Did you know that the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster led to a rash of complaints in 1837 by the neighbours? If not, read on…
Charles Barry (1795-1860) is best-known as the architect of the new Houses of Parliament. With the designer AWN Pugin (1812-1852) he created the most iconic building in London, familiar to millions the world over as a symbol of Britain and representative democracy. It was a labour of love. Barry was a Londoner through-and-through: he was born, married, worked and died in London and, apart from three years on the Grand Tour as a young man, he lived there all his life. So where were the houses he inhabited in the city whose skyline he, more than anyone else, influenced by means of the biggest Houses of all? And can these buildings tell us something about a brilliant man who was discreet and private while he lived, and who remains an enigmatic character since he destroyed many of his personal papers before he died? Barry was the ninth of eleven children of Walter Barry, a government Stationery Office supplier. He was born and grew up at 2 Bridge Street, which ran along the northern side of New Palace Yard, Westminster. Some fifty years later Barry would construct the famous Clock Tower of the New Palace of Westminster, to Pugin’s design, almost adjacent to his birthplace, which stood in its shadow until 1867.
Barry was christened at St Margaret’s Westminster, the parish church of Parliament, just a few steps from home. In the final decade of his life he also designed and oversaw the construction of a new Westminster Bridge. For the most of his life then, Charles Barry lived and worked in the immediate neighbourhood of the Houses of Parliament, old and new. Perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that Barry only ever rented his homes – he never built one for himself or even purchased one. When he returned to England in 1820 after travelling through Europe, the Levant and Egypt, he set up a home and office at 39 Ely Place, on the edge of Hatton Garden. Today this is a gated road containing residential buildings and legal chambers, but until the end of the eighteenth century it had been the Bishop of Ely’s Palace. It was sold off and redeveloped in 1772 and so Barry had chosen to live on a site with plenty of medieval resonance – including the gothic church of St Etheldreda – but in a house which by then was fifty years old and on the edge of a slum: definitely the option of a man yet to make his fame and fortune. Two years later he married Sarah Rowsell, daughter of a stationer friend of his father’s whose sister was already married to his brother. Sarah had patiently waited for him to return from his travels and then for a year or two after his return before he had enough money to support them – again a sign of his good sense and prudence.
The Barrys continued renting Ely Place until 1827, when they moved to 27 Foley Place with their two sons – Charles jnr (b. 1823) and Alfred (b. 1826). In the previous seven years Charles had made a name for himself with projects in Brighton and Manchester and the young family’s move to the West End indicates his growing prosperity, and the fact that he was starting to socialise in fashionable Whig circles including members of the Devonshire House set. Today Foley Place has become Langham Street – and is just a stone’s throw from the RIBA on Portland Place, an institute of which Barry was a founding member and whose library today holds significant collections of his papers and architectural plans. Over the next thirteen years Barry won a series of brilliant competitions and commissions to design and build the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall (1829); the Birmingham Grammar School (1833); Trentham House, Staffordshire (1834); the Reform Club in Pall Mall (1837); Highclere Castle, Berkshire better known as “Downton Abbey” (1838); and Trafalgar Square (1840), among many others.
In 1840 Sarah Barry laid the foundation stone of the new Houses of Parliament, her husband’s most famous building, and that year the family (now including eight children and three servants) moved to a spacious mid-Georgian townhouse at 32 Great George St in Westminster – in fact, a continuation of Bridge Street where Barry had been born. This was not only to accommodate his large family better but also so that Barry could be as close as possible to the site of his ‘great work’ which was now growing into the air just a few hundred yards away. Great George Street was at that time a residential quarter favoured by politicians, civil engineers and railway contractors. At one point this included Samuel Morton Peto, whose firm had the building contract for superstructure of the new Palace of Westminster, and at number 23 lived and worked James Walker, the famous civil engineer who took over Thomas Telford’s practice and whose firm built the river wall and embankment for the Houses of Parliament in the late 1830s. Across the road from the Barry household was the original National Portrait Gallery, run by the Scharf family of topographical artists, and so this neighbourhood nicely encapsulates the main themes of Barry’s career. These houses no longer exist but a vestige of those times remain as 1 Great George Street is now home to the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Towards end of his life, Barry – now Sir Charles Barry – moved to 29 Clapham Common North, to a grand mansion called ‘The Elms’, which he fitted out with a large airy design studio. Exhausted and fatally stressed by years of work on the new Houses of Parliament which was still ongoing, he perhaps felt the need to at last relax in his spare time and enjoy the semi-rural delights of the Common where sheep still grazed. He died there, in May 1860, of a massive heart attack. His funeral cortège set out from The Elms on 22 May and led to Westminster Abbey, where Barry was buried under a brass depicting the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster, which the great architect regarded as his masterpiece. Today, no 29 is part of Trinity Hospice, which has occupied the building since 1899.
A version of this blog first appeared in the London Historians newsletter in 2014.
Here is a recent blogpost I wrote for the excellent Virtual St Stephen’s Project, a collaborative academic project based at York University which is seeking to reconstruct the history and architecture of one of the most famous and influential buildings of the old Palace of Westminster. It describes how one of the biggest paintings of the ruined Palace came about.