Westminster and Lambeth

Historical Eye

Circa 1896: Westminster and Lambeth Palace


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Houses of Parliament circa 1896: The site of the old Royal Palace at Westminster is now occupied by the Houses of Parliament, which form one of the most magnificent buildings ever erected in a single decade in Europe. The reader who has not yet had the good fortune to make a survey of this superb temple of legislation may glean some idea of its vast proportions when we state that it covers an area of nearly nine acres; that to the eastward it presents a frontage of nearly 1,000ft. The Clock Tower is 318ft high and the large clock has four dials, each 23ft in diameter. The Houses of Parliament cost in all about three millions sterling.


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The Houses of Parliament today: The most symbolic view of London and known the world over by billions. Bold, proud and a fantasy of gothic splendour, it is the most Victorian of all Victorian buildings. Inside the Houses – and I’ve been lucky enough to have been ‘backstage’ a couple of times – the world of the Commons and the Lords is a strange mixture of country house, working man’s pub, Oxford debating society and Victorian sorting office. Entry is open to all British citizens by prior arrangement. I’ve only witnessed one debate, where a minster waffled on for 15-20 minutes as a smattering of MPs yawned and gazed across at each other. The true spectacle comes with Prime Minister’s Questions, where we witness the PM and the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition hurl insults at one another. The backbenchers usually start braying and making farmyard noises in support. Still, at least the British executive is held to account to some degree. Other democratic leaders would have a nervous breakdown in a similar atmosphere.


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Houses of Parliament circa 1896: In the Old Palace Yard, about half way between Westminster Hall and the Peers’ Entrance (shown in the foreground of this view), is the statue of Richard Coeur de Lion, by the late Baron Marochetti. The king is seated on the back of a charger, but according to competent authorities, both the rider and horse are open to grave criticism. The following critique may be taken, on the whole, as fair and just: “No man on a prancing charger would be lifting up his sword, in a supposed dignified position, with his feet dangling carelessly in the stirrups.”


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Houses of Parliament today: I couldn’t take a photograph from the position our Victorian cameraman chose because of security. Today the Houses are surrounded by black-boarded concrete barriers designed to stop car bombers or rioters and the effect is rather like an urban moat. The area is also where visitors line up to go through security checks before being let in. To the left, but just out of shot, is the  pavement of Parliament Square, where long-term protestors used to gather and sleep overnight for days, months and even years. I seem to recall they’ve been moved on. The statue of Richard the Lionheart is still in its place, offending not only the art critics but post-factual utopians who loathe the heroes of old and pay no mind to  history.


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Lambeth Palace circa 1896: Above St. Thomas's Hospital, at the end of Lambeth Bridge, stands Lambeth Palace, which has been for over six hundred years the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the above view, the Palace is seen from the bridge and one admires its fine situation on the Albert Embankment. In the foreground is seen Lambeth Pier, together with one of the penny steamers that ply upon the river during the summer months and seriously affect the dividends of the omnibus companies.


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Lambeth Palace today: The trees have grown to their full height, but very little has ostensibly changed to the Palace’s structure. In the Victorian era,  the power of the Archbishop was still immense, his words carrying great weight across Britain and the Empire. Today, he's  just pleased you could drop in for a cup of tea. The penny steamers have sadly gone, replaced by more salubrious boats that even come with a roof. The river is now a far, far cleaner affair. In Victorian times it took a brave or foolhardy person to swim with Old Father Thames. Mind you, I would not recommend  today’s Aqua Londinium either.


Then and now 1896

'In the foreground is seen Lambeth Pier, together with one of the penny steamers that ply upon the river during the summer months'

Westminster Abbey circa 1896: The building of Westminster Abbey is involved in mists too dense for the sun of antiquarian research to penetrate. The general aspect of this structure is grand in the extreme. The best exterior view of it is obtained from a distance, its exquisite proportions being perhaps better appreciated when seen from the high ground in the Green Park. The church consists of nave, choir, aisles, transepts, and sacrarium, and at the east end are Edward the Confessor's, Henry VII's, and ten other chapels.

Westminster Abbey today: The angle from which the Victorian photographer took his shot is now built over. However, the scene remains strikingly similar. Preservation in London is usually because of four factors: poverty, politics, religion and tradition. Westminster Abbey is expensive to enter and, on my last visit, I discovered that the tourist is still banned from taking photographs. Given that digital cameras are fast enough to take images without artificial light, the argument that no photography can be allowed because the flash  will cause deterioration is now redundant. As far as I can see, the only reason this policy is maintained is to force visitors to purchase over-priced programmes and postcards.

Fleet street and the Strand

Westminster and Lambeth


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