Caroline Shenton's 2016 book Mr Barry's War looks at the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament following a disastrous fire in 1834. Here, she describes how the famous buildings we see today were not the only option.
97 possible Parliaments
As Parliamentarians grapple with proposals for a multi-billion pound restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, take a look at what the most famous Victorian building in Britain might have looked like if a different one had been built instead.
After the old Houses of Parliament burned down in 1834, there was a public competition to find a scheme for a replacement, which anyone could enter on payment of £1 for a copy of the site plans. Competitors had just four months to come up with ideas. The stress killed at least one of them, Francis Goodwin, who died of a stroke after working without sleep to complete his entry.
The judges – or Competition Commissioners, as they were called - were four ‘men of taste’, and none of them were trained architects. Charles Hanbury Tracy MP was their chairman. He had designed his own house at Toddington in Gloucestershire with only a draughtsman to assist. Sir Edward Cust, a former MP, was another: he had long been lobbying to have a part in shaping the future of the new Houses of Parliament.
The other two judges were the Hon. Thomas Liddell, and George Vivian of Bath. All of them were enthusiasts for Gothic (one of the main rules for the design of the building), but of a rather conservative kind, and with no professional expertise – just gut instinct and strong opinion. Meeting in the undamaged portions of the charred Speaker’s House in the Palace between December 1835 and January 1836, they had to ask for an extension of time to examine the 1,400 drawings which had flooded in.
Ninety-seven entrants had responded to the demanding brief in a range of ways, some more successful than others. The open competition had attracted not only fine designs from well-known architects, but also a number of pedestrian, rule-breaking, and idiotic ones.
A second Westminster Hall?
In his gigantic scheme, Thomas Hopper, a favourite architect of George IV, had decided to restore St Stephen’s Chapel for the House of Commons and then duplicate it for the House of Lords as well. He also incorporated a second Westminster Hall into New Palace Yard, and added two Fonthill-style towers for good measure. He was so annoyed at having lost the competition that he tried to get Parliament to overturn the result on the grounds that Barry had cheated (he hadn’t).
John Tertius Fairbank proposed a great circular corridor 800 feet long to provide easy access to offices, based around ‘a colossal circular tower… a vast and ornamental object’. Some competitors had embanked the eastern side of the Palace by the Thames shoreline and ran a road along to the building. Other designs were too monotonous, proposing a single block; or conversely, too disjointed, with individual buildings making up a varied complex; or simply too ecclesiastical, like this one by George Hawkins the Younger.
A vast classical palace
Some competitors had ignored the rules altogether. CR Cockerell, architect of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, defiantly entered a Neoclassical design based on Wren's Naval College at Greenwich, including two large domes, loftily claiming, ‘Elizabethan cannot be defined, the Examples all differing’. Some architects of the Grecian persuasion did not even attempt to enter, including JM Gandy, an assistant of John Soane famed for his working up of plans into full-scale architectural fantasies. A painting now at the Royal Institute of British Architects shows his favoured solution for Parliament: a new ‘Senate House’ for the Lords in St James’s Park comprising a giant classical rotunda with huge marble portico, citizens lining the approaches all in white, while floating in the blue sky above is a misty rendition of Westminster Hall and St Stephen’s ablaze in the corner.
Evident marks of genius
The result of the competition was published on 29 February 1836. In coming to their decision, the judges had confined themselves – they said – to consideration of the, ‘beauty and grandeur of the general design; to its practicability; to the skill shown in the various arrangements of the building, and the accommodation afforded; to the attention paid to the Instructions delivered, as well as to the equal distribution of light and air through every part of the Structure’. They had not considered any aspects of acoustics or ventilation – or the cost.
‘We are all unanimous’, they told the King, William IV, 'that the one delivered to us, marked 64, with the emblem of a Portcullis, bears throughout such evident marks of genius and superiority of talent, as fully to entitle it to the preference we have given it in our classification; and we have no hesitation in giving it as our opinion, that the Elevations are of an order so superior, and display so much taste and knowledge of Gothic Architecture, as to leave no doubt whatever in our minds of the Author’s ability to carry into effect Your Majesty’s Commands, should you be pleased to honour him with your confidence.
This was the entry by Charles Barry, created in partnership with AWN Pugin. Today, the unsuccessful competition drawings are scattered between institutions if you want to explore them further: at the National Archives, the RIBA, the V&A and there are some in the Parliamentary Art Collection too. But ironically the set of original winning drawings have disappeared. They were given back to Barry so that he could make cost estimates for the building and undertake alterations to the design as his ideas matured further. As a result, they were soon superseded, and are thought to have been destroyed by Barry during his lifetime or after his death, by his sons.
Being commissioned to build the new Houses of Parliament was a sensational, life-changing, win. Barry’s reaction is not recorded. But on that clear October night in 1834 when all London was out watching Parliament burn down, he had exclaimed even then: “What a chance for an architect!”.
Find out more about the struggle to create the new Palace of Westminster in Caroline Shenton’s book Mr Barry’s War: Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament after the Great Fire of 1834 published by OUP.
See also: our tube map of unbuilt London.