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The Battle for Westminster Hall

  • Chris Miele


In November 1882 the Royal Courts of Justice moved house, exchanging premises built by Sir John Soane along the flank of Westminster Hall (Figs 1, 2 and 3) for George Edmund Street’s Gothic masterpiece in the Strand. The new building, some sixteen years in the making, solved one problem but left another in its wake. Back in Parliament Square were Soane’s Courts, redundant and, worse, covering over a large part of Westminster Hall. Constructed in the late eleventh century, the massive Hall had been transformed three centuries later. Outside are six splendid flying buttresses (Soane had incorporated them into his cross walls) built to receive the thrust generated by Hugh Herland’s peerless hammerbeam roof, a wonder of high medieval carpentry (Fig. 4). Here was an unmissable chance to raise the profile of the ancient masterpiece, which was hemmed in by Georgian brick and masonry, and overshadowed by the modern medieval pomp of Pugin and Barry’s New Palaces of Westminster. The solution seemed simple: demolish Soane’s ranges and tidy up what was left. It was more like housekeeping than architecture and what was more it would not cost much. As for Soane’s ranges (and Vardy’s to the south), they were seen to be completely without merit.



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1 Soane’s work was integrated with Stone Building to the south-west of the Hall, a Palladian block designed by John Vardy and erected in two campaigns from 1755 and 1769. For a discussion of Soane’s courts see Wedgwood, A., ‘Soane’s Law Courts at Westminster’, AA Files, 24 (autumn 1992), pp. 3140 . I am grateful to Lady Wedgwood for commenting on an early draft of this article and for allowing me access to the west flank of the Hall. On Street’s new RCJ see Brownlee, D., The Law Courts. The Architecture of G. E. Street (Cambridge, USA, 1984).

2 Courtenay, L., ‘The Westminster Hall Roof and Its Fourteenth-Century Sources’, Jr. of the Society of Architectural Historians [US], 43 (1984), pp. 295309 .

3 Shaw Lefevre, later Baron Eversley, awaits a biographer. His Times obituary 20 April 1928) and the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography have recently been augmented by a chapter in Willson, F. M. G., A Strong Supporting Cast. The Shaw Lefevres, 1789-1936 (London, 1993), pp. 237-71. See also Port, M. H., Imperial London. Civil Government Building in London, 1850–1915 (London and New Haven, 1995), pp. 3, 16, 22, 38, 71, 131, 153, 181-85, 237-39, et passim. Shaw Lefevre’s surname is often, incorrectly, hyphenated.

4 Thompson, E. P., William Morris. From Romantic to Revolutionary (New York, 1976 ed.), pp. 202-25.

5 British Library, Add. MSS 44,513, fols 50-52, 21 September and 27 November 1880.

6 British Library, Add. MSS, 44, 153, fol. 56, 25 December 1880.

7 Shaw Lefevre would go on to write the first comprehensive history of the movement, English Commons and Forests: The Story of the Battle during the Last 30 Years for Public Rights over the Commons and Forests of England and Wales (London, 1894).

8 On Shaw Lefevre and the MBW see Owen, D., The Government of Victorian London, 1855–1889. The Metropolitan Board of Works, the Vestries and the City Corporation, ed. Macleod, R. (Cambridge, USA, and London, 1982), pp. 143, 146, 151, and 247. His failed attempt to widen Parliament Street can be followed in the Minutes of the MBW, London Metropolitan Archives, City Corporation, 1883 (2), May to July, pp. 80, 166, 276, 369, 511, 1044; 1884 (1), February to June, pp. 358, 611-1, 652-53, 655, 662-63, 823, 854, 915-16, 1029. Shaw Lefevre got the chance to press forward on London street improvements when in 1897, with the Tories in government, he joined the London County Council as the progressive representative from Haggerston. As Chairman of the Improvements Committee he oversaw the redevelopment of Kingsway and Aldwych.

9 British Library, Add. MSS, 44, 153, fols 76, 78, 85-88, 107, 120-25, letters dated 7 July 1881, 16 January, 17 March, 31 July, 14 August, 5, 10, and 14 September 1882.

10 Shaw Lefevre, The Nineteenth Century (1882), pp. 667-86.

11 In an internal memorandum Shaw Lefevre expressed his hope that after restoration of its river front the Tower would ‘present once more in all its ancient dignity, a range of ancient buildings which … has not its rival anywhere in the world.’ Public Record Office WORKS series (hereafter WORKS), 14/1/15, 15 December 1881.

12 Affibone, J., Anthony Salvin. Pioneer ofGothic Revival Architecture (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 138-43. Parnell, G., The Tower of London (London, 1993), pp. 98108 .

13 Barry, A., The Life and Work of Charles Barry, R.A., F.R.S. (London, 1867), pp. 236-40, 245, 259, 263, and Shaw Lefevre, The Nineteenth Century (1882), pp. 672-74, 680-82, 685-86.

14 Miele, C., ‘The First Conservation Militants. William Morris and the SPAB’, in Preserving the Past. The Rise of Heritage in Modem Britain, ed. Hunter, M. (Stroud, Gloucs., 1996), pp. 1737 , and the same author’s The Conservationist’, in William Morris, ed. Parry, L. (London, 1996), pp. 7287 .

15 WORKS 14/1/15. The SPAB’s initial approach was received by the Works on 25 July.

16 Shaw Lefevre, The Nineteenth Century (1882), p. 685.

17 WORKS 14/1/15, 3 November 1882.

18 WORKS 14/1/15, 22 November 1882, 25 January, 22 February, 3 and 6 March 1883. Parnell, Tower of London, pp. 103–07.

19 Dr Steven Brindle in communication with the author, December 1996.

20 SPAB, Annual Report, June 1883, pp. 10-12.

21 Miele, C., ‘“A Small Knot of Cultivated People”. William Morris and the Ideologies of Protection’, Art Journal, vol. 54 (1995), pp. 7379 .

22 Chippendale, C., ‘The Making of the First Ancient Monuments Act, 1882, and Its Administration under General Pitt-Rivers’,Joumal of the British Archaeological Association, vol. 136 (1983), pp. 155 .

23 Shaw Lefevre, pp. 668-9, and Morris’s ‘The Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation’ first delivered in October 1881 and reprinted in Hopes and Fears for Art (London, 1882), pp. 169-217. Recently reprinted in Morris on Architecture, ed. Miele, C. (Sheffield, 1996), pp. 6498 , at pp. 65–67, 71, et passim.

24 The Collected Letters of William Morris, 1848-1896, ed. Kelvin, Norman, 4 vols (Princeton, 1984-96), 11, p. 60 , note.

25 For the Kyrie Society see Darley, G., Octavia Hill (London, 1990), pp. 179-82. Its Open Spaces Subcommittee, established in 1879, was formed to apply the principles of the CPS to urban spaces. In January 1881 Morris addressed a joint meeting of the Kyrie and National Health Societies on the need for open spaces in working-class districts. See Collected Letters of William Morris, 11, pp. 23–25 and note 8.

26 Malchow, H., ‘Public Gardens and Social Action in Late Victorian London’, Victorian Studies, 29 (1985-86), pp. 97124 .

27 Charterhouse and Staple Inn files, SPAB Archives, both of 1885-86. See also Morris’s ‘The Decorative Arts: Their Relation to Modern Life and Progress’, better known as ‘The Lesser Arts’, read in December 1877. The Collected Works of William Morris, 24 vols (1910-15), XXII, pp. 3-27. Also ‘The Prospects of Architecture in Civilisation’ of 1881, recendy reprinted in Morris on Architecture, pp. 64-98. A later pamphlet, Under the Elm Tree, or Thoughts on the Countryside (Aberdeen, 1891) takes up the theme.

28 WORKS, 11/69, 10 November 1882 and 5, 8, and 11 January 1883.

29 British Library, Add. MSS, 44, 153, fols. 142-43, 5 January 1883.

30 WORKS, 11/69, 6 January, 18 April, 20 June 1883.

31 It appears that at no time during the demolition of Soane’s old Courts did anyone in the Works take the trouble to consult Smirke’s earlier, published papers on the archaeology of the Hall. See Archaeologia, 26 (1836), pp. 406-21 and vol. 27 (1837), pp. 135-39.

32 The Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 4 (1882-88), pp. 385-86.

33 The Society of Antiquaries devoted a special meeting to the new finds and an entire issue of its journal Archaeologia. The papers were published in Archaeologia, 50 (1887). See also the Transactions of the London and Middlesex Antiquarian Society, 4 (1882-87), pp. 371-97 and 468-87.

34 Quiney, A., John Loughborough Pearson (London and New Haven, 1979), p. 42 .

35 Quiney, Pearson, pp. 167, 175, 188-91, 279, 281.

36 Truro Cathedral files, SPAB archives, 1879-80.

37 Freemantle, J. M., W. D. Caröe. His Architectural Achievement (Manchester, 1990), pp. 145-46, 148.

38 WORKS, 11/69, 12 July 1883. Though it is signed Thackeray Turner and clearly in his hand, the style suggests that Morris helped to compose this letter.

39 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 9 and 11 February 1884.

40 ‘Report on Westminster Hall by J. L. Pearson, R.A.’, in WORKS, 11/69, undated. An edited, illustrated version was published in Parliamentary Papers, 1882, xx, pp. 783-810.

41 WORKS, 11/69, Pearson’s report, p. 4.

42 ‘The Report of the Select Committee on the Restoration of Westminster Hall’, Parliamentary Papers, 1884-85, XIII, 2162-2418.

43 WORKS, 11/69, Pearson’s report, p. 4.

44 WORKS, 11/69, Pearson’s report, pp. 2, 5-6.

45 Barry, Sir Charles Barry, p. 245.

46 WORKS, 11/69, Pearson’s report, pp. 7-8. If these proposals are shocking, then we should bear in mind that Sir Charles’s more radical solution still had its supporters, among them William Butterfield, who in 1884 seriously proposed raising the roof and upper walls of the Hall on hydraulic screw jacks — a technique used for large-scale restoration work since at least the mid-1870s — and lengthening the traceried lights, thus making up for the light lost inside the Hall by the proposed removal of the Georgian dormers. E. W. Godwin caustically observed that the designer of Keble College was hardly the best judge of architectural proportion. For this exchange see The Times, 2, 4, 6, and 10 December 1884, pp. 12, 10, 6, and 6 respectively.

47 WORKS, 11/69, Pearson’s report, p. 8.

48 WORKS, 11/69, 9 July 1884.

49 The Builder, 19 July 1884, p. 78.

50 25 July 1884, p. 147.

51 Building News, 8 August 1884, pp. 201-03.

52 The Builder, 19 and 26 July 1885, pp. 78, 115-16.

53 For example, The Architect, 21 April, 16 and 23 June, 22 November 1877, pp. 258, 385-89, 391-94, 155-56, 183-84 respectively.

54 26 July 1884, pp. 48-49.

55 18 July 1884, p. 11.

56 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 22 July 1884.

57 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 28 July 1884.

58 The Builder, 26 July and 8 August 1884, pp. 119 and 202.

59 WORKS, 11/69, 13 August 1884.

60 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 10 October 1884.

61 For Wyndham see Dakers, C., Clouds. The Biography of a Country House (New Haven and London, 1993). Wyndham was something of a rogue Tory in any case.

62 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 31 July 1884 and marked ‘in confidence’.

63 He was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, to which he read many papers. He was also involved in the preservation of seventeenth-century buildings in Edinburgh.

64 As illustrated by correspondence in the Ormskirk Church file, SPAB Archives, 1878-80.

65 November 1884, to Turner, Thackeray. Collected Letters of William Morris, 11, p. 335 .

66 The Times, 8 August 1884.

67 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 14 August 1884.

68 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, undated (October? 1884).

69 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 2 November 1884; on Morris and Co. stationery.

70 Hansard, Commons Debates, 3rd series, 293, 47 and 48 Victoria, 1332-33.

71 Cavendish-Bentinck andPeddie, in Hansard, 7 November 1884, 1337–38.

72 The Times, 10 and 15 November, pp. 10 and 10.

73 Apart from Peddie the only architectural expert was Alexander Beresford Hope (1820-87), Conservative Member for Maidstone. The other members were: Sir Edward James Reed (1830-1906), naval architect and chief constructor to the navy; Liberal for Cardiff from 1880 to 1895. John Rylands (1801-88), Manchester textile manufacturer and philanthropist, was not a doctrinaire Liberal though he tended in that direction. John Walter (1818-94) was chief proprietor of The Times. Although nominally a Conservative, he sat for many years on the Liberal side of the House. He had a strong interest in architecture, overseeing the rebuilding of the paper’s office and the construction of his massive suburban seat at Bear Wood. Lord Randolph Churchill (1849–95) was Conservative and stood for the family borough, Marlborough; he emerged as leader of the Tories in opposition during Gladstone’s second government. Sir Henry Thurston Holland (1828-1914), Conservative for Midhurst (1873-85), then Hampstead, eventually became secretary of the Treasury and later Colonial Secretary of State. Sir John Lubbock was Liberal Member for the University of London in addition to being the author of the Ancient Monuments Bill taken over by the government in 1882. W. H. Smith (1825-91) entered the House as Liberal-Conservative candidate for Westminster; he served Disraeli as treasurer (1874-77) and was at this time Gladstone’s War Secretary. Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) is well known as a connoisseur and collector. He represented his family borough, Lisburn. Finally, there was John Frederic Cheetham, Liberal Member for Derbyshire (North) and a prominent manufacturer in Stalybridge.

74 Report of the Select Committee, 206-302, 329-35.

75 Report of the Select Committee, 618-783.

76 5 December, Report of the Select Committee, 1695-1787 and 1827-2090.

77 See the St Albans’s Abbey, Southwell Minster, Deopham Church, and Binsted Rectory files, SPAB Archives, 1878-81.

78 WORKS, 11/69, 3 February 1885.

79 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 13 and 24 November, and 3 December 1884.

80 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 24 November 1884.

81 Report of the Select Committee, 888-1017.

82 Report of the Select Committee, 2 December, 1142-1519.

83 Report of the Select Committee, 9 March 1885, 2162-2418. The latter claim was not strictly true. See, for example, the east window at Orford Church.

84 Morris’s testimony has never been reprinted. The full text can be found in Report of the Select Committee, 2095-2161.

85 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 24 November 1884.

86 WORKS, 11/69, 18, 19 and 28 August, 2, 3 and 5 November 1885. On the subject of such fees, see Miele, C., ‘“Their Interest and Habit”. Professionalism and the Restoration of Medieval Churches 1837-1877’, in The Victorian Church, ed. Brooks, C. and Saint, A. (Manchester, 1995), pp. 151-72, at pp. 163-64.

87 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, 18 May 1885.

88 Collected Letters of William Morris, 11, p. 440.

89 The Times, 16 July, p. 7.

90 WORKS, 11/69, undated. See William Morris, ed. L. Parry, [n. 14], p. 87.

91 Collected Works of William Morris, XXII, p. 329. Reprinted in Miele (ed.), Morris on Architecture, p. 137.

92 17 April 1889. The text which is so critical of Shaw Lefevre was published in Morris, M., William Morris. Artist, Writer, Socialist, 2 vols (1936; rpt, New York, 1966), 1, pp. 173-74. However, the version that actually appeared in the Daily News for this date is different. Kelvin, (Collected Letters of William Morris, III, pp. 5354) published the latter.

93 Westminster Hall file, SPAB Archives, undated (October? 1884).

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The Battle for Westminster Hall

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