Book review: Mr Barry's War - Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament After the Great Fire of 1834

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 9 September 2016 in Culture

Caroline Shenton brilliantly outlines how from conception to completion, its design and construction was a fearsome battleground.

In October 1834 a great fire destroyed both Houses of Parliament along with the majority of the other buildings in the Palace complex. Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the Undercroft Chapel and the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen’s were the only parts of the Palace to survive. The history of this event was described by Caroline Shenton, then Director of the Parliamentary Archives, in her superb book The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).

In 1836, after studying 97 proposals, the Royal Commission appointed to decide on the style of the rebuilt Houses of Parliament chose the architect Charles Barry’s plan for a Gothic style Palace. In Mr Barry’s War Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament After the Great Fire of 1834, Caroline Shenton continues the account she began in 2012.

She brilliantly outlines how from conception to completion, its design and construction were a fearsome battleground. Old fashioned even before it was completed, today its confident façade seems quintessentially Anglo Saxon, yet in fact Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Italian, German and Flemish influences can all be seen in its design.

The practical challenges, even by the standards of Victorian invention were enormous. The new building was required to cover 8 acres of unstable gravel beds. Its river frontage, a quarter of a mile long, had to be constructed in the treacherous currents of the Thames. Its towers were so gigantic they required feats of engineering and building technology never seen before, in order to construct them on a cramped site. And the interior design demanded a revival of ancient styles and craft techniques not used since the Middle Ages, alongside the invention of new ones.

There was a disastrous strike, plans for ventilation which would have blown the Palace sky-high, and the Great Bell cracked not once, but twice. Fighting against the elements and built on quick-sand, the architect Charles Barry, developed the overall strategy and led the architects, masons, designers and workmen who overcame the obstacles. But the political and personal conflicts were just as overwhelming. Battling the interference of 658 MPs, plus Peers, press and Royalty; coaxing and soothing his collaborator Pugin; fending of the mad schemes of a host of crackpot inventors, including Dr Reid and his Ventilator, and assaults from the egos of countless busybodies intent on destroying his reputation and coming in three times over budget and 17 years behind schedule, Barry eventually succeeded – after countless setbacks and rows which contributed to his death in 1860.

Constructed during the age of the Chartists, the anti-corn Law League, the Irish potato famine, the railways, the Great Exhibition, and the Crimean War, Charles Barry masterminded it all – and his work is the tale of the greatest building programme since the Middle Ages.

Undoubtedly Charles Barry was instrumental in bringing together all the ideas, resources and funds needed to complete the new Parliament buildings.  Apart from his architectural war he had to oversee the work of dozens of sub-contractors and designers, and support and stroke the ego of the eccentric but brilliant Pugin.

Continually criticised by MPs and Peers, who were responsible for many of the delays and the additional expenditure, not least because they had demanded to sit in temporary chambers amongst the ruins of the old Parliament whilst work on the new continued around them.

The controversies surrounding the design and building of the new Palace of Westminster continue today. Responsibility for investing in and maintaining the Palace passed from the old Office of Works to its successor government departments. Work on what was in many respects an uncompleted Palace in 1870 continued. Damage from the London fogs and the encroachment of the Thames, terrorist bombs and the extensive damage during the great air raid of the 10 May 1941 which  destroyed the Commons Chamber. A postwar rebuild suffered from shortages of materials and vision.

In 1992 the Palace finally came under the direct control of parliamentary authorities, but the damage had already been done by over a century of neglect and under-investment. A number of the services installed by Barry have never been renewed and there are serious structural problems. Patching up is no longer an option. So today Parliament has to decide on a massive restoration and partial rebuild with MPs, Peers, the government, the press and the public debating options and costs.  It appears moving out permanently to a new Parliamentary building is unlikely.

Colleagues who want to consider the current options and challenges should read Caroline Shenton’s Mr Barry’s War. In 1943 the Commons debated, from their temporary accommodation in the Lords Chamber, the question of a rebuild of their own. Churchill’s firm belief, supported by a majority of MPs, was to rebuild the Chamber as it had been before its destruction. Churchill opined “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”. In the current debate the option of fundamentally changing the innards of the Palace does not appear to be an option.


Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.

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