The Houses of Parliament are an iconic symbol of Victorian Britain. From 1894 edition of The History of London by Sir Walter Besant:
This was the London of a hundred and fifty years ago. No longer picturesque as in the old days, but solidly constructed, handsome, and substantial. The merchants still lived in the city but the nobles had all gone. The Companies possessed the greater part of the City and still ruled though they no longer dictated the wages, hours, and prices. Within the walls there reigned comparative order: outside there was no government at all. The river below the Bridge was crowded with ships moored two and four together side by side with an open way in the middle. Thousands of barges and lighters were engaged upon the cargoes: every day the church bells rang for a large and orderly congregation: every day arose in every street such an uproar as we cannot even imagine: yet there were quiet spots in the City with shady gardens where one could sit at peace: wealth grew fast: but with it there grew up the mob with the fear of anarchy and license, a taste of which was afforded by the Gordon Riots. Yet it would be eighty years before the city should understand the necessity for a police.
Parliament is really the home of democracy, it’s not perfect but I for one cannot think of any other system of rule that works, so maybe the best of a bad bunch!
On the 16th October 1834 a fire started from overheated chimney flues when old tally sticks were being burned. This spread rapidly throughout the old medieval complex and developed into a raging inferno, the biggest to occur in London since the Great Fire of 1666.
The fire lasted for hours and most of the Palace was gutted including St Stephen’s Chapel where the Commons sat, the Lords Chamber, Painted Chamber and the official residences of the Speaker and the Clerk of the House of Commons.
Westminster Hall and a few other parts of the old Houses of Parliament survived and you can find them incorporated into the current Palace of Westminster.
it took until 1826 to get these sticks abolished. In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood? The sticks were housed in Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for firewood by the miserable people who lived in that neighborhood. However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they should never be, and so the order went out that they were to be privately and confidentially burned. It came to pass that they were burned in a stove in the House of Lords. The stove, over-gorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the paneling; the paneling set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; and we are now in the second million of the cost thereof.
Charles Dickens, clearly not a big fan of the government and being an advocate of social reform probably saw parliament burning down as quote just.
The new Palace of Westminster was built and designed by Sir Charles Barry with Gothic Revival detailing by A.W.N. Pugin. The new palace contains over 1,100 rooms organised symmetrically around two series of courtyards. It was opened in 1844.
Today’s Houses of Parliament are beautiful, the fantastic gothic detail by Pugin is astonishing and has made it one of the most recognised buildings in the world.
UK residents can visit Parliament to watch laws being made, attend debates, watch committees, use the Archives, tour the estate and climb the Clock Tower (Big Ben). UK residents can watch the proceedings including questions, debates on major issues and proposed new laws being discussed in both Houses by visiting the public galleries when Parliament is in session.
Tickets from your MP or a member of the House of Lords are necessary to guarantee entrance to Question Time and Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons. Those without tickets will need to join the public queue and be admitted as and when space in the galleries becomes available. At busy times it may be necessary to queue for several hours.
Free guided tours are available throughout the year by requesting a place through your MP or a member of the House of Lords. Please note that tours are very popular and places are limited so generally have to be booked about six months in advance.
Visitors can pay for a tour on Saturdays or during the Summer Opening. Tickets can be purchased in advance or by queuing on the day.
The Archives are open from Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5pm. Proof of identity is required but no tickets are issued and there is no need to contact your MP in advance.
Tours are free but must be arranged in through your MP or a member of the House of Lords.