Commons chamber to mark 70 years since post-war reconstruction

By Tom Pilgrim, PA
·3-min read

Britain’s parliamentary democracy will “endure everything that is thrown at it”, the House of Commons Speaker has said, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the reconstruction of its famous debating chamber after the Second World War.

A series of incendiary bombs were dropped on the chamber over two nights in May 1941 and the roof of Westminster Hall was set ablaze.

The fire spread from the Commons chamber to the Members’ Lobby, causing the ceiling to collapse.

The Victorian chamber was left as a smoking shell and it was not until 1950 that it was restored to the form that stands today.

House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle
Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Speaking ahead of the new chamber celebrating its 70th anniversary on Monday, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the current Commons Speaker, said: “Our parliamentary democracy has and will endure everything that is thrown at it, be it bombs or – as we are experiencing now – Covid.

“The challenges may be very different, but 70 years on – with our chamber filled with screens and tape to enable virtual participation and keep us socially distanced – we continue to demonstrate flexibility and resolve to ensure democracy continues.”

The German air attacks on London caused thousands of casualties and damage to the House of Lords Chamber, Parliament’s clock tower, Westminster Abbey and the British Museum.

The destruction of the House of Commons chamber forced MPs to relocate to the House of Lords.

In 1943, then prime minister Sir Winston Churchill declared the lost chamber should be “restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity”.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” he said.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill (PA)

Architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was charged with rebuilding the chamber, which eventually cost more than £2 million – nearly twice the original budget.

He had to make additional room for MPs and visitors above the chamber’s limited space at floor level, while hiding heating, ventilation, lighting and telephone equipment within its Gothic design.

The restoration work began in May 1945, with the new chamber used for the first time five years later.

Hansard records show that on October 26 1950, “the House met in the new Commons chamber at a quarter past ten o’clock”.

Then speaker Douglas Clifton Brown said: “May I, as your Speaker, welcome all my fellow Members back to their old home.

“It will seem new to many, but nonetheless it is our true home – for here have been fought and will be fought, I trust, those parliamentary battles which have so enhanced the fame of the British House of Commons.”

On the same day King George VI presided a ceremony marking the new chamber’s opening, which was attended by parliamentary and overseas dignitaries, with 29 Commonwealth Speakers present.

Some 56 gifts from Commonwealth countries – such as dispatch boxes from New Zealand and inkstands from St Lucia – were received.

According to Hansard, two days earlier, then prime minister Clement Attlee said the Commons was “the habitation, not merely of a number of individuals, but of the spirit of parliamentary government”.