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The Chamber of the House of Commons is one of the UK’s most iconic spaces. It is in use every week, and it has been the site of numerous historic speeches, debates and votes. Built by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, it is the third such chamber, after the previous two were destroyed by fires. Many of the Chamber’s objects are used daily in Parliament’s essential functions. In this interview, Brittany Harbidge, Collections Manager for Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts, discusses the practical and symbolic roles that collection items play in the life of Parliament today.

Question: The Commons Chamber is one of the most recognisable parts of the Houses of Parliament. Which of its objects are part of your collection?

Brittany Harbidge: Almost everything. The large table in the centre of the Chamber, the despatch boxes that sit on it, alongside letter racks and ink wells. The Speaker’s chair and footstool, and the Clerk’s chairs and kneelers.

After the old Chamber was destroyed in World War 2, many of these objects were given as gifts from Commonwealth countries, for the new Chamber designed by Scott. The big central table was given by Canada, and is made from Canadian oak. The letter racks and ink wells that sit on it were a gift from what is now Zimbabwe. They’re inscribed with the words ‘presented to the House of Commons by the government and people of Southern Rhodesia 1950’. The letters ‘GE’ appear on the inkwell and also on the despatch boxes, which stands for George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

The Clerk’s chairs are another Commonwealth gift, made of South African stinkwood. Unlike many other Commonwealth gifts, these were not made in the UK, but by craftsmen in Pretoria, who followed a prototype sent from England.

Q: Are all the items in the Chamber designed by Scott?

BH: Most of the objects we see in the Commons Chamber today were designed by Scott. His brief for the whole House of Commons was to follow Pugin’s Gothic style. But because post-war budgets were tight, Scott’s designs are more pared down than Pugin’s. You really notice it when you compare the Commons Chamber with the Lords. There’s much less gold in the Commons.

Q: Perhaps this is a controversial question, but do you have a favourite of Scott and Pugin?

BH: I really like Scott’s designs, the more pared down simplicity of them, whilst still retaining that neo-Gothic feel. Pugin’s designs are so ornate and elaborate and perfect for their setting, but if I had to, I would choose a Scott design.

Q: The central piece of furniture in the Chamber is the Speaker’s Chair. Can you tell us a bit about it?

BH: The Speaker’s chair is very elaborate and an almost exact replica of Pugin’s original. Scott worked from the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives in Canberra, Australia, which is itself a copy of the original Pugin design for the Commons. The chair we see in the Commons today was a gift from Australia, made from black bean wood by HH Martin and Co of Cheltenham. Like all Commonwealth gifts, it’s inscribed with the name of the country that gave it, so the carving includes ‘The gift of Australia’ in Gothic lettering.

The carved backrest includes symbols of the mace and the blackrod, vine leaves, and the word ‘pax’, meaning ‘peace’ in Latin, is repeated several times. Above the chair is an elaborate carved canopy with the UK coat of arms in the centre, and a textile canopy featuring the portcullis logo of Parliament. It has practical features, too: the arms unfold to provide a writing flap, ink stand and pen trough, and there are recesses to hold books and papers.

After the Chamber was devastated in World War 2, some pieces of the Speaker’s chair were salvaged. They were made into a snuff box that’s still kept by the Doorkeeper of the House today, in line with the ancient custom of offering snuff to MPs as they arrive. I’m not how sure many actually take it nowadays!

Q: On a busy working day in the Chamber, such as Prime Minister’s Questions, which objects from your collection are in use?

BH: They’re all in daily use in the sense that they’re permanently in the Chamber. One of the star objects during Prime Minister’s Questions are the pair of despatch boxes. You see the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition stand to speak in front of their despatch box and they put their papers down on them. They’re another Commonwealth gift, made from Puriri wood from New Zealand. Like the Speaker’s chair, Scott based them on the Australian despatch box design, which are, again, a replica of the original Pugin despatch boxes.

Q: How do you care for objects such as the despatch boxes, which are in frequent use?

A wooden box with elaborate cast metal details on its top and sides. The box sits close to the edge of a wooden table. In the centre of the lid is a portcullis symbol. The metalwork above the lock shows an entwined ‘GE’ which stands for King George VI and his Queen, Elizabeth. There is a zig-zag pattern along the top front edge of the box. The box has a metal handle on each side. Behind the box, on the table, are several green and red leather-bound books with their spines facing up.
Despatch Boxes by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott © Historic Furniture POW 08066

BH: They’re cleaned regularly by the in-house cleaning team, who we train, using heritage friendly products. Because the Chamber is a high-profile area in heavy use, it can be difficult to get in to do vital conservation work. And because most of the furniture is fixed, it needs on-site care, so we tend to do that during recess. If we can take an item out, we will. A few years ago we removed the letter racks to repair a hinge, and we also re-gilded them.

In 2015 we removed the opposition despatch box. The corner fittings were very worn after 65 years of being touched and used. We X-rayed it, which helped us to see how they were constructed and therefore how to fix them.

We sometimes make a temporary replacement if we need to take an object off-site. A few years ago we needed to repair some benches in the division lobby. To do this we had to make up replica seating and backs so that the originals could be re-upholstered. We worked with English Heritage to find suitable materials and match the original green colour.

Q: The mace is an important object in the Commons, although not part of our collection. Why is that?

BH: The mace is on loan from the Royal Collection. It’s the symbol of the Speaker’s authority from the Crown, and is therefore lent by the Sovereign. For Parliament to function, the mace must be in the Chamber, although the origins of this custom are hazy. The current mace dates from the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) and was assigned to the Commons at the beginning of the 19th century.

The original mace (made in 1649) was quite plain. When Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Long Parliament in 1653, he is supposed to have pointed to the mace and said: “take away that fools bauble”.

Black and white print showing the moment when Oliver Cromwell dissolved the Long Parliament on 20 April 1653. It shows the moment that Cromwell points to the mace, which rests on a cloth-covered, table and says 'Take away that bauble'. There are many men in the picture, including Speaker Lenthall, Henry Scobell (Clerk of Parliament), Sir Henry Vane and Colonel Thomas Harrison.
OLIVER CROMWELL dissolving the LONG PARLIAMENT 1653 Print by John Hall and Benjamin West © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 1443

Q: Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected how you care for the objects in the Chamber?

BH: At the moment disinfectant is very important, but most disinfectants are alcohol-based, which strips varnish from wood. When the pandemic hit, our Conservation Officer worked very quickly to develop a heritage disinfectant. This disinfects to the same standard, but is much kinder to historic objects.

We’ve also moved objects to allow for social distancing. Two of the usual three Clerks’ chairs have been moved out of the Chamber as just one Clerk sits at the table at the moment.

We have a lot of furniture in the division lobbies, which has stayed in place. Before the pandemic MPs could sit at tables to work, where there are also oak lamps, inkwells and ashtrays (purely decorative since the smoking ban). The chairs are made from Ugandan Mvule wood and Nigerian Iroko wood. There are also historic coal bins and waste paper baskets in the division lobbies, and MPs are still able to file through them to vote digitally.

Q: What is your favourite piece in the Commons Chamber?

BH: I’m a big fan of the Speaker’s chair. It’s spectacular. Every bit of carving contains symbolism and I like being able to unravel that and tell the story from it.

BH: I also really like the Prime Minister’s conference table in the Reasons room, a space just off the Chamber. It’s so beautifully made. It contains a piece of wood from every country in the Commonwealth, which are shaped into triangles and set in a ribbon inlay around the edge of an English oak top. It includes maple from Canada, red pine from Scotland, hawthorn from the Isle of Man and ebony from Sri Lanka. I think it beautifully represents a moment in time and the craftsmanship is exquisite.

Q: Are there any other unusual items in the Common’s chamber from your collection?

You might not expect our collection to include several swords that belong to the Serjeant at Arms Office and to Blackrod. Swords are often present in the Chamber as part of the duties of those staff members.

Q: Parliament is home to lots of unusual customs and surprises. Is there anything that’s surprised you while working at Parliament?

BH: The Chapel of St Mary Undercroft is incredible. You walk down this long dark, corridor and then you come out into a beautiful underground chapel – it is certainly surprising the first time you enter!

But working with these wonderful objects also involves mundane jobs which can sometimes feel quite surreal. There are objects that you’ve seen in photos or on TV, like the Sovereign’s throne in the Lords Chamber, then you find yourself on the floor under it, with your torch, checking for cracks in the legs! I probably spend 50% of my time crawling around on my knees looking underneath things. Working with thrones and historic furniture is less glamorous than people might think.

Q: If you could go back in time to Pugin and Barry’s Chamber before the World War 2 bombing, and bring something back to the collection now, what would you choose?

BH: I’d probably bring a despatch box. They’re really important and they’ve seen so much history. It would also be fairly easy to carry!