The encaustic tiles in St. Stephen’s Hall have undergone a programme of conservation as part of an overall plan to repair the tile floors throughout the Palace of Westminster. Encaustic tiles are the patterned, fired clay tiles which are used on the Principal Floor of the Gothic Revival building and date from 1846 to 1852, with later repairs. The technique, in which a pattern is baked into the tile rather than added later beneath glaze, was much used in medieval times and can be seen close by in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey. The technique was lost during the Reformation and revived early in the 19th century.
During the 1840's Charles Barry, the architect for the new Palace of Westminster designated that the hallways and corridors of the new building should be covered in tiles. The pottery manufacturer Hebert Minton of Stoke-on-Trent developed the process of making them from an earlier patent. Encouraged by Augustus Welby Pugin, the designer of the decorative detail within the new building, Minton produced thousands of tiles throughout the public areas. The encaustic tile was a significant part of the development of the British ceramic industry and they became very popular in domestic architecture following their use at the Houses of Parliament.
The complex series of new tiles in St Stephen’s Hall were developed and reproduced by Craven Dunnill Jackfield Ltd., near Ironbridge in Shropshire and are being laid by DBR Ltd; both firms are specialists for the conservation of historic buildings. The works in the Palace of Westminster are carried out by skilled stone masons, conservators, mortar specialists and stone cleaners.
Encaustic tiles have a much greater life expectancy than other ceramic tiles, as the pattern remains visible for a longer period of time, but heavy use means that some of the tiles in the Palace have worn down and need to be replaced. Tiles with a serviceable amount of pattern remaining will be reused, and others, depending on their condition will be donated to museums or, if severely worn, destroyed. For example, 24 tiles have been donated to the Stoke-on-Trent Potteries Tile Trail, where Herbert Minton’s firm was based. The high standards of production and durability of the manufacturing process gives replacement tiles a projected life of at least 60 years.