A Regency Stroll Around Westminster,1817
Walks through London including Westminster and the Borough of Southwark was written by David Hughson in 1817 and published in two pocket-sized volumes, with handy maps for the curious. It indicates that just as the Houses of Parliament is a tourist attraction today, so it was in the Regency. I love these nostalgic descriptions. They seem like the musings of someone who has spent a hot summer afternoon strolling around the area, and is now setting them down on a balmy evening as he watches the light lazily filter in through his window. There are plenty of inaccuracies in these jottings, but I think they conjure up a world which seems both very distant and yet strangely familiar.
Of Westminster Hall he writes: “this ancient building is of stone, the front ornamented with two towers, adorned with carved work. The hall within is reckoned the largest room in Europe, being 280 feet in length, and 74 in breadth. The pavement is of stone, and the roof of chesnut [sic] wood…the situation of the exterior of this hall is still a subject of regret with the antiquary, in the poor mutilated headless figures which occupy several niches on the outside; but they are fast sinking into utter decay, as are also the arms and other decorations that once adorned the gate and walls of this ancient building…beautiful ancient cloisters may be observed, with their rich-groined arches and sculptured key-stones.”
“The House of Commons. This may now be entered from the Speaker’s House by a passage which has been made for the purpose; the whole front of this house next the street has been rebuilt in its present Gothic style, and cased with stucco. Beneath the house, in passages or apartments, are considerable remains, in great perfection, of an underchapel, and the entire side of a cloister; the roof of this is scarcely surpassed by that of Henry the Seventh [ie the east end chapel of Westminster Abbey] for richness and beauty. Mr Wyatt’s front of the House of Commons consists of an elegant colonade etc which connects the entrance to both houses. Within are rooms for the great officers of state, and numerous committee rooms for the various business requiring separation from the house. The floor of the house is newly laid in the course of 1816; and a new fire-place, or rather a Russian stove, has been placed in the lobby, which, without being seen, will emit considerable heat.”
“The House of Lords is on the south side of the Commons, adjoining the Hall. It is an oblong room, rather less that that in which the Commons meet; this, as well as the other house, was repaired and beautified on the occasion of the Union with Ireland. In the front next to Abingdon-Street it is decorated with pinnacles; and though by no means a splendid room, it is nevertheless, very handsome. The old canopy of state under which the throne is placed, remains as it was before the Union, excepting that its tarnished state is rendered more conspicuous by the arms of the United Kingdom being inserted into the old stuff embroidered with silk, with silver supporters. The throne is an armed chair, elegantly carved and gilt, ornamented with crimson velvet and silver embroidery. The doors of the offices round the House have been lately painted green and white; and the site of the ground behind the Westminster Sessions House has been entirely cleared of the old decayed buildings, and fine opening made from that to Princes-Street.”
“Between the House of Lords and the House of Commons is the Painted Chamber, said to have been Edward the Confessor’s bed-chamber; conferences are sometimes held here beteween the two houses or their committees. The vast mass of buildings in the Old and New Palace Yards constituted the ancient palace of the monarchs of England, erected by Edward the Confessor; these being mostly consumed by a fire in the year 1512, the Court afterwards removed to Whitehall and St James’s. In St Margaret’s Street is a respectable stone building for the committee rooms and offices belonging to the House of Commons.”
Westminster Bridge “is a structure of that simplicity and grandeur, that, whether viewed from the water, or by the land-passenger, it fills the mind with admiration. The twenty-eight semi-octangular towers forming the recesses in the footway, the manner in which the lamps are placed, and the height of the balustrades, are at once judiciously and beautifully contrived…one of the most beautiful in the world (finished 1750)…before this bridge was built, the houses in this part of Westminster were very ruinous.”
“In St James’ Park the guards parade every day between ten and eleven o’clock; this with a full band of music, renders it very lively and attractive…St James’s Park affords many pleasant walks, and is a grand thoroughfare from London and Westminster to Chelsea, Kensington etc…we may add, that a part of this district [Tothill Fields], nearly as bad as the worst part of St Giles’s, is now formed into a neat square, and one of the most spacious in London: each side consists of elegantly-constructed houses, somewhat in the cottage style. The area still services as a play-ground to the Westminster scholars.”