaller clock tower to the north. Barry may have been inspired by old engravings of the palace which showed that a clock tower had stood in New Palace Yard in medieval times. This earlier tower was demolished in 1698 and replaced by only a small sundial.  

Pugin’s Gothic vision 

The clock tower on Barry’s original proposal was not the 96-meter tall iconic building we know and love today. Barry was to take inspiration from a clock tower at Scarisbrick Hall in Lancashire which had been designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, a brilliant young Gothic Revival architect and designer. Pugin became Barry’s collaborator for the decorative details on the New Palace of Westminster 

Under Pugin’s influence the clock tower grew in size and significance. With its large clock dials beneath a tall, two-stage spire, it provided Barry with an impressive feature above his vast new building.  

Pugin added details such as the symbols of the four parts of the United Kingdom, including the leek, thistle, rose and shamrock alongside the Tudor symbols of the portcullis and fleur-de-lys. The portcullis was used throughout the decoration of the New Palace of Westminster and has become the coat of arms of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  

“I never worked so hard in my life” 

The appearance of the now famous clock tower was to be Pugin’s last series of important sketches before he died at the age of only 40 in 1852. He never saw the finished tower. Pugin wrote in a letter as he worked on the drawings: I never worked so hard in my life for Mr Barry for tomorrow I render all the designs for finishing his bell tower and it is beautiful.

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