Churchill and the Palace
Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister who rallied the British people during the Second World War, leading the country from the brink of defeat to victory. He also rebuilt the House of Commons after it was bombed during the Blitz. When Churchill stood in the smouldering ruins of the Commons chamber, he knew exactly what must be done. The Commons must rise again, restored and defiant.
The deadliest night of the Blitz
On the night of 10 May 1941, the moon was full and the Thames was at low ebb. For the German Luftwaffe it was the last push of the Blitz, the Second World War bombing campaign which devastated London but not the spirit of its people. With one of the last bombs of the last heavy raids, the House of Commons Chamber was destroyed.
Firefighters were in short supply. They had to choose whether to save the historic Westminster Hall, scene of the state trial of Charles I, with its magnificent hammer beam oak roof built by Richard II, or the Victorian Commons Chamber. The Chamber was left to burn.
The Clock Tower was also struck, shattering the south clockface. Big Ben lost half a second. Its chimes were temporarily out of action, but it emerged largely unscathed. The Lords’ chamber was hit by a bomb which did not explode. That night the bombs and fires killed at least 1,486 people, seriously injured 1,800, and destroyed 700 acres of London, almost double that of the Great Fire of London.
Churchill’s mission to rebuild
Churchill had no doubt about the importance of the global symbolism of the Palace of Westminster, which today is one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world. Speaking of his beloved Commons after the attack, he said: “It is the citadel of liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and privileges are as lively today as when it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown. The House has shown itself able to face the possibility of national destruction with classical composure.
“It can change Governments and has changed them by heat of passion. It can sustain Government in long, adverse, disappointing struggles through many dark, grey months and even years until the sun comes out again.”
Designing the new chamber
Churchill had firm ideas about how the Commons Chamber should be rebuilt. He famously observed: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Churchill believed the Chamber should remain oblong and not semi-circular. He thought the Continental hemicycle made it too easy for MPs to change opinions and sides.
He also thought that MPs should face each other in an intimate design which was a distant echo of the time when they sat in two rows of prayer stalls in the Royal Chapel. And he insisted the Chamber should not be big enough to seat all its Members at once and that no Member should have a seat reserved because it was a privilege to be there at all.
During reconstruction, from 1941 until 1950, the Commons met in the Lords Chamber and the Lords moved into the Palace’s Robing Room, a fact that was kept secret during the war. The Chamber was rebuilt in Gothic style by the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the red telephone box, the Albert Memorial, Liverpool cathedral and Battersea power station. A new MP dared suggest that automated push-button voting be installed. That idea was rejected and in the new Chamber political life went on much as before.