In 1837 – almost 290 years after it had first become the meeting-place of the House of Commons – the battered remains of St Stephen’s Chapel were finally pulled down. The chapel had been severely damaged by the devastating fire which ravaged the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. Initially there were hopes that the medieval shell of the building could be restored and incorporated into a rebuilt palace. However, once Charles Barry had been awarded the commission to build the new Houses of Parliament, he quickly concluded that the fire-damaged stonework was in danger of collapse, and so ordered the upper storey to be dismantled.
The demise of St Stephen’s Chapel marked the end of an era in Britain’s political history. The building which had hosted the House of Commons through some of the most momentous events in its history – including the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the Great Reform Act – had been lost. Nevertheless, St Stephen’s left a legacy. The new Commons chamber, though incorporating some innovations, kept to the same basic format as the old House of Commons, whereby the Government and Opposition faced each other from opposing benches. This tradition originated in the shape of the former medieval chapel, where Tudor MPs had sat on benches constructed where the choir stalls had once been.
After a long, difficult building campaign, Barry’s palace was finally completed in 1870. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this momentous achievement, it seems an appropriate moment to look back on the changing face of the Commons. We have added a new page to the Virtual St Stephen’s site showing the evolution of the House of Commons chamber, from the last days of old St Stephen’s in 1833, to the post-World War II reconstruction by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. These pictures show that, in many ways, the spirit of St Stephen’s lives on.
For more information about the 150th anniversary and the celebratory events which are taking place this year, visit the UK Parliament website.