https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2020/05/27/the-prison-room-of-elizabeth-tower/

The Prison Room of Elizabeth Tower

This blog was written by Verity Jones, Assistant Archivist (Trainee).

The Palace of Westminster is full of quirks, and its secrets are still being discovered – did you hear about the secret doorway recently found near Westminster Hall? It is believed to date back to the days of Charles II. Read more here. There are all kinds of legends and stories about the Palace, and Elizabeth Tower is no exception. Read on to learn about an extraordinary room at the base of the tower, and its unusual purpose.

Black and white photo of the Clock Tower
Elizabeth Tower 1905, Parliamentary Archives, FAR/4/23

The room in question sits at the base of Elizabeth Tower, in what was originally the Serjeant at Arms Office. The Serjeant at Arms is responsible for maintaining order in and allowing access to the House of Commons, as well as performing ceremonial duties during events such as the State Opening of Parliament. The room was designed as a holding cell for anyone who was removed from the Chamber. The Serjeant at Arms’ ability to make arrests in the Commons areas of the Palace date back to 1415, and the reign of Henry V. Hence, following the 1834 fire it was agreed that a room was needed in the new Palace of Westminster for this purpose.

 

black and white photo of a man holding a mace
Serjeant at Arms, 1906, Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/111/20/56

 

The last person to be imprisoned in the room was Charles Bradlaugh MP in 1880, the same year he was elected as MP for Northampton. He was a staunch Atheist, having founded the National Secular Society in 1866. He objected to the requirement for him to swear a religious Oath of Allegiance to the Crown in order to be able to take his seat in Parliament. Instead, he asked to be able to affirm his allegiance, eliminating the religious aspect of the process.

Black and white photo of Charles Bradlaugh
Charles Bradlaugh 1886-1890, Parliamentary Archives, PHO/4/2/4/25

A select committee was set up to discuss the proposition, but they rejected it. Bradlaugh then agreed to take the oath but claimed that the words would be meaningless. He claimed he would be saying them in the spirit of an affirmation, rather than a religious oath. This infuriated his opponents, who argued that someone who did not agree with the oath should not be allowed to take it. A second select committee was set up to determine whether a member could be prevented from taking the oath, which they decided it could. Therefore, Bradlaugh was told he could not take the oath, and nor could he take an affirmation.

 

The following day, he attempted to return to the chamber to take the oath but was ordered by the speaker to withdraw. When he had refused to leave several times, the Serjeant at Arms was called to lead Bradlaugh away, but he immediately returned to attempt to take the oath. He was then taken into custody by the Serjeant at Arms and held in the cell at the base of Elizabeth Tower overnight.

 

Bradlaugh was released from the prison room the following day but was still unable to take his seat. This was followed by six long years of disputes. In 1866 Bradlaugh was barred entry to the Chamber by the deputy Serjeant at Arms in 1886. The incident led to a legal enquiry and a public outcry. You can see his letter to the Serjeant at Arms about the experience below.

Letter from Charles Bradlaugh to the Speaker, 1881, Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/3/5

Nevertheless, it was not until 1886 that he was officially allowed to take the oath, and in 1888 he successfully oversaw the passing of the Oaths Act. This allowed MPs to affirm their allegiance, rather than having to take a religious oath. Ever since then, MPs can choose how to swear their allegiance to the crown. Bradlaugh’s extraordinary story was well-documented by the press. For example, this satirical cartoon announces his success after the Oaths Act was passed in 1888.

 

Cartoon image of Charles Bradlaugh as god.
Bradlaugh Cartoon, 1888, Parliamentary Archives, HC/LB/1/112/28

 

Since Charles Bradlaugh, no other person has been held in the Prison Room of Elizabeth Tower. Although the practice has never officially been banned, there is no precedence for it in modern times. Today, the Prison Room is used by the staff of the Petitions Committee. The story shows us that Elizabeth Tower is much more than just a clock tower!

 

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