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2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. Works from 38 of the 56 countries in the modern Commonwealth are held in Parliament’s Historic Furniture and Decorative Art collection. These objects were given to refurnish the House of Commons following its destruction by bombing in the Second World War. In this story we look at a selection of these objects, and explore in detail the wide variety of native woods given from around the world. 

Commonwealth Woods in the House of Commons

In 1950, countries around the world sent supplies of timber to the House of Commons. This wood was used to make new furniture to refurnish the House. Today, furniture crafted from wood from Commonwealth countries is found throughout the House of Commons Chamber and surrounding areas, playing a key role in supporting the day-to-day work of Parliament.  

Each item of furniture is inscribed with the name of the country that provided the gift, carved in Gothic script. Many of these countries have since changed their name, so throughout this piece the modern-day name is used with the former name in brackets.

At first glance, the furniture may look identical in tone and texture. Yet close looking reveals the huge varieties of materials used in the refurnishing. This online exhibition explores the significance of the woods used, and tells the stories of their transformation into some of the most familiar and recognisable pieces in the Palace of Westminster. 

A close-up the ribbon of inlay running around the table top edge. The inlay is a pattern of triangles, each in a different type of wood. Some are dark, others light, some red in tone, others yellow, brown and almost black.
Detail of commonwealth woods inlaid in The Prime Minister’s Conference Table, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and Green & Vardy Ltd © UK Parliament, POW 07438. Find out more about this table at the end of this exhibition.

Harmony of tone  

The architect tasked with rebuilding the House of Commons Chamber was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). Scott was opposed to the idea of using Commonwealth woods in the rebuilding. He was keen to ensure harmony of tone and texture throughout the interiors, a concern echoed by some MPs at the time. 

‘I am strongly in favour of English oak being used…and of their being made in England’

Letter from Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to Director of Works, 15 May 1945, WORK 11/414, The National Archives.

The wood selected therefore bore resemblance to English oak. Samples of the different wood were sent to Scott, who experimented with kilning, exposure and staining treatments to make it look as uniform as possible before he made a final selection. (Kilning is the process of burning, drying, or firing an object in a kiln.)  

Interior of the House of Commons Chamber. In the centre of the image is the Speaker's Chair and a table with books and other objects on top. At either side of the image are long green upholstered benched. Above the benches are carved wooden balconies. The walls of the space are clad in pannelled wood. There is a clock above the central seat. The floor is carpeted in light green with two red stripes running down vertically - one in front of each front bench. There is one white line running horizontally across the carpet. The chamber is empty of people.
Interior of the House of Commons Chamber which shows this harmony of tone, with the various woods resembling English oak. Credit: UK Parliament.

Blackbean Wood – The Speaker’s Chair 

In 1926, the UK branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association gifted Australia a replica of the original Speaker’s Chair, which had been designed by A.W.N. Pugin in the 1840s. Shortly after the bombing of the House of Commons in 1941, Australia offered to create another replica to replace the destroyed chair. Carved from Australian timber, it was given,

‘as a symbol for all time of the goodwill of the people of the Commonwealth to the people of Great Britain.’

Letter from J. B. Chiefly, Australian Prime Minister, to Clement Atlee, British Prime Minister, 11 April 1946, WORK 11/414, The National Archives.

Following an initial suggestion of Tasmanian Oak, Blackbean wood, Castanospermum australe, was selected as the most suitable wood for the detailed carving. The timber was to be specially kilned to 12% moisture content, exposed to UV rays for 70 hours, and stained so that it resembled English Oak.   

The carving was undertaken by H. H. Martyn & Co., a Cheltenham-based furniture maker. According to Michael Lashford-Spinks, then a 15 year-old apprentice at Martyn & Co who recalled cycling to the workshop after school, 16 craftsmen worked on the carving of the chair.    

The Blackbean tree, also known as the Moreton Chestnut, is an evergreen tree native to the east coast of Queensland and New South Wales. It is of cultural significance to Aboriginal peoples, due to its importance as a source of food and materials for hunting and fishing. Its seeds are dispersed in Songlines, traditional Aboriginal pathways used for knowledge sharing. 

White Birch – Chairs for the Prime Minister’s Conference Room  

The six chairs made for the Prime Minister’s conference room are constructed out of birch from Newfoundland, a province of Canada.   

White Birch, Betula papyrifera, is a common hardwood which grows throughout the province. It is timbered extensively for fuel and for interiors, flooring and furniture. (Timber is wood that is grown and prepared for use in buildings and carpentry.) 45 cubic feet of wood were shipped from Newfoundland in February 1950. The wood was kiln-cured in Canada but carved into chairs in England by the furniture makers Waring & Gillow. This firm was a descendent company of the Victorian furnituremakers Gillows, who made much of the furniture for the Palace of Westminster in the 1850s.

Iroko Wood – Furniture for the East and West Division Lobbies  

The Division Lobbies feature chairs and tables provided by Nigeria (the West, or ‘Aye’ Lobby) and Uganda (the East, or ‘No’ Lobby).  The tables were crafted from English Oak, but the chairs were carved from woods native to Nigeria and Uganda. Iroko or Mvule wood is a hardwood from the Milicia exclesa family of trees which are found across tropical Africa. In Nigeria, Iroko wood is of cultural significance to the Yoruba people, and is used in traditional ceremonies and rituals.  

The natural tones of Iroko vary from a warm yellow to a deep copper, and it has been heavily exploited for use in furniture and interiors due to its similarity in tone and texture to teak. As a result, supplies have dwindled, and since 1998 it has been listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre.   

Close up image of the back of a chair. It focuses on the inscription on the woodwork which reads 'The gift of Nigeria’. Above the inscription is the green upholstering of the chair, with bronzed nails along the edge. The wood is a light brown. At the bottom of the image, both chair legs are in partial shot, and there is light green carpet underneath the chair.
A detail of the inscription reading ‘The gift of Nigeria’, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and Waring & Gillow, photo © UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor, POW 07381.

Iroko was selected by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott following testing on 13 samples of Nigerian woods sent to him in 1948. His initial concerns over the tones of the Mvule wood were dispelled by the Governor of Uganda, who assured him that ‘any streakiness in the timber will vanish within a month or two after making.’ The chairs were carved in Lancaster by Waring & Gillow.   

Stinkwood – Chairs for the Clerks of the House  

The chairs for the Clerks of of the House of Commons are made from South African Stinkwood, Ocotea bullata. In the past Stinkwood was found extensively across South Africa, including on the slopes of Table Mountain, but having been heavily timbered for furniture it is now an endangered species. It is a flowering, evergreen tree, whose name refers to the powerful odour the wood gives off when cut. The bark has also been used in traditional medicine.  

The tone and textural qualities of Stinkwood made it an appealing prospect for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. A deep red-brown to dark walnut in colour, it has a fine grain and durability similar to teak.  

The South African Parliamentary Association offered to present the Chamber with the Clerks’ Chairs in 1944. Unlike the majority of Commonwealth gifts, which were made in England, the Clerks’ Chairs were made in South Africa, commissioned by the Department of Public Works in Pretoria. The chairs were upholstered in green leather in England.   

Canadian White Oak – The Clerk’s Table  

The Table of the House, or the Clerk’s Table, stands at the centre of the Chamber between the government and opposition as they debate motions. It was presented to the House of Commons by Canada.   

Drawing of a table on cream paper. The desk is drawn from a side on angle, so the viewer can see the full length of the desk. It is coloured in in brown and there is a carved wooden panel stretching from left to right in the middle of the table. The outline is a despatch box and desk are drawn on top of the table; the despatch box on the far left of the table and desk on the far right. Brackets are also drawn on to the left-hand side of the table, and labelled ‘BRACKETS FOR MACE’.
House of Commons Rebuilding: Details of the Table of the House, 1944, design drawing by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, WORKS 11/424, The National Archives.

Made of Canadian White Oak, Quercus rubra, the table was carved by the Globe Furniture Company in Waterloo, Ontario. A parcel of 10 different samples of Canadian woods, including varieties of birch, oak, maple and butternut, was sent to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott for his review. White Oak was selected as the most suitable wood for the object, a species of tree found across North America and in keeping with Scott’s vision for the tones and aesthetic of the new Chamber.   

One of the craftspeople working on the table in Canada was Andrew Brown, a carver from Scotland. The leather top and bronze castings were added later in England to ensure it matched the metalwork and furnishings already selected for the Chamber. 

Mayflower Wood, Kenyan Olive, African Gold Walnut, and Mansonia Wood – Writing Desks for Government Ministers   

Gifts given to furnish Ministers’ offices were contributed by the governors of Belize (British Honduras), Ghana (Gold Coast), Kenya and Sierra Leone, each contributing supplies of native woods. These were produced in England by Green & Vardy Ltd., a furniture manufacturer based in Islington, London.  

Mayflower wood, Tabebuia pentaphylla, was sourced from Belize (British Honduras). It was used to make the desk and chair for the Commonwealth Relations Office. When timbered, the wood closely resembles oak, and as such was seen as a suitable choice for Scott’s interiors. The tree grows across Neotropical regions, and is also known as the ‘rosy trumpet tree’ due to its large pink-purple flowers.  

Mansonia wood, Mansonia altissima, was sent from Ghana (Gold Coast). It grows throughout Western and Central Africa, and has been timbered heavily for use in furniture due to its similarity with walnut. Its bark is highly toxic and traditionally has been used for hunting and weaponry. The wood was used to create furniture for the office of the Minister of Defence.  

Wooden desk with leather inlay on surface. The desk has a bank of drawers on the left and on the right with a gap in the middle. The drawers have two banks of drawers on the left and right, each with rectangular moulding and block rectangular wooden handles. The desk stands raised in short legs tapered into polygonal feet. Photographed against a plain background from a slight angle from the right corner.
Pedestal desk given by Sierra Leone, by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and Green & Vardy Ltd © UK Parliament, POW 01773.

African Gold Walnut, Lavoe trichilioides (Meliaceae), was sent by Sierra Leone for the desk and chair for the office of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. African walnut, which is unrelated to the walnut tree, is prized both for its nuts and for its suitability for timber. It is found across tropical West Africa. Its wood varies from rich yellows to deep browns, darkening with age. 

Kenyan Olive wood, Olea europaea subsp. Cuspidata, was provided to create furniture for the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland. This species of olive tree, an ancestor of the cultivated olive which grows throughout Europe, is found across Northeast Africa. Due to its dense and durable wood grain it is highly sought after for use in furniture and cabinetry, while its fruit is used to produce olive oil. It its natural state the colour ranges from deep yellow to warm brown.  

White Seraya – Furniture for the Interview rooms   

Sabah (North Borneo), now a state of Malaysia on the northern region of Borneo, sent a supply of White Seraya wood, Parashorea malaanonan, which was used to make a table and set of five chairs for the lower ground-floor interview room. White Seraya is a light brown hardwood found along the northeast coast of Sabah. The United Republic of Tanzania (Tanganyika) also provided Iroko wood, Milicia exclesa, the same species that went to make the chairs for the Division Lobbies. This was made into a suite of furniture for the interview room. In addition, the Governor of Tanzania gave several pieces of polished Songwe marble, from the Mbeya district of southwest Tanzania, to make paperweights for Ministers’ Offices.   

Puriri – The Despatch Boxes  

New Zealand was invited to provide the new despatch boxes for the new House of Commons chamber. Traditionally, the despatch boxes would contain papers relating to Parliamentary work. Today, they contain religious texts, and are used when a new member is sworn in.   

The despatch boxes are copies of the original boxes which were in Parliament at the time of the bombing. In 1927, King George V had sent replicas of the original despatch boxes to the Parliament of Australia, allowing faithful copies to be made for the furnishing of the new Chamber in 1950. The ornamental brass metalwork on the box includes an intertwined ‘G’ and ‘E’, denoting King George VI and his queen, Elizabeth, and the Latin motto ‘Domine Dirige nos’, meaning ‘Lord, guide us’.  

The wood was provided by New Zealand, with Puriri, Vitex lucens, being selected as the most suitable native timber. Puriri trees are found in the north of New Zealand’s North Island, producing brightly-coloured flowers and fruit for native birds to eat. It is a strong, durable timber, with a dark brown tone similar to walnut, and traditionally was used by the Māori for hunting, medicine and cultural ceremonies.  

The despatch boxes were made by the same furniture carvers as the Speaker’s Chair: H. H. Martyn & Co., a furniture firm based in Cheltenham, England.  

A newspaper clipping with a black and white photograph of a dispatch box. Just in shot are a person’s hand’s opening the box. It is halfway open and situated on top of a table. It has brass detailing around the edges of the box. In the foreground of the image to the right is a bronze bracket which also sits on the table. Underneath the image there is a caption which reads ‘One of the despatch boxes given by New Zealand, and one of the bronze mace-brackets given by Northern Rhodesia.’
One of the despatch boxes given by New Zealand, The Times Survey of the House of Commons, October 1950, p.22. © Parliamentary Archives, FEL/4/3/6.

Bringing the Woods Together – The Prime Minister’s Conference Table  

The Prime Minister’s Conference table brings together all the woods that were sourced from Commonwealth countries.   

The frame of the table is made from English Oak, with a pattern of oak leaves carved into the rails. Set into its top is an inlay of over 250 native woods sourced from around the world. The samples of wood were shaped into triangles and arranged in a ribbon alternating light woods with dark woods, to draw attention to the variety of colours and grains. The resulting polychromatic pattern ranges in tone from dark ebony through to warm chestnuts and light oaks.  

The woods were gathered together by the Mallinson Group, a timber merchant based in Hackney, London. Some countries are represented by just one type of native wood, while others have multiple examples, such as the 14 woods native to Malaysia and the 9 timbers from India.   

The table was carved by craftsmen at the furniture makers Green & Vardy, based in Islington.  J. D. Braithwaite of the Mallison Group described the making of this table as ‘an intensive course in timber technology and the working properties of rare hardwoods’. The project required a high level of expertise in carving due to the wide range of natural properties of the woods included.  

This table is located in the Prime Minister’s Conference Room, which is used by the Prime Minister for urgent briefings while the House is sitting.   

These gifts have provided a continuous backdrop to the work of the House of Commons since 1950.  Together, they continue to support the work of Parliament, serving as a constant reminder of the United Kingdom’s relationships with countries across the globe.