This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.
The two towers of the Houses of Parliament make up the well-known silhouette of the building. The more famous Elizabeth Tower, the clocktower that the holds Big Ben and the other tower known as Victoria Tower which holds the Parliamentary Archives. This blog will explore the history and design of this ‘other’ tower.
In 1834 the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by a fire. This was caused by the Clerk of Works using stoves in the basement to burn the Exchequer’s stockpile of wooden tally sticks (a now obsolete accounting system). This caused a large fire that quickly burned down most of the Palace, only Westminster Hall and the Jewel Tower survived.
This meant that most of the House of Commons records stored in the Palace were burned. Although a small proportion of the records were saved from the fire, some were even thrown out windows in boats on the river below. These surviving records still have considerable fire damage, some water damage and as a consequence now very delicate. The House of Lords records were stored in Jewel Tower, and luckily survived, including all the Acts of Parliament.
A competition was launched to redesign the Houses of Parliament after the destruction from the 1834 fire. Learning from the mistakes of the fire, a compulsory part of the design for the competition was a fireproof storage location for the parliamentary records. Charles Barry with help from Augustus Pugin won the competition and the duo designed and built the Palace of Westminster together, including the building of Victoria Tower as purpose-built archive for the records.
Originally the Tower was to be called the King’s Tower after William IV but was renamed to Victoria Tower in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). Barry was very proud of Victoria Tower and thought that it would be his lasting memory, there is even a brass engraving of Victoria Tower on his grave in Westminster Abbey. To his credit, it is an impressive tower and at the time it was the tallest square tower in Europe. It measures 325ft or 98.5m to the roof of the Tower.
The Tower was originally built with 9 floors and 8 strong rooms on each floor, connected with a 553-step Victorian spiral staircase, that is still there to this day. Another feature of the archive is the well in the base of the archive, at the bottom of the spiral staircase. It is a closable well over the Sovereign Entrance Arch, used mostly for hoisting things into the archive that are too big or awkwardly sized to be carried into the archive any other way.
Victoria Tower, home to the Parliamentary Archives, has over 200 collections. The two main collections are the House of Commons and House of Lords records including all the Acts of Parliament since 1497. Other popular collections are the political and personal papers of Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Lord Beaverbrook.
Victoria Tower has had much building work, renovation and conservation work done over the years. Over time the limestone exterior of the tower started to deteriorate due to the smoky and acidic atmosphere of London pollution, especially during the Victorian era. In 1926 the Ministry of Work started a project to rebuild the exterior of the tower, as many fragments of the exterior were already falling off. This project took a very long time and had to be completely stopped during the Second World War, in fact the construction scaffolding was completely dismantled and moved to the south coast beaches to be used as coastal defences. During the Second World War, the records of the archive were also evacuated. The most iconic documents like the death warrant of Charles I and the Petition of Right were moved to the Bodleian Library in July 1939 before the outbreak of war. Later in 1940 the rest of the records initially moved to an Office of Works building in Elstree but were soon moved in 1941 to Laverstoke House, Hampshire where they would stay until the end of the War. After the War in 1946, the scaffolding returned to the Tower and the rebuilding work was eventually finished in 1953.
Work on the Tower continued, in the early 1960s as there was a major redesign of the interior. Most importantly adding in lifts and air-conditioning to the Tower archive. The Tower now has 12 floors of storage, with another 2 floors to house the air-conditioning. The archives have 13.051 km (8.1 miles) worth of shelving and holds approximately 4 million records today.
SOVEREIGN ENTRANCE AND THE STATE OPENING
The arch under Victoria Tower is known as the Sovereign’s Entrance and is traditionally the only way that the Monarch is allowed to enter into the Palace of Westminster and cannot go any further than the Chamber of the House of Lords. The Sovereign processes down from Buckingham Palace in the Irish State Coach, originally bought by Queen Victoria and first used in 1852. They would arrive at the Sovereign’s Entrance for the State Opening which officially marks the beginning of the Parliamentary year.
The Victoria Tower also has the flagpole on its roof, usually flying the union flag, but as it is a royal palace when the Queen arrives it flies the Royal Standard. In this instance the well over the Sovereign Entrance is used to watch for when the Queen arrives and can then signal up to someone on the roof to fly the Royal Standard on the flagpole as soon as the Queen sets foot on the Parliamentary estate.
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Useful Links and Further Reading
Barry/Pugin and Victoria Tower