Houses of Parliament, London
Statue of Oliver Cromwell outside Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament
The Palace of Westminster, in London, has been the home of government in England for nine hundred years. The oldest part of the present building, Westminster Hall was built in 1097 for William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror. Enlarged in 1395, during the reign of Richard II, Westminster Hall was the original home of English government administration. During the reign of King John in the early thirteenth century, the administrative service of government stopped following the king around on his ceaseless tours of his domains. Although both Winchester and York were used for periods of time as a base for government, it was at Westminster that government activity finally began to settle. The Exchequer was the first government department to find a home, the physical weight of treasure, and the elaborate service which controlled it being too heavy to drag around the country when the king went on his ceaseless travels. The Exchequer was housed in a room off Westminster Hall. The department was named after a chequered table on which business would be done. It was at Westminster Hall that England's central law courts were founded. From 1178, in the hall's huge open space, the Court of the King's Bench, the Court of Chancery, and the Court of Common Pleas were all located. Each court was divided from the other by nothing more than a wooden bar against which the counsel stood. In the centre of each court space stood a massive oak table covered with green cloth, where officials would spread their documents. This noisy open plan arrangement, in which each court had confusing overlapping jurisdiction, endured for six hundred years until a relocation to the Strand in 1882. Other buildings then grew up around Westminster Hall to produce the first Houses of Parliament, the headquarters of English government.
Apart form Westminster Hall, most of the old Parliament buildings were destroyed by fire soon after the landmark Reform Bill of 1832. In many ways the Reform Bill created Parliament as we know it today. It was strangely fitting that a revolution in Parliament's ethos coincided with an almost total loss of the original Houses of Commons and Lords. Fire broke out in the House of Lords in 1834. It had been decided that wooden tallies used for centuries to compute tax were to be replaced by paper records. A suggestion was made to the Clerk of Works that the wooden tallies should be given away as fire wood to the poor, but it was thought more proper to confidentially burn them in a House of Lords stove. Too many tallies were stuffed into the stove, and a huge conflagration followed. Joseph Turner stayed up all night doing pencil sketches of the inferno, and then returned home to turn them into paintings. The lost buildings then had to be replaced, and the job was given to architect Charles Barry. Barry had to create buildings, which like the Reform Act, looked to the future. People did not want the type of government which had gone before, and the old Palace of Westminster could not simply be recreated. And yet while it was necessary for Barry to give thought to forward looking new buildings, he also had to consider the requirement for conveying a sense of stability. In the opinion of historian A.N. Wilson, Barry managed to pull off this trick of getting his new Palace of Westminster to suggest stability and change at the same time: "Barry's solid Tudor Gothic... makes as they say a statement. These buildings say, on the one hand, we are as new as paint. We are so self-confidently new that we are prepared to pull down some of the historic old rooms which survived the fire. On the other hand they say that... we are as old as the hills and infinitely more respectable." (The Victorians by A.N. Wilson P63.)
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834, by Turner
So Parliament set about the complicated task of looking to the future whilst also appearing solid, traditional and respectable. This balancing act is seen both in the buildings of Parliament and in what happens within them. Through the nineteenth century the electorate was extended, and parliamentary abuses were legislated against, but this did not stop many aspects of Britain's government remaining unaltered. The House of Lords, made up of nominated members, still survives, inspite of moves against it. The system of hereditary right to a place in the House of Lords is being phased out as seats become vacant. In the Commons a parliamentary member fundamentally continues to represent a place rather than a political faction. MPs are announced not, for example, as "the Conservative Member for Bromley" but as "the Honourable Member for Bromley". This has been the case since the reign of Edward III, when Parliament existed as a single body to administer Crown business. Governments today continue a careful balancing act of pursuing the new, while giving an appearance of reassuring stability. They do so in a building designed to give them some help.
For UK citizens perhaps the best way to visit Parliament is to book through your MP. Overseas visitors can also book, but they must contact email@example.com to arrange a tour guide. The guides will charge for their services. All visitors, both UK citizens and overseas visitors, can visit the "Strangers galleries" in both the Commons and the Lords. Entry for the Strangers galleries is at St Stephens Gate. There can be a long wait here. Try arriving after 1.00pm, or try to visit on a Friday to minimise the wait. Admission is free. Debates in the Commons take place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2.30pm, and on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9.30am. To visit the House during Question Time, when the Commons is at it's busiest, book a ticket through your MP or embassy. Prime Minister's Question Time is on Wednesdays from 12.00pm until 12.30pm. Both Houses close at Christmas, Easter and from August to mid October.
Tours run throughout the year. The tour takes about 75 minutes. Tickets can be purchased from the ticket office located next to the Jewel Tower. However it is advised that tickets are pre-booked by telephoning 0844 847 1672. For groups of 10 or more please telephone 0844 847 2498.
Extended tours might be available by prior arrangement. Ring the number below in the contact section. Tours for overseas visitors are only available during the summer opening of Parliament. For UK citizens tours are more frequent.
Tours of the clock tower (Big Ben) are available. Contact your MP. Note that expectant mothers and children under eleven years old are asked not to tour the tower. Be sure you are fit enough for the climb! No overseas visitors are permitted at present (2012). These need to be booked well in advance as a three to six month wait is not uncommon. Tours generally run Monday to Friday at 9.15am, 11.15am and 2.15pm with a maximum of sixteen visitors per tour.
Directions: The Houses of Parliament sit beside the Thames at Westminster, beside Westminster Bridge. Click here for an interactive map centred on the Houses of Parliament.
Access: Westminster Underground station is fully wheelchair friendly. Most of Parliament is accessible to wheelchair users. There is one inaccessible area on the tour, which is bypassed. There are adapted toilet facilities off the Central Lobby and in the Jubilee cafe in Westminster Hall. Note that there are no facilities, of any kind, before the start of the tour, which lasts seventy five minutes. However, there are good toilet facilities nearby on the Embankment by Westminster Bridge and at Westminster station.
Contact: Address for MPs is:
House of Commons
London SW1A OAA
Schools wanting to arrange a visit should contact:
The Parliamentary Education Unit
Norman Shaw Building (North)
London SW1A 2TT
telephone: 020 7219 4496
web site: www.parliament.uk