For two weeks during the House of Commons Easter recess, there was the rare opportunity to see inside the Speaker’s House. This was the first time tours of these State Apartments have been offered to the public so I booked quickly and got a ticket before all tours sold out.
For over 160 years the State Apartments in Speaker’s House has hosted visits and dinners for Royalty and Heads of State. It is hoped that further public tours can be offered during other recess periods.
Who is The Speaker?
The Speaker of the House of Commons chairs debates in the Commons chamber. The holder of this office is an MP who has been elected to be Speaker by other Members of Parliament. During debates, they keep order and call MPs to speak.
The first recorded Speaker was Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377. The Rt Hon Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Member of Parliament for the constituency of Chorley, Lancashire, became the 158th Speaker of the House of Commons on 4 November 2019.
What is The Speaker’s House?
The Speaker’s House is the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons. It is a five-story townhouse situated just behind Big Ben in the twin-towered pavilion at the northeast corner of the Palace of Westminster. One side is parallel to Westminster Bridge.
The first floor (the principal floor) has the State Rooms which are used for entertaining and business purposes. Just as the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are grand, these rooms are too. The other floors are for the private home of The Speaker. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the current Speaker of the House of Commons, is the 18th Speaker to live in this house.
The tours begin and end in Westminster Hall. This is the only part of the building that survived the 1834 fire that gutted both Chambers and severely damaged the adjacent parts of the Speaker’s House. Westminster Hall was built by William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus in 1097.
Speaker’s House is entered via Speaker’s Court. We had a brilliant view of the newly-restored Big Ben but photography wasn’t allowed. I have found this photo though from before the conservation work so you can see how close we were.
After the 1834 fire, there was a competition to design the building and it was won by the architect Charles Barry in 1836. Work was not finished on the new Palace of Westminster until 1870.
The shell of the Speaker’s House was up by 1844, but the pressure to complete the House of Lords meant it was not finished until 1859 – 15 years later. (The date 1844 can be seen on the rain hoppers in Speaker’s Court.) It took so long to finish Speaker’s House after the great fire that Charles Barry was not allowed to create the interiors and it was largely completed by John Braund instead.
The closure of the State Apartments to events and people during the pandemic presented the Estates’ Projects, Conservation, and Heritage Collections’ Teams with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair the interiors and restore a number of paintings which had suffered decades of neglect. So, what I got to see were the newly renovated State Apartments.
Looking at the outside of the townhouse, there is an ornate cast iron Victorian canopy with the coat of arms of the first Speaker to live there (John Evelyn Denison) above the wooden doors.
There are maces carved into the stone of the building, on either side of the double entrance doors. A ceremonial mace is on the table in either the House of Commons or the House of Lords as a symbol of royal authority. Laws cannot be passed without them being present.
After Charles I was executed and Oliver Cromwell led parliament, he had the old ceremonial mace melted down as he referred to it as “that fool’s bauble”. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, a new ceremonial mace was made and is still in use. It is called HOC1 and is part of the Crown Jewels.
It feels like entering a small palace as you ascend the Grand Staircase. At the top of this section of stairs, the newel posts are topped with a flag-holding gold griffin and royal lion.
Within Speaker’s House, there are 46 portraits of recent and past Speakers dating back to the 16th century. There is a huge family portrait of Speaker William Lenthal and his family on the Grand Staircase. He was the brave Speaker famed for defying King Charles I. On 4 January 1642 Charles I entered the chamber of the House of Commons with 400 armed men to try and capture five MPs whom he accused of treason. When Charles asked Lenthall where they were, Lenthall famously replied, “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me”. It was the first time in English history that a Speaker of the House of Commons had declared his allegiance to the liberty of parliament rather than the will of the monarch. This is the only family portrait in Speaker’s House and it’s by Edward Bower.
The top of the walls here are lined with the coats of arms of the Speakers and these are repeated throughout the State Rooms.
At the top of the stairs is a perpendicular fan-vaulted cloister which was modeled on the surviving early 16th-century cloister between Westminster Hall and the former St Stephen’s Chapel.
The Speaker’s Conference is held here every day that the House of Commons sits. It is where Urgent Questions are selected by the Speaker, his Deputies, and Clerks of the House. Each day, prior to the sitting of the House of Commons, the Speaker and other officials walk in procession from the apartments to the House of Commons Chamber.
There are large windows and you can see across The Thames to St Thomas’s Hospital and the National Covid Memorial Wall. The desk overlooks the outdoor river terrace for the two Houses so he can see who is dining outside.
The walls have oak panels and portraits, and a gold wallpaper that was designed by Augustus Pugin and originally intended for another room. There is a stenciled ceiling with the portcullis symbol and Tudor roses. (It was Charles Barry who chose the portcullis symbol for the new Houses of Parliament.) The carpet is ‘House of Commons’ green. A question was asked about why the House of Commons is green and while no one knows for sure, it is thought to be because green dye was the cheapest.
There is a dark Purbeck marble fireplace but it was clear that a fake coals gas fire is there when heat is needed.
Crimson Drawing Room
This is the principal reception room and where official photos of visitors are taken between flags in front of the fireplace.
This room has reproduction silk wall hangings (it’s the only room with silk and not wallpaper).
Pugin designed the walnut armchairs with barley twist legs for his own house and they were acquired in 1984.
We got to see the Speaker’s ceremonial robes which are black satin damask and gold brocade. The Speaker wears a morning suit most days but you can see him in the ceremonial robe for the State Opening of Parliament on 10 May 2022.
State Dining Room
This is a seriously impressive room. It has oak paneling, a huge ornate fireplace, an incredible stenciled ceiling, and life-size portraits of past Speakers.
The table can seat up to 40 or as few as 12 diners. The State Dining Room recently played host to Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives. The room has also welcomed Royals, including the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Nancy Astor, the first woman seated as an MP. The engagement dinner for Prince Charles and Lady Diana was held here.
The silver service currently in use is from 1835–36 and was made in London. Speakers were previously gifted the dinner service upon retirement but that tradition has ended and this silver service remains here.
It was in this room that a cheeky note was found behind the portrait of Speaker Charles Shaw-Lefevre, 1st Viscount Eversley who was the Commons Speaker from 1839 to 1857. It says:
– but now I am going to paper – but wait
I am going to have one half pint more
before doing so –
Parliamentary archivists believe the poem could have been scribbled by a wallpaper hanger in 1898.
The room is sometimes used as a reception room and I found the photo below so we can see the room full of people.
Corner Drawing Room
From this corner room, you can see the statue of Boudica across the road and how close this room is to Westminster Bridge.
The room has Pugin-designed red double-flocked wallpaper and portraits of the most recent Speakers. It’s considered a ‘room of firsts’ as there is the portrait of John Bercow (the first Jewish Speaker) and Betty Boothroyd (the first, and only, female Speaker).
Betty Boothroyd served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1992 to 2000. She was a wonderfully feisty character and was well-respected. Betty had been a chorus girl and performed at the London Palladium. She was the one to add a piano to this room and it has remained.
When a Speaker is elected they can design their own coat of arms if they do not already have one. As women have never had a coat of arms, Betty got to design hers in a diamond shape rather than the shield shape of all of the others.
Charles Barry was asked to include this room as it had been the tradition for the monarch to sleep at the Palace of Westminster before their coronation in Westminster Abbey. George IV was the last monarch to sleep at the Houses of Parliament in 1821 (before the fire and the rebuild). As Queen Victoria lived nearby at Buckingham Palace there was probably less need for this tradition, plus the fact the room wasn’t ready in 1838 for her coronation.
The room has red flock wallpaper and a stenciled ceiling. There is a rich crimson canopy over the State Bed that was embroidered by the Royal College of Needlework.
The State Bed – which we were informed is very uncomfortable – is believed to have left the Palace before the Second World War; most likely moved into storage and then sold and forgotten. Following an appeal in the Daily Telegraph, prompted by a lecture from the furniture historian Clive Wainwright, it was found in 1979 in an old woolen mill in Wales. It was brought back to the House and restored by the V&A in 1985.
The cheval full-length mirror gets moved to the Royal Robing Room for use by HM The Queen when she gets ready for the State Opening of Parliament but it is always returned to this room.
For our tour, on display in this room was a lump of burnt stone with the portcullis symbol intact. This was saved from the House of Commons after the Blitz bombing.
After the Tour
We returned to Westminster Hall and I stayed to explore. I recommend speaking to the security guards as while they are not tour guides, they see and hear many tales. I learned that the area where you stand to see New Dawn (an ever-changing light artwork added in 2018) is called The Flats. It’s at the top of the steps at the far end of Westminster Hall and by the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall. New Dawn changes depending on the Thames tide so will likely look different every time you see it.
Look down here too as there are footprints. One tale is that these are from a builder that was injured but no one really knows. And look at the names on the war memorial and you can find the father of the James Bond author, Ian Fleming. Major Valentine Fleming DSO (1882–1917) was a British Conservative Member of Parliament who was killed in World War I.
My tour timing was really fortunate as, after a chat with the security guard, I was able to watch a debate in the House of Lords. If you do this too, from the Stranger’s Gallery where you get to sit, look at the table in the center of the room. On the right, there are dents from the rings of Churchill’s hand as he thumped the table. (The MPs used the House of Lords Chamber after the House of Commons was bombed.)
After leaving the Palace of Westminster, it was good to walk onto Westminster Bridge to look back at the building. The Speaker’s House is all of this section in front of Big Ben, overlooking the Thames.
Hopefully more tours will be announced soon if this experimental opening was considered a success. In the meantime, you can find out more about Speaker’s House on the parliament website.