How they built the Houses of Parliament

Written by LetsBuild

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Ah, yes! The Houses of Parliament, more correctly known as the Palace of Westminster and “Westminster” started out as “West Minster”. So how were they built? Basically they were cobbled together and it took 1,000 years to come up with what is stood there now! It is called the “Palace” because it was thought to have originally been the main residence of Canute the Great during his reign from 1016 to 1035. Nothing from his time remains – and the tide still keeps on coming in!

The procedure

The earliest part of the structure we still have today is the Westminster Hall. This was erected in 1097, at which point it was the largest hall in Europe. The roof was probably originally supported by pillars, giving three aisles, but during the reign of King Richard II, this was replaced by a hammerbeam roof, “the greatest creation of medieval timber architecture”, which allowed the original three aisles to be replaced with a single huge open space, with a dais at the end. The rebuilding had been begun by King Henry III in 1245, but had by Richard’s time been dormant for over a century. The new roof was commissioned in 1393.

How’s that for messing about on the job? Obviously there were no LAD clauses in the contract!

Anyway, it is believed to have been the main Royal Place during the Middle Ages with bits being stuck on over the place. What it actually looked like in Henry VIII time is speculative, but this drawing gives some idea of what it might have looked like.

Related article: 35 modern buildings that changed construction (video)

In 1512, during the early years of the reign of King Henry VIII, fire destroyed the royal residential parts of the palace. There seems to be no record of what was actually on the site after that until it appeared on a 1746 map of London. “H. of Comms” was the House of Commons and “H of L” that of Lords.

From this period more buildings were erected around the existing ones driven by the need for additional working space in both Commons and Lords. We do have a etched picture of what it all looked like in the early 19th. Century.

We also have a painting of the buildings in 1834. Unfortunately detail is a bit obscured. The painting is of the two Houses burning down!

In 1835 it was decided to rebuild and exactly what was to be built was left to the two Houses to decide. Almost unbelievably the plans for the new buildings were finalised only one year later; in 1836. Now we get to the bit that really upsets us construction professionals! The foundation stone was laid in 1840; the Lords Chamber was completed in 1847, and the Commons Chamber in 1852. Construction of the other parts of today’s building was not finished until about 1870! It normally takes about three times as long for “them” to decide what they want built as it does for us guys to actually build it! Here, just one year to decide and then 30 years to stick it up! Anyway, what went up is what we see today.

There has been a lot of on-going restoration work. This has been necessary because of the original stone degrading, because of a few bomb plots and also because it was repeatedly hit during the Blitz.

The whole Palace is built in the Gothic style and the best known bit of it is the clock tower, Big Ben. This is iconic and is recognised globally as representing, not only London itself, but also the United Kingdom.