Houses of Parliament (London)

Houses of Parliament .—This is the name usually given to the New Palace of Westminster, which is not only Sir Charles Barry's greatest work, but is in all respects one of the most remarkable structures of the age.  The building, which occupies a site close to the river, and close also to the beautiful new Westminster Bridge, was constructed in consequence of the burning of the old Houses of Parliament in 1834.  It is perhaps the finest modern Gothic structure in the world—at least for civil purposes; but is unfortunately composed of a stone liable to decay; and, to be critical, its ornaments and details generally are on too minute a scale for the magnitude of the building.  The entire structure covers nearly eight acres. Houses of Parliament from the RiverCertain old plain law courts on the north are intended to be removed.  The chief public entrance is by Westminster Hall, which forms a vestibule to the Houses of Parliament and their numerous committee-rooms.  The rooms and staircases are almost inconceivably numerous; and there are said to be two miles of passages and corridors!  The river front, raised upon a fine terrace of Aberdeen granite, is 900 feet in length, and profusely adorned with statues, heraldic shields, and tracery, carved in stone.  The other façades are nearly as elaborate, but are not so well seen.  It is a gorgeous structure, which, so long ago as 1859, had cost over two millions.  A further cost of £107,000, for frescoes, statuary, &c., &c., had been incurred by the end of March, 1860; and the constant outgoings for maintenance of the fabric, and additions thereto, must every year represent a heavy sum.  Nevertheless, the two main chambers in which Parliament meets are ill adapted for sight and hearing.  On Saturdays, both Houses can be seen free, by order from the Lord Chamberlain, easily obtained at a neighbouring office; and certain corridors and chambers are open on other days of the week.  Admission to the sittings of the two Houses can only be obtained by members' orders; as the benches appropriated in this way are few in number, such admissions are highly prized, especially when any important debate is expected.  On the occasion when the Queen visits the House of Lords, to open or prorogue Parliament, visitors are only admitted by special arrangements.

Among the multitude of interesting objects in this stupendous structure, the following may be briefly mentioned.  The House of Peers  is 97 feet long, 45 wide, and 45 high.  It is so profusely painted and gilt, and the windows are so darkened by deep-tinted stained glass, that the eye can with difficulty make out the details.  At the southern end is the gorgeously gilt and canopied throne; near the centre is the woolsack, on which the Lord Chancellor sits; at the end and sides are galleries for peeresses, reporters, and strangers; and on the floor of the house are the cushioned benches for the peers.  At either end are three frescoes—three behind the throne, and three over the strangers' gallery.  The three behind the throne are—“Edward III. conferring the Order of the Garter on the Black Prince,” by C. W. Cope; “The Baptism of Ethelbert,” by Dyce; and “Henry Prince of Wales committed to Prison for assaulting Judge Gascoigne,” by C. W. Cope.  The three at the other end are—“The Spirit of Justice,” by D. Maclise; “The Spirit of Chivalry,” by the same; and “The Spirit of Religion,” by J. C. Horsley.  In niches between the windows and at the ends are eighteen statues of Barons who signed Magna Charta.  The House of Commons, 62 feet long, 45 broad, and 45 high, is much less elaborate than the House of Peers.  The Speaker's Chair is at the north end; and there are galleries along the sides and ends.  In a gallery behind the Speaker the reporters for the newspapers sit.  Over them is the Ladies' Gallery, where the view is ungallantly obstructed by a grating.  The present ceiling is many feet below the original one: the room having been to this extent spoiled because the former proportions were bad for hearing.

Strangers might infer, from the name, that these two chambers, the Houses of Peers and of Commons, constitute nearly the whole building; but, in truth, they occupy only a small part of the area.  On the side nearest to Westminster Abbey are St. Stephen's PorchSt. Stephen's Corridor, the Chancellor's Corridor, the Victoria Tower, the Royal Staircase, and numerous courts and corridors.  At the south end, nearest Millbank, are the Guard Room, the Queen's Robing Room, the Royal Gallery, the Royal Court, and the Prince's Chamber.  The river front is mostly occupied by Libraries  and Committee Rooms.  The northern or Bridge Street end displays the Clock Tower  and the Speaker's Residence.  In the interior of the structure are vast numbers of lobbiescorridorshalls, and courts.  The Saturday tickets, already mentioned, admit visitors to the Prince's Chamber, the House of Peers, the Peers' Lobby, the Peers' Corridor, the Octagonal Hall, the Commons' Corridor, the Commons' Lobby, the House of CommonsSt. Stephen's Hall, and St. Stephen's Porch.  All these places are crowded with rich adornments.  The Victoria Tower, at the south-west angle of the entire structure, is one of the finest in the world: it is 75 feet square and 340 feet high; the Queen's state entrance is in a noble arch at the base.  The Clock Tower, at the north end, is 40 feet square and 320 feet high, profusely gilt near the top.  After two attempts made to supply this tower with a bell of 14 tons weight, and after both failed, one of the so-called ‘Big Bens,' the weight of which is about 8 tons, (the official name being ‘St. Stephen,') now tells the hour in deep tones.  There are, likewise, eight smaller bells to chime the quarters.  The Clock  is by far the largest and finest in this country.  There are four dials on the four faces of the tower, each 22½ feet in diameter; the hour-figures are 2 feet high and 6 feet apart; the minute-marks are 14 inches apart; the hands weigh more than 2 cwt. the pair; the minute-hand is 16 feet long, and the hour-hand 9 feet; the pendulum is 15 feet long, and weighs 680 lbs.; the weights hang down a shaft 160 feet deep.  Besides this fine Clock Tower, there is a Central Tower, over the Octagonal Hall, rising to a height of 300 feet; and there are smaller towers for ventilation and other purposes.

Considering that there are nearly 500 carved stone statues in and about this sumptuous building, besides stained-glass windows, and oil and fresco paintings in great number, it is obvious that a volume would be required to describe them all.  In the Queen's Robing Room  are painted frescoes from the story of King Arthur; and in the Peers' Robing Room, subjects from Biblical history.  The Royal Gallery  is in the course of being filled with frescoes and stained windows illustrative of English history.  Here, among others, specially note the late D. Maclise's stupendous fresco, 45 feet long by 12 feet high, representing “The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo;” and the companion fresco, “The Death of Nelson.”