Perception of Government and the Aesthetics of the House of Commons

During The Blitz of 1940 and 1941, vast areas of the Palace of Westminster, which is the home of the two Chambers of Parliament, the UK's highest legislative body, were destroyed by German bombs. Most of the Palace had just turned 100, since it was mostly all rebuilt after The Great Fire of 1834. I wrote about this in my map entry, but it important to understand the stand-out neo-Gothic style that Barry and Pugin, the architects of the new Palace, designed and executed in the 1840s. Barry was in fact chosen as part of a public competition in which almost 100 men entered their own designs for the new Palace. It is fitting that such a democratic selection process would determine how the center of the UK's democracy would turn out. Barry chose to draw on the neo-Gothic style because of Westminster Abbey and the other buildings in the area. The Palace had looked like the way he designed it for 100 years, and suddenly, in 1941, it was almost all rubble.

Because of The Blitz, Parliament did not meet in their two chambers in the Palace but instead met in Church House down the street. It would be too much of a risk to continue to have all members of each House in their Chambers, where the Germans could target them all at the same time. In 1940, bomb damage was done to St Stephen’s Porch and Hall. The greatest damage was done in 1941, when the Commons Chamber, the Members’ Lobby, the Clock Tower (now Elizabeth Tower), and the roof of Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the Palace. Westminster Hall was able to be saved during the Great Fire of 1834, and since there were limited time and supplies, only one area could be saved from the fire. This damage was obviously devastating to the government and the people of the United Kingdom. Democracy and national history had both taken a severe blow. The House of Commons is the most democratic and representative body in UK politics—its members are directly elected, and they are not automatically made nobles upon election, the way peers are noble by appointment. The bombing of the home of these duly elected officials was not something that would be soon forgotten. Not only was there destruction in the heart of government, but there was death and destruction all around London. The Blitz damaged so much in the city, and Londoners had to stay strong while losing so much of their history and valuable objects and places. Both chambers continued to sit in the Church House during rebuilding. The Lords Chamber was not destroyed, but it was damaged.

One detail that is important to perception is that the chambers moved out of the Church House and back into the Palace, but the House of Lords met in the Royal Robing Room. This was in fact kept a secret until after the war. The Commons met in the Lords Chamber. The Robing Room is very special and is where the monarch “dresses” before the State Opening of Parliament, which I discussed in my image entry. It was in the government’s best interest to keep this information a secret, due to the respect for tradition that the people of the United Kingdom have and the sensitive nature of an entire Chamber meeting in what is essentially the monarch’s dressing room.

The rebuilding of the House of Commons is significant. Winston Churchill made it clear that he did not want to follow the pattern and lead of other democratic countries at that point and create a chamber that had a semi-circle of desks, similar to the United States Congress. He wanted the former design of long benches that face each other with no desks to be followed exactly. This would continue on the intimate, close environment that made the Commons Chamber stand out for so many years. On one side of the room is the Government’s party and its cabinet, and on the other side of the room, facing the Government is the opposition and the “shadow” cabinet. Churchill wanted to preserve this design and valued the confrontation that it encouraged. He felt like these aspects of the design would “create the sense of urgency and intimacy that lifted the affairs of the House into a ‘human sphere’” (House of Commons Rebuilding).

The House of Commons is defined by the color green. The benches in the debating chamber are green, the carpet is green, the stationery is green and much more. The same is true for everything in the House of Lords, but with the color red. It is hundreds of years of tradition that the colors Green and Red are used for the Commons and Lords, respectively. Some say that red is a more royal, expensive color, so that would be fitting for the Lords, and green is a more common, layman’s color. Nothing royal about it. It was unspoken that green would be kept in the Commons after the rebuilding. The accents and design of the House Chamber were simplified and modernized a bit in rebuilding, but overall, it still kept with the traditional style of carved wood. Parliament stands out in that way—a palace is a palace, even if partially rebuilt in the 1940s.

To this day, there is still a burn mark on the doorway going into the House of Commons. I have touched the mark myself. The British will never forget what their nation went through during WWII. A huge bombing and collapse of one of the most powerful and distinctive houses of democracy in the entire world is nothing to underestimate. Even though it was a hard chapter in the history of the UK, the people rose out of stronger than they were before. Parliament had to make do with what they had, and they did—there was no alternative, there was just rebuilding. It reminds me of our attitude in Atlanta, and the city “rising from the ashes” after our own war that ravaged our people and buildings. The perception of the strength of a people is important, and Parliament did not waver. Democracy would still continue, more alive than ever, after fire and destruction.

Works Cited:

“Bomb Damage.” UK Parliament, UK Parliament,

D'Arcy, Mark. “Bombed but Not Broken: 70 Years after Commons' Bombing.” BBC News, BBC, 10 May 2011,

“House of Commons Rebuilding.” UK Parliament, UK Parliament,

Associated Place(s)

Event date:

7 Sep 1940 to 11 May 1941