St Stephen’s in 1846: ventilation wars, ‘offensive emanations’ and lost buildings

Created on Friday 7th January 2022 by:
Murray Tremellen

The history of St Stephen's Chapel didn't end with the devastating fire of 1834. Its undercroft survived to be incorporated into the new Palace of Westminster, but it first had to endure more than thirty years at the centre of London's biggest building site. Parliament continued to sit at Westminster during the reconstruction project, and this led to many tensions and disputes. Elizabeth Hallam Smith (Historical Research Consultant, Houses of Parliament and Hon. Research Professor, University of York) reveals her latest discoveries about this fascinating phase in the Palace's history.

In August 1846 Dr David Boswell Reid, Ventilator-in-Chief at the Palace of Westminster, was enraged by his inability to source fresh air for his ventilation system for the temporary Commons and Lords chambers.  Parliament had sat throughout the hot summer that year and at times the ground temperatures in this part of the Palace of Westminster had exceeded 100ºF (38ºC).  Clearly having been subjected to the wrath of members about their working conditions, Reid sent this lithograph (Fig 1) to the Office of Woods to demonstrate the huge problems that he faced.  All of these he laid squarely at the door of Charles Barry, architect of the New Palace, with whom he was locked in a series of rancorous disputes.  His drawing provides a unique view of the building site at Stephen’s and reveals the huge challenges of working in this cramped and highly-disputed area of the Palace.  It also gives posterity a final view of some of the great medieval buildings on the site before their remodelling or destruction, whilst the new Palace can be seen rising around them.


Fig 1. David Boswell Reid, ‘Sketch shewing one of the places which interfered most severely with the ventilation of the Temporary Houses of Parliament’, August 1846, © The National Archives, WORK 11/12, f. 204
Fig 1. David Boswell Reid, ‘Sketch shewing one of the places which interfered most severely with the ventilation of the Temporary Houses of Parliament’, August 1846, © The National Archives, WORK 11/12, f. 204

On the left of Reid’s image is the south end of Westminster Hall (incorrectly described as the north end, although the mistake has been corrected in pencil on the lithograph). The south wall with its Romanesque towers is being demolished to make way for Barry’s new grand public route, and temporary boarding is being installed.  Next to Westminster Hall, at the centre of the image, is ‘the crypt, formerly the Speaker’s dining room’ - today the chapel of St Mary Undercroft.  Built as the lower storey of St Stephen’s chapel, and a robust medieval construction, it had survived the fire of 1834 relatively unscathed and had until 1842 been used as storage space and Committee rooms for the Commons.  Although Barry was very defensive of its fabric, it would remain unrestored until the 1850s.  This was almost certainly because Reid would meanwhile purloin it to house his gas retorts and gasometers.[i]  Rising around and above it on the lithograph may be seen the first stages of the new St Stephen’s Hall, designed by Barry to replace St Stephen’s chapel, the former House of Commons that he had taken down in 1837.  Behind St Stephen’s Hall is Barry’s river front of the new Palace, which by 1846 had reached an advanced state of construction.


To the right of the ‘crypt’ may be seen a tower clad in boarding: although not described by Reid on the lithograph, this is the House of Commons lavatory.  Built next to the old House in the 16th century and long prone to overflowing into the adjoining areas, it too had survived the fire and was now serving the temporary House of Commons, located in the Lesser Hall nearby.  That massive Romanesque building had housed the Lords from 1801 to 1834 - and its furnaces and the heating flues in its undercroft had been the epicentre of the 1834 fire.  Its great walls had survived the inferno, enabling Sir Robert Smirke to create the temporary Commons within them in 1834—5.  Its north end, including its lobby and undercroft, is shown on the lithograph.  Here Reid shows us that part of its walls had recently been demolished and replaced merely with flimsy weatherboarding - and that in places only green baize, canvas and paper protected the chamber from the elements. 


A reliable source of fresh air was essential for the innovative, experimental and ever-changing warming and ventilation system that, at the behest of MPs, Reid had devised and first implemented for the temporary House of Commons in 1835--6.  The House of Lords, housed in the Painted Chamber, which lay beyond the Lesser Hall and is not shown on the lithograph, had been plugged into this in 1839; but Peers were considerably less impressed with it than MPs.  Key to its functioning was the huge 210ft (64m) chimney constructed near to the Commons lavatory in 1836, which on the lithograph towers over the Lesser Hall and was a distinctive industrial landmark at Westminster until 1851.  A roaring fire at its base created a powerful rising current of air, driving the system’s circulation.  This watercolour by George Moore (Fig 2), which provides a rare view of the base of the chimney, shows the view from Cotton Garden in 1836—7 and was made before the demolition of the ruined upper chapel of St Stephen.  The side of the adjacent lavatory tower with its sloping roof may just be discerned on the far left side of the painting.


Fig 2. ‘St Stephen’s Chapel, Palace of Westminster’ [1836-7], by George Moore, London Metropolitan Archives Prints Collection, record no. 313151, © London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)
Fig 2. ‘St Stephen’s Chapel, Palace of Westminster’ [1836-7], by George Moore, London Metropolitan Archives Prints Collection, record no. 313151, © London Metropolitan Archives (City of London)

As Reid complains on the lithograph (Fig 1), the site had been cut off from the river by the construction of the river front and was gaining heat from the new buildings, but no source of cool fresh air was now available.  Worse still, the foundations of Barry’s new St Stephen’s porch, seen at the front of the lithograph, are flooded and are dispersing ‘most offensive emanations from drains, cesspools and ground saturated with noxious products’.  Reid alleges that the Clerk of the Works had contracted severe typhus the previous year and lists all the other unpleasant diseases that had afflicted others working in this area.  ‘The incessant use of chemicals alone’, he adds, ‘prevented these effects from being much more widely extended’.


The background to this dispute was the inability of Reid and Barry to reach agreement over Reid’s complex specifications for warming and ventilating the new Palace, elements of which Barry saw as endangering the fabric and posing a major fire hazard.  After three major Parliamentary inquiries into this matter, in June 1846 the Lords had decided to strip Reid of his primacy over the air-handling arrangements for their new chamber, while the Commons had mandated him to continue with theirs.  In completing the new Palace of Westminster, Barry would therefore need to incorporate two separate systems into his structures. 


St Stephen’s was a particularly contested space between the Architect and the Ventilator, the problems compounded by a lack of clear reporting lines and the strong support which Reid enjoyed from MPs, which enabled him to countermand Barry’s instructions.  Thus, in May 1846, during the course of the parliamentary inquiries, Reid had gone behind the Architect’s back directly to the Office of Woods and had succeeded in bringing Barry’s construction works at St Stephen’s to a complete halt.  This was on the grounds that Barry had prevented him from digging a large trench across the floor of the undercroft to install a flue which he needed for his permanent Lords system.[ii]   


After losing control of much of the new air-handling arrangements to Barry, Reid still had the temporary system to run. And his pioneering approach to it was not curtailed by his setbacks and disappointments. In July 1846 his trial burning of wood in his great chimney caused a dangerous fire and earned him a major reprimand from the Office of Woods, which forbade him to carry out any further experiments that would pose a threat to the fabric of the Palace.[iii]   On seeing Reid’s complaint and the lithograph in August, soon after that episode, Barry was dismissive: his view was – unsurprisingly - that Reid’s problems were self-inflicted.  Barry’s works at St Stephen’s would restart by the end of 1846.[iv]  But the disputes between him and Reid would continue unabated until the Chief Ventilator was finally dismissed from his role at Westminster in 1852.


[i] As later suggested by The Times, 11 August 1864, 9; Illustrated Times, 21 Jan 1865, 5-6.

[ii] TNA WORK 11/12, 4, 5, 18 May 1846; WORK 11/9/7, 30 June 1846; WORK 1/29, ff. 262—3.

[iii] TNA WORK 11/12, 31 August, 5 Sept 1846; WORK 1/30, 79, 91—2; Morning Post, 22 July 1846, 2.

[iv] TNA WORK 11/9/7, Christmas 1846.