A restoration project has just revealed a previously-hidden passageway at London’s House of Commons that would have been used during coronations and day-to-day by MPs to access the original Commons chamber. Dating back 360 years, it even includes some humorous graffiti added by workmen.
A brass plate marks where a doorway had once been in Westminster Hall, but historians had always maintained that it had been filled in following reconstruction work after the palace was bombed during World War II. Recent work by parliament’s Architecture and Heritage Team working on research for the Palace of Westminster’s Restoration and Renewal Programme discovered that the tunnel is still there.
“To think that this walkway has been used by so many important people over the centuries is incredible,” said House of Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who was the first senior member to visit the find. “I am so proud of our staff for making this discovery and I really hope this space is celebrated for what it is: a part of our parliamentary history.”
According to Liz Hallam Smith, the team’s historical consultant from the University of York, the project was trawling through 10,000 uncatalogued documents relating to the palace at the Historic England Archives in Swindon, when they found plans for the doorway in the cloister behind Westminster Hall.
“As we looked at the panelling closely, we realised there was a tiny brass key-hole that no-one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard. Once a key was made for it, the panelling opened up like a door into this secret entrance,” Liz Hallam Smith said.
The team discovered the original hinges for two wooden doors three-and-a-half metres-high that would have opened into Westminster Hall, as well as graffiti from bricklayers who helped Sir Charles Barry restore the palace following the fire of 1834. One piece of wall writing left by men who helped block the passageway to both sides in 1851 reads, “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale.”
Another surprise to the team was the fact that they were able to light the room with a switch, likely installed in the 1950s, which not only worked, but illuminated a large Osram bulb marked ‘HM Government Property’.
Dr Collins said further investigations made him certain the doorway dated back at least 360 years. Research shows the route was used by part of the procession which passed from the old House of Lords into the hall where the king and queen were seated.
The doorway was used at coronations, by the Speaker's procession and by MPs to access the Commons chamber which was then sited where St Stephen’s Hall stands today.