The Royal Palace of Westminster
The origins of the seat of the UK's government; the Mother of all Parliaments
The Royal Palace of Westminster
If Piccadilly Circus can be described as one of the most famous meeting places in the world, then the Royal Palace of Westminster, to give it its proper title, has one of the most famous landmarks in the world - Big Ben, the bell within the Clock Tower. To most people Big Ben is London although many mistakenly think that the clock faces form Big Ben rather than the bell itself. The name "Big Ben" originates from the commissioner of works for the clock and its bell, Sir Benjamin Hall, who was a large man. Hall bore all the criticism over the problems with the clock and its mechanism and his sobriquet became synonymous with the bell.
The first palace on the site was bult in 1040 when the Court was brought to Thorney Island, as it was then known, by Edward the Confessor. Over the years it grew in size having the Great Hall as its centre and it remained the principal Royal residence until the Court was moved to Whitehall by Henry VIII. While the Court moved up the road to Whitehall the councillors and the Houses of Lords and Commons remained and the palace became known as the Houses of Parliament. It is still commonly known as this, however, despite the fact that a monarch has not lived here for over four hundred years it is still the Royal Palace of Westminster.
A fire in 1834 destroyed part of the buildings and over the ensuing months a decision had to be made whether to rebuild at Westminster or to find another site. Various suggestions were put forward, but the final decision for Parliament to remain at Westminster was made by the Duke of Wellington. His argument was that with one side of the buildings facing the river it could not be surrounded.
It was decided to hold a competition for the new Palace and no fewer than 97 entries were received despite the fact that competitors were only given four months to produce complete sets of plans. Charles Barry won the competition and he had as his assitant Augustin Pugin who was a brilliant designer of Gothic style. Following its completion it became the largest Gothic building in the world with over 1000 rooms, eleven quadrangles and courtyards, a hundred staircases and two miles of corridors. Pugin's aim was to decorate as much of the outside of the building as possible and every section has ornaments on it somewhere ranging from the Saxon kings of England on the north wall to every monarch from William the Conqueror to Victoria on the south wall overlooking the River Thames.
When construction began it was intended that the clock tower be the first section to be completed. After a third of its 316 feet had been erected it was discovered that no allowance had been made for the clock mechanism to be lifted to the top. As a result the tower was taken down and work restarted. The clock was to have been made by a friend of Barry's, Mr Vulliamy, however, the matter became widely known and needless to say a Commission was set up to decide what sort of clock should be in the new Palace. The decision that was made required the clock to be accurate to one second in twenty four hours but the clockmakers felt incapable of achieving this accuracy. Six years passed before another clockmaker, Mr Denison, perfected the machinery, however, he hd to wait another five years for the tower to be completed.
The clock was duly installed but further delays occurred when it became apparent that while the clock was extremely accurate, Denison had not dwelt on the strength of the mechanism. The minute hands each weighing 2.5 tons were so heavy that the machinery could not move them. New hands were fashioned in gun metal but this did not work and eventually the hands were made of hollow copper tubing which was a fraction of the original weight. The copper tubing worked and it has been used ever since.
During the time the clockmakers were trying to get it right, problems with the bell were also being encountered. Denison decided that if he was able enough to design the clock he could do the same with the bell. The bell was made of copper and tin and was tested in the courtyard. Despite words of warning from the bellfounders Denison installed a clapper of 7 hundredweight as opposed to the founders recommendation of only a 4 hundredweight one. Needless to say the heavy clapper cracked the bell so much it had to be melted down and recast.
The new bell was recast prior to leaving the foundry, approval was given by Denison and at last in May 1859 the bell was hung. Unfortunately within a few months the bell had cracked again. The reason? Denison had once more ignored the warnings from the founders and had installed another 7 hundredweight clapper. However, much to the relief of all concerned the crack was minimal and it gives the bell its odd tone that we hear today.
Standing in Parliament Square looking towards the Palace the visitor can see Westminster Hall which has a steeply pitched roof. The Hall is a survivor of the old Palace having escaped the fire of 1834 and the bombing of the Second World War. Work on the Hall commenced in 1090 under William Rufus and was completed under Richard II in 1399 under the supervision of Chaucer. The main feature of the building is the hammer beam roof timbers spanning 67.5 feet making it the widest span of any unsupported wooden roof. The original timbers have been largely replaced. At the time of their replacement, during the First World War, many were over 500 years old.
Looking to the west from Westminster Hall one can see the Victoria Tower. It is the tallest Gothic tower in the world standing thirty feet higher than the old Jewel Tower which is now administered by English Heritage, a body concerned with the restoration and upkeep of builidings of paricular historical interest. The Jewel Tower is a survivor from the old Palace dating from 1365 and still has its moat which is watered by one of the streams which separated Thorney Island from London at the time the original palace was built.
The Royal Palace of Westminster has been described as the Mother of Parliaments and this tradition is still carried on in the present day. To signify when the House is in session a flag flies from the Clock Tower by day and a light can be seen at the top of the tower if the House is sitting during the night. So if you are ever passing at night and see the light burning you know that a debate is in progress to decide further legislation or other matters that will no doubt affect the citizens of the UK. The nation's elected Members of Parliament will continue to serve their constituents from this world famous building for the foreseeable future.
One hopes that if your MP is a newcomer he or she does not get lost in the vastness of the corridors of power!