Visiting the State Apartments at Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster

Two weeks ago I wrote a post on how I randomly met Jeremy Corbyn on the London Underground. I met him when I was on my way into Parliament, not as a guide myself this time but as a tourist or at least I wasn’t actively working.

I was one of the first group of people on the first day that the Speakers State Apartments were officially open for small numbers of the general public in living memory, if not ever. This is all due to Speaker Lyndsay Hoyle who believes that as the State Apartments are paid for by the public and the role of the Speaker is integral to democracy then people should be allowed behind closed doors to have a look around.

I was all ready quite buzzing having had a chat with Jeremy Corbyn and he told me a few things that a previous Speaker had told him about what to expect.

The Speaker’s House epitomises the status of the Speaker. It always was the grandest residence in the New Palace of Westminster and is the only one to survive in anything like its original form. The House occupies the twin-towered pavilion which projects at the northernmost end of the River Front, with one side parallel to Westminster Bridge. It is approached from New Palace Yard through the courtyard, called the Speaker’s Court. When it was first completed in 1859, it was a grand Victorian town house, with servants in the basement and on the ground floor, the State Apartments on the Principal Floor and the bedrooms on the first and second floors. The Speaker now has a private flat on the second floor, but the formal State Apartments remain on the Principal Floor and are used for official business.

Before 1795, no Speaker had an official house at the Houses of Parliament. William Lenthall (1591- 1662), who was the Speaker who defied Charles I in January 1642, first lived in King Street, Covent Garden, and then moved to Goring House, which was on the site of the future Buckingham Palace and which, at that date, was a pleasant and rural site, a very suitable place for the Speaker to entertain. Arthur Onslow (1691-1768), who was the Speaker for more than 30 years in the middle of the 18th century, lived in a modest house in Leicester Street, Soho, until 1752 when he took up his abode in 20 Soho Square, the largest and finest house in the square.

The first Speaker to live on site was Henry Addington (Speaker 1789- 1801) though most of what you see is from a later time. We weren’t allowed to take photos behind the many layers of security but one of the things I found most striking in the entrance hallway were the stained glass red dragons are also a reminder that the decoration is derived from the early Tudor period, and that Henry VII claimed descent from King Cadwallader of Wales.

One of the most incredible rooms is the Speakers Study which is a south facing room where the Speaker holds his meetings on the daily business of the House of Commons. The fine proportions of the room with its great windows, carved oak panelling and doors, and stencilled ceiling panels are characteristic of the State Apartments.

Also typical of these rich interiors is the fireplace of Purbeck marble with added brass decoration, surmounted by a large mirror. The wallpaper with its strong pattern incorporating a lion and a rose was one of Pugin’s designs for large rooms at Westminster.

One end of the room houses cabinets containing silver, most of which forms part of the Speaker’s plate, an official dinner service that was ordered in 1833 and supplied by Garrard.

The space has also been taken up recently by a big screen to enable video conferencing – as Covid restrictions in 2020 limited face to face encounters and increased demand for virtual meetings.

Most of the other furniture in the room, except for some of the chairs, was designed specifically for the New Palace of Westminster. The silver calendar with its Gothic details and the letter-rack were designed by Augustus Welby Pugin.

Through the state apartments are official portraits of Speakers which go back centuries and in this room are two of the most famous from times past in the form of Sir Thomas More, briefly Speaker in 1523, who is shown beside the bookcase in a copy of a painting by Holbein, and William Lenthall.

If all of that was not enough then what I was most taken aback with was the view as the room looks out directly over the River Thames to St Thomas Hospital across the river and Westminster Bridge just to the left.

The Crimson Drawing Room The principal reception room in the Speaker’s House takes its name from the magnificent wall hangings although these are reproductions of the original 19th century silk ones whose pattern was based on an Italian Renaissance design.

The Crimson Drawing Room

Below the hangings the walls are panelled with a frieze of shields of early Speakers. The carpet repeats a design by A W Pugin, which was not among those originally intended for the New Palace at Westminster but has been extensively used here since the mid 1980s.

Most of the furniture in this room was among those pieces specially designed for the Speaker’s House in 1858, possibly by John Braund. The octagonal table is particularly attractive and is a variant of the many oak ones which Pugin designed for different parts of the building.

The chairs with barley-twist legs came from Pugin’s own house, The Grange at Ramsgate. A large collection of furniture from this source was acquired by the Houses of Parliament in 1985.

The Speakers State Dining Room

Though I’m missing out several rooms, an undoubted highlight was the Speakers State Dining Room which is filled by a long and lavishly set table in front of a marvellous fireplace and all set against wonderful wood panelling and paintings of Speakers. It’s easy to imagine dignitaries from across the country and indeed the world having a meal here at the Mother of Parliaments.

One of the things that came up in my chat with Jeremy Corbyn is the State Bedroom. This room was originally the drawing room of the Serjeant-at-Arms whose residence adjoined that of the Speaker. It is a grand room with a fireplace at each end surmounted by a mirror, but its character is now that of a State Bedroom since it has become the home of the rediscovered State Bed.

The State Bedroom

A State Bedroom was provided when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt because of the tradition that the monarch slept at the Palace of Westminster the night before the coronation in Westminster Abbey. The original State Bedroom on the first floor is marked on many early plans and a photograph of the bed was published in a book of 1906.

During the Second World War, however, the first floor was made into a separate flat for the Speaker and the bed was probably moved into a store, from where it was eventually sold and forgotten.

In January 1979, the Daily Telegraph published an article on the bed following a lecture given by the furniture historian Clive Wainwright in which the photograph of it was shown. As a result of this publicity the bed was rediscovered in a Welsh woollen mill and soon bought back for the nation.

It is doubtful that Prince Charles will sleep here one night but as the Houses of Parliament are also the Royal Palace of Westminster, he always has the right to do so if he pleases.

The tour lasted an hour and was one of the very few tourist things I have ever done in London for myself but it was somewhere that I had long wanted to see. The Speaker plays such a pivotal role in politics and has set the standard for Speakers in democracies across the world so it’s fitting that the holder of the office gets to stay in such auspicious surroundings, only a few minutes walk from the House of Commons chamber.

Remember if you’re British, you can easily visit Parliament and watch Parliament debates in the House of Lords and House of Commons and even meet your MP (hope they are better than Oliver Dowden!) If you are visiting London from overseas why not try my Darkest Hour Tour which covers Parliament, a walking tour around Westminster and Whitehall and then into the Churchill War Rooms.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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