‘A palace within a Palace’: an introduction to the Speaker’s House

Created on Monday 26th October 2020 by:
Murray Tremellen

We all have some idea of who the Speaker of the House of Commons is. We see them regularly on the television news, punctuating fractious parliamentary exchanges with their familiar cry of “order, order!” However, it is not widely known that, since 1794, the Speaker has enjoyed the use of a grand official residence within the Palace of Westminster. In that year, Speaker Henry Addington was granted the use of a substantial house right next door to St. Stephen’s Chapel. His successors continued to use this house until 1834, when – like St. Stephen’s Chapel itself – the house was damaged by a disastrous fire which destroyed most of the old palace. Since then, the very existence of this building has been almost forgotten; save for a few paragraphs in Howard Colvin’s History of the King’s Works, it has received very little attention from architectural historians.  This post will explain why the Speaker’s House deserves further study, and how it relates to the wider St. Stephen’s project. However, we must start by explaining exactly why the Speaker has an official residence, and what they use it for.


The role of Speaker first emerged during the parliaments of the fourteenth century. In those days, the ‘Speaker’ was exactly that: a spokesman who was chosen by the Commons to report their deliberations to the King. It is not clear exactly when the Speaker began to take responsibility for chairing the Commons’ debates, but it is this aspect of their role which they are now best-known for. In more recent times, however, the scope of the Speaker’s role has considerably expanded. Nowadays, the Speaker is the administrative head of the House of Commons: they take responsibility for the management of the Commons’ buildings, and for security arrangements. These duties, of course, largely take place behind the scenes; but the Speaker has also gained a more public role as a figurehead and ambassador for the Commons. Nowadays, they regularly play host to visiting dignitaries at Westminster, and occasionally they make goodwill visits overseas. In addition to these public functions, there is a long tradition of the Speaker hosting dinners and social events for current MPs and parliamentary staff. It is these aspects of the Speaker’s role which really explain their need for an official residence. When the Speaker hosts guests, they do so on behalf of the House of Commons: hence, they need a suitably grand venue which reflects the dignity and importance of the House as an institution. Since 1794, the Speaker’s House has fulfilled this role.


The Speaker's House Westminster, River front, Monochrome line engraving By W. Radclyffe after original by John Preston Neale, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1913
The Speaker's House Westminster, River front, Monochrome line engraving By W. Radclyffe after original by John Preston Neale, © Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1913

What, then, is the connection between the Speaker’s House and the St. Stephen’s project? The house which the Speaker took over in 1794 had, in fact, been converted from the former buildings of St. Stephen’s College. St. Stephen’s Chapel itself had been given to the House of Commons after the college was dissolved in 1548; it was then used as their debating chamber right up until 1834. However, the College left behind a number of other buildings, including a two-storey cloister, a bell-tower, a range of vicars’ houses, and an undercroft beneath the chapel. In her recent blog post, my colleague Kirsty Wright explained how these buildings were taken over by the Exchequer of Receipt, whose chief officers then divided and remodelled them to create comfortable townhouses for themselves. However, in 1794 these buildings were taken away from the Exchequer and granted to the use of the Speaker. The incumbent, Henry Addington, soon moved in to his new house, but was disappointed to discover that it suffered from serious problems with damp. His successor, Charles Abbot, grasped the nettle and commissioned James Wyatt – the leading architect of the day – to carry out a substantial rebuild during 1802-06. As part of this process, façades of the house were remodelled in a castellated Gothic style, as shown in a contemporary illustration by J. P. Neale (right). As Caroline Shenton put it, this lavish refurbishment turned the Speaker’s House into ‘a palace within a Palace’.[1] 


Unlike St. Stephen’s Chapel, the Speaker’s House received relatively minor damage in the 1834 fire; indeed, it was soon repaired and refitted for use as temporary committee rooms.  However, when Charles Barry was asked to design a new, much larger parliament complex, the Speaker’s House did not fit in to his plan. Consequently, most of the old Speaker’s House was finally demolished in 1842; only the cloisters and undercroft survived to be incorporated into Barry’s scheme. By then, however, it had become an established tradition that the Speaker should have a house, and Barry duly incorporated one into his new palace. It sits at the north-eastern corner of the complex, in the shadow of the Elizabeth Tower (“Big Ben”), overlooking Westminster Bridge. It was completed in 1859 and is still in use today. As Barry’s new Houses of Parliament became a national icon, the old Palace of Westminster faded from the popular memory, and the old Speaker’s House was all but forgotten.


Why, then, do I want rescue this lost house from the depths of obscurity? In short, I believe that the Speaker’s House can cast new light on both the political and architectural history of the early nineteenth century. The Speaker has long been neglected by political historians. The last comprehensive history of the office was written by Philip Laundy more than fifty years ago, and nobody has ever attempted to analyse how the Speaker’s House shaped the evolution of the Speakership itself. The architectural interest of the building, meanwhile, lies principally in Wyatt’s Gothic rebuild. The years around 1800 witnessed a dramatic resurgence of interest in medieval architecture, and for the first time since the Renaissance, major public buildings were built or remodelled in the Gothic style. In this context, I want to understand why Speaker Abbot chose Gothic for the Speaker’s House. Was he trying to cultivate a particular image for the Speakership and change the way that people perceived his role? Or was his choice the product of a dawning conservationist ethos, a new conviction that the Speaker’s House should harmonise with the medieval buildings that surrounded it? I hope that my future posts will be able to expand on, and perhaps answer, some of these questions.


[1] Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 159