History of Parliament

Where Parliament stands today has been the centre of authority for over 1000 years and can date back to Roman times. The site was once home to the Royal Family and is still officially a royal palace. Henry VIII was the last royal to live on the site but moved out in 1512.

The building that we know today as Parliament was built after the fire of 1834 which destroyed the original building and was not completed until 1870. The new building incorporated Westminster Hall and the remains of St Stephen’s Chapel.

During World War II the Palace of Westminster was bombed several times but on 10 May 1941 a bombing raid destroyed the House of Commons chamber. The new chamber was built and Commonwealth countries contributed to the refurbishment: Australia the speakers chair; Canada the table of the House; India and Pakistan the entrance doors to the chamber; New Zealand two dispatch boxes; Sri Lanka Sergent at Arms chair; and Jamaica the Bard of the House. The new air-conditioned chamber was used for the first time on 26th October 1950.

Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall is the oldest surviving building on the site, its walls were built in 1097.

Westminster Hall used to house the Courts of Law and saw many notable trial including Sir William Wallace (1305) Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators (1606) and Charles I (1649) and was also the traditional venue for coronation banquets.

Today the hall is used for major public ceremonies like the presentation of addresses to the Queen on the Silver (1977) and Golden (2002) Jubilee and to mark 50 years since the end of World War II in 1995. It is also where monarchs, consorts and occasionally very distinguished statesmen lie in state. The most recent being George V (1952), Sir Winston Churchill (1965) and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (2002)

Big Ben

The clock tower come into existence following the fire of 1834, it dominated the winning plans of Charles Barry. It swung into action in 1859.

The tower is 96 meters high (314 feet) and there are 393 steps to the lantern room but visitors can only climb the 334 steps to the belfry. There are 312 separate pieces of glass in each of the four clock faces.

No-one knows where ‘Big Ben’ got its name from but the most popular theories suggest it was either named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the First Commissioner of Works and a tall man known in the House of Commons as Big Ben or it was named after champion heavyweight boxer of the time Ben Caunt. He fought his last fight in 1857 when the bell, and the debate of what to name it, was in the public consciousness.

Green or Red

One striking feature when visiting Parliament is the contrast in colours between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Green is the principle colour for furnishings and fabrics throughout the House of Commons. Similarly red is the principle colour in the House of Lords. The use of red probably stems from Kings using red as a royal colour and its consequent employment in the room where the King met his court and nobles.

There are a number of theories why green is used in the House of Commons. One theory is that green was used in other settings where the commons used to sit. At one time the Commons sat in St Stephen’s Chapel and at another the Painted Chapel – both were painted green. So it could be that they brought the colour green with them.

Another theory is the livery colours of the Tudors were green and white so their colours might have been given prominence out of loyalty to or curry favour with the crown.

It may also have been that the commons had to make do with cheaper decorations than the nobles. While the rich could indulge their taste for brilliant colours the commons had to remain content with more sober plumage.

Green has become the distinguishing colour of the commons by custom stretching back over more than 300 years.