Last year, the MPs of Britain voted in favour of a multibillion-pound programme of repairs to the iconic Houses of Parliament; to start in the mid-2020’s.
The Houses of Parliament, or the Palace of Westminster to give it the official title, has stood in varies guises on its site in London since the early Middle Ages. One of Britain’s most well known landmarks, it has been in constant use since King William II ordered its building between 1097 and 1099.
The most well known structure connected with the Houses of Parliament is the New Palace. Built between 1840 and 1870, this stands on the side of the River Thames, adjacent to the clock tower, affectionately known as Big Ben. The New Palace was built within the boundary of the old medieval palace near Westminster Palace (otherwise known as the Great Hall), which is the only remaining building with traces of the original medieval construction phase.
History has given the buildings of Westminster almost as many changes and challenges as the debating politicians have experienced within its walls. Until the 1500’s the main role of Westminster was as a royal residence. This usage came to a sudden end in 1512 when a fire destroyed King Henry VIII’s private quarters, and he decided to move his home to nearby Whitehall. Rather than let the building fall into disrepair however, King Henry allowed Westminster Palace to be used by Parliament whenever it convened. He also used it as a base for his vast legal team, who, due to his break from the Church in Rome and many divorcees, had plenty of work to do.
In the early 1800’s the law courts moved out of Westminster, but the politicians remained. Then, in 1834, fire attacked the building for a second time, and the old Palace of Westminster, which had begun to fall into decay, was rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry. His instantly recognisable building, the New Palace, holds 1,100 rooms, two courtyards and covers eight acres.
Moving the lawyers and politicians into Westminster was something that became and remains standard, making it a centre for legal decisions and policy making every since. The Palace of Westminster has been host to many of the most famous events in British history, from the Gunpowder plot, the trial of King Charles I, to the assassination in 1812 of Prime Minister Spencer Percival. It was hit on fourteen separate occasions by bombs during the Blitz, as well as a 9kg explosive planted by the IRA that went off in Westminster Hall in 1974 – not to mention the recent controversial Brexit negotiations.
Its turbulent history and extreme age means that the Houses of Parliament are desperately in need of the planned repairs. But the project is far from straightforward. The situation is summed up on Newcivilengineer.com (link at the bottom of this page) when talking to one civil engineer, who said that, “Many of the drainage systems we see are still from the Victorian times. Some of them are 130-years-old. The way the building is used today is radically different from what it was designed to do.”
Not only is the building full of asbestos, it is also at risk of fire. The Guardian newspaper reported this week that “fire safety teams constantly patrol the neo-gothic palace of Westminster, which caught fire 40 times between 2008 and 2012 alone; the small fires were quickly put out by wardens.”
An additional problem comes from the brick material itself. The New Palace was originally built using sand-coloured limestone from Anston Quarry in Yorkshire, as it was easy to carve. However, the stone began to decay soon after its construction during the 19th century, leaving it in dire need of replacement or repair by now. There have also been reports of sewage leaking from the Victorian drainage system into MP’s room, roofs leaking and windows decaying.
With the issues of Brexit pushing the start date for the restoration of the Palace of Westminster back, it must be wondered when and if the repair of one of our most well known landmarks will take place. Surely the recent fire in Notre Dame should be a wake-up call as to the urgency needed if this historical landmark is to be saved, before disaster intervenes.
A timeline of the rebuild and renewal phases of the Palace of Westminster to dates can be found here https://restorationandrenewal.parliament.uk/?page_id=164
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.