Blog > History of Westminster Palace and The Houses of Parliament

February 14, 2013

One of the most famous sites in the history of London is the Westminster Palace. It can easily be reached by the Underground (subway) from Safestay Hostel by use several lines including Bakerloo, Northern, Circle, District and  Jubilee Lines.  You will only need to make one transfer.  It is here where the House of Lords and the House of Commons are housed.

The Elizabeth Tower known as Big Ben sits on the north end of the palace complex. The original Westminster Palace was largely destroyed by a fire in 1834.  It replacement began in 1840 and was finally completed in 1870.

Westminster Palace can be found on the Middlesex bank of the River Thames in central London. It is still officially considered to be a royal residence for ceremonial purposes. It is across the street from Westminster Abby. This location has played a major role in the history of London for centuries.

The first palace was built on the site in the 11th century and was the primary London residence of the royals of England until most of it burned in a fire in 1512. From this time forward it became the home of Parliament which had been meeting there since the 13th century.

It has also served as the site of the Royal Courts of Justice at Westminster Hall.

The 1834 fire was of such intensity that only the Jewel Tower, the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft, the Cloisters of St. Stephen's and most importantly Westminster Hall survived.

The fire was a result of an overheated stove in the House of Lords used to burn the tally sticks of the Exchequer.

William IV would offer Buckingham Palace as an alternative site for Parliament but the offer was rejected.  The almost completed building was deemed unsuitable for parliamentary work. Besides tradition almost dictated that Parliament remain on the original site of Westminster Palace.

The reconstruction competition was won by the famous architect Charles Barry.  His vision was to rebuild the Palace in stone in a Perpendicular Gothic Style. The remaining parts of the Old Palace with the exception of the detached Jewel Tower were incorporated into the new structure.

The Gothic style was chosen partly because it represented tradition.  The Neo-Classical style although popular at the time was seen to be too revolutionary and republican by the conservative House of Lords.

The new complex contains over 1,100 rooms around two series of courtyards. Part of the complex is from land reclaimed from the Thames river.  This area comprises 8 acres (3.24 hectares) and contains the setting for the river facade that is a total of 873 feet long (266 meters).

The Palace contains 100 staircases and 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of passageways spread over 4 floors.

Augustus Pugin also assisted in the design of the palace.  He was known at the time as a authority of Gothic architecture and style.  Some of the furnishing and decorations of the palace are accredited to him.

The Palace of Westminster has three main towers.  The largest as well as the tallest is the 323 foot (98.5 meters) Victoria Tower.  It can be found on the south west corner of the complex. Queen Victoria herself laid the first stone for construction of the Tower which would later bear her name in 1843.  When completed in the 1850's it was the tallest secular building in the world. Originally known as the Kings Tower it would be renamed in honor of the long reign of Queen Victoria.

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The Clock Tower can be found on the other end of the Palace.  In 2012 it was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. It was to celebrate her 60 years of public service.

The Central Tower is the shortest of the three and as its name implies can be found in the middle of the Westminster complex.

Frescoes and paintings of the interior were also chosen through competitive bids. It was seen as a way to promote the development of a national school of British History Painting.  Unfortunately fresco painting proved to be problematic given the climate of England so progress was slow. The death of Prince Albert in 1861 led to further delays but by then many works had been completed or at least had been commissioned.

Commissions would continue throughout the rest of the 19th  and into the 20th centuries.  

Construction began in 1840 and would last until 1870.  The cost of the building ended up much higher and there were a number of delays in the construction. By completion both architects would be dead. 

In 2010, plans were announced that parts of the complex would become available for hire for formal occasions like weddings and banquets.  It was seen as a way to curb spending and the large costs attributed to staff that cater to government workers and visitors alike. These proposals are still in the planning stage however.

Work would continue on the interior well into the 20th century. Conservation has been an ongoing affair due to pollution and regular wear and tear.

Much of the original stone work was in Anstone, a sand-colored magnesian limestone. Although the defects of this stone were seen as early as 1849 it would be in the early 20th century that the use of Clipsham Stone would be employed.  This honey colored limestone was of much better quality. This replacement program would finally be finished in the 1950's

A new conservation effort on the exterior would begin in 1981 and end in 1994.  More work will be planned in an continuous effort to preserve the complex.

Extensive repairs after World War II became a necessity as a result of an earlier bombing of the Common Chambers in 1941.

The Palace of Westminster would actually be hit by bombs on 14 separate occasions during the Second World War.

Westminster has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1987 and has become one of the most famous sites to be seen in the history of London.

There is no casual access to the interior of Westminster Palace. U.K. Residents may obtain tickets from an MP or from a Lord.  One might also wait in line for admission on the day they wish to enter.  Both U.K. and international visitors can do this but capacity is limited and there is no guarantee of admission. You can also wait for a seat in a committee session.  Admission is free but places cannot be booked an once again there is limited space.

A person may also visit the Parliamentary Archives for research purposes.  You will need proof of identification but do not need to contact a member of Parliament.

Free guided tours of the Palace are available for U.K. Residents during parliamentary sessions who have applied to a member of Parliament. Tours last 75 minutes and include chambers of the two Houses, state rooms and Westminster Hall. 

Paid tours available to everyone can be booked during the Parliamentary summer recess.