The London Blitz during World War 2 was catastrophic for Parliament. Westminster Hall was saved from fire but tragedy struck as the House of Commons chamber was destroyed, and three people lost their lives. The destruction and rebuilding of the Commons Chamber tells us a fascinating story about the role of Parliament during wartime, and the importance of the Palace of Westminster and its interiors to the essential functions of Parliament. These objects from Parliament’s Heritage Collections document this monumental time.
From 1940 to 1941 the Houses of Parliament were damaged by air raids on 14 different occasions. The Palace of Westminster saw extensive damage to Old Palace Yard and St Stephen’s Porch. But the worst destruction occurred on the final night of the Blitz, from 10 to 11 May 1941.
Bombs fall on the Houses of Parliament
That night the skies over London were clear, and the moon was bright. Over seven hours, 505 German bomber planes followed the silvery path of the River Thames to drop more than 700 tons of high explosive bombs and 86,000 incendiary bombs across London. These air raids led to the highest nightly casualty figure recorded during the London Blitz. 1,436 people were killed and 1,800 were seriously wounded. Around 12,000 Londoners were left homeless.
The Houses of Parliament were hit several times, and three people in the buildings lost their lives.
In the House of Lords, War Reserve Constables Gordon Farrant and Arthur Stead were on firewatch duties in the turret above the Royal Gallery. The first bomb to hit Parliament fell on the turret, destroying it and killing both men. Captain Edward Elliott, the House of Lords Resident Staff Superintendent, was killed at his post while helping with the firefighting.
Big Ben under threat
Fears rose for the Clock Tower and Big Ben. The clock faces had been dark throughout the Blitz, as part of blackouts across the capital, but the iconic architectural landmark was vulnerable.
The Clock Tower was struck by a small bomb or anti-aircraft missile. Some of the ornamental ironwork was destroyed, stonework was damaged and all the glass in the south clock face was broken. But the tower survived with relatively minor damage. Throughout the war it stood as a national symbol, with the bongs of Big Ben broadcast on wireless radio across the country.
Further bombs hit the House of Commons. The Members’ Lobby, which had already survived a direct hit in a previous air raid, and whose ceiling was being held up by extensive scaffolding, was struck again. The roof collapsed, and fire quickly spread through the Commons Chamber.
Meanwhile, falling incendiaries were threatening Westminster Hall. The Medieval wooden hammer-beam roof had caught fire.
Evidence of the extent of the bombing was again revealed in 2005, when a remaining tail section of an incendiary bomb was found in the roof gutter of Westminster Hall. This is now part of our Architectural Fabric Collection.
The Commons Chamber had become an inferno and fire was spreading to the unique hammer-beams of Westminster Hall. As more than 50 fire service pumps and their crews struggled to contain the huge blazes, the fire service realised it would be impossible to save both the Chamber and the Hall.
Walter Elliot (1888-1958), a former Cabinet minister, who had hurried over from his nearby home, directed the fire fighters to save the Hall. He personally used an axe to smash through the doors of the hall to enable hoses to be brought inside and save the burning roof.
These paintings by William John MacLeod (1891-1970) depict the attempts to stop the blaze. Just visible are the figures of firefighters among the streams of water and clouds of smoke. MacLeod studied at Glasgow School of Art before volunteering to fight in World War 1. He was discharged following injury and spent 10 years in recovery. During World War 2 he served as a war artist.
Dust settles on the destruction
The all-clear sounded at 5.50am on the morning of 11 May. As the day rose, the devastation of the House of Commons was revealed. Charles Barry’s 19th century interior for the Chamber had been completely destroyed by the fire. The whole Westminster area was shrouded in dust.
Captured in works of art
The Ministry of Works asked artists to document the scene. A series of works of art show us the extent of the damage to the Palace. This work by William Washington catches the details of torn, tangled metal and chunks of collapsed masonry. In the background you can see barrage balloons floating in the sky. These balloons prevented low-flying aircraft, and were used around major cities and ports that were likely to be targeted by German bombers.
The key to this work highlights areas of the Chamber before its destruction, such as the Press Gallery. The line pointing to the position of the Speaker’s Chair shows it now hidden under debris.
Frank Beresford (1881-1967) was another artist commissioned to document the scene at the House of Commons. This painting is an important record of the work to clear the site and prepare it for building the new Chamber. Beresford painted the view looking south, towards Central Lobby. Click the image to see it it more detail. You can see figures busy at work, clearing rubble. The entrance to the House of Commons is also visible under the scaffold in the centre.
In a letter to the Ministry of Works, dated 28 April 1957, Beresford describes the painting as: “…a historical record, done on the spot at the time, having that authenticity which no subsequent ‘made-up’ picture could possibly have.”
The loss of the Chamber did not stop Parliament from continuing to work and fulfil its essential role at the height of war. From late June 1941 until October 1950, the Commons met in the Lords Chamber, while the Lords met in the Robing Room. This was kept secret during the war, as was the schedule of sitting days.
In 1945, the clock faces, and the Aryton Light atop the famous tower, were re-lit. The Speaker of the House of Commons said: “[it will] shine henceforth, not only as an outward and visible sign that the Parliament of a free people is assembled in free debate, but, also that it may shine as a beacon of sure hope in a sadly torn and distracted world.”
Rebuilding the Chamber
It took many years to rebuild the Chamber. The new space was designed by architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960). He was guided by Winston Churchill’s insistence that the space remain laid out with opposing sides, and without designated seats. Churchill believed the Chamber should be adversarial, stating: “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”.
Scott followed the neo-Gothic architectural style of Barry and Pugin. Scott’s design of the new Chamber created more space, with offices below the Chamber and larger viewing galleries for the public. He also designed many items of furniture, which today you can find in our Historic Furniture and Decorative Arts Collection. Scott created a wide variety of fixtures and fittings, from the Speaker’s Chair in the Commons Chamber, to bins that are still in use today.
The Churchill Arch
Artist Frank Beresford notes in his diaries: “The ‘House’ was hit and had to be demolished before rebuilding could safely be started again and at Churchill’s suggestion the entrance to the Chamber from the Lobby was to be replaced stone by stone in its damaged condition as a lasting symbol for all to see and remember.”
Furnishing the Chamber
Scott was instructed to keep the Gothic feel of the Chamber, but a tight post-war budget did not allow designs as elaborate as Pugin’s. Scott designed all the fixtures and fittings to complement the interiors. As Pugin previously had, Scott used a hierarchy of furniture. This meant that the more high-profile the space, the more elaborate the furniture.
Many Commonwealth countries gave objects as gifts to the new House of Commons. These gifts were mostly designed by Scott and crafted in the UK, but many used native woods sent from throughout the Commonwealth. You can see examples in the Chamber and surrounding areas today. All items are inscribed with the name of the country that gave them.
The Speaker’s Chair, in the Commons Chamber, the highest profile space in the House, is an exact replica of the one Pugin designed. The Australian House of Representatives had been given a copy of the chair in 1926 by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Therefore, Scott had a design to work from. The existing Speaker’s Chair is made of black bean wood from North Queensland and the elaborate carving includes the words ‘The gift of Australia’ in Gothic lettering.
The silver gilt letter racks which sit on either side of the table in the Commons Chamber were given by the government of what is now Zimbabwe. The inscription on the front reads: ‘Presented to the House of Commons by the Government and People of Southern Rhodesia 1950’. The ‘GE’ on the inkwells stands for King George VI and his Queen, Elizabeth.
The despatch boxes used today were also a Commonwealth gift. They are made from puriri wood which is native to New Zealand. The metalwork above the lock shows another entwined ‘GE’. Cast into the metalwork are the words ‘The gift of New Zealand’ and the Latin words Domine Dirige nos meaning ‘Lord, guide us’. They were made by HH Martyn & Co Ltd of Cheltenham.
A Lasting Legacy
The destruction of the House of Commons Chamber was devastating, but the recovery and rebuilding of the space has left a meaningful legacy for the House today. The resilient spirit of Parliament endured throughout the turmoil, and the Houses overcame adversity to continue their essential roles. These objects from our Heritage Collections help us to commemorate this monumental time.