A forgotten door built for festivities surrounding the coronation of King Charles II in 1661 has been rediscovered in the Houses of Parliament. 

The door, hidden behind panelling in cloister formerly used as offices by the Parliamentary Labour Party, was originally constructed to allow guests at the coronation to make their way to his celebratory banquet in Westminster Hall.

It was subsequently used by the likes of Robert Walpole, often referred to as the first Prime Minister as well as architect-led rivals Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger, and diarist Samuel Pepys.

The door and passageway behind it survived the fire which destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster in 1834 but it was thought the passage had been filled in during restoration works after the Palace of Westminster was bombed in World War II.

Liz Hallam Smith, an historical consultant from the University of York who is working with the team undertaking the renovations, said they were trawling through “10,000 uncatalogued documents relating to the palace at the Historic England Archives in Swindon, when we found plans for the doorway in the cloister behind Westminster Hall”.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realised there was a tiny brass key-hole that no-one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” she said. “Once a key was made for it, the paneling opened up like a door into this secret entrance.”

In the small room behind the door, the team discovered the original hinges for two wooden doors some three-and-a-half meters high that would have opened into Westminster Hall. They also found graffiti, scribbled in pencil by bricklayers who worked on the restoration of the palace in 1851 following the 1834 fire.

One section reads “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and another, “These masons were employed refacing these groines…[ie repairing the cloister] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats”, the latter a reference suggesting the men were part of the working class male suffrage Chartist movement.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the House of Commons Speaker, described the find as “part of our parliamentary history”: “To think that this walkway has been used by so many important people over the centuries is incredible.”

PICTURE: Sir Lindsay Hoyle and the door (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

 

Initially known as Southampton Square, Bloomsbury Square – located just to the east of the British Museum – was first developed in the mid-1660s, making it London’s oldest formal square.

Bloomsbury-SquareIt was the fourth Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, who developed the square – his rather grand house, Southampton House, was located on the northern side of the square which initially featured gardens at the centre laid out in a cruciform pattern.

In 1723 – via the marriage of Southampton’s daughter, Lady Rachel Vaughan, to the ill-fated William, son of the 5th Earl of Bedford (he was implicated in the Rye House Plot and beheaded) – it passed to the Dukes of Bedford, becoming part of the Bedford Estates (and with it the earl’s house, later renamed Bedford House). The square took on its new name of Bloomsbury Square around this time.

Initially popular among the well-to-do, it had fallen somewhat from favour by the 19th century and with the 5th Duke preferring to live in the West End, in 1800 Bedford House was auctioned off and demolished. Terraced houses were later built along the now vacant north side of the square.

About 1806, the 5th Duke commissioned Humphry Repton to redesign the square and by the 1820s a garden including trees in the centre and a perimeter shrubbery. The gardens have gone through several makeovers since, including in the 1960s when an underground carpark was built underneath.

Most recently refurbished in 2006-2007 so they once again reflect Repton’s design, the gardens – which have been open to the public since 1950 – also contain a bronze statue of Whig politician (and friend of the Dukes of Bedford) Charles James Fox, which was designed by Sir Richard Westmacott and erected in 1816 (pictured, it was restored in 2006 to mark the bicentenary of Fox’s death).

It remained popular among middle class professionals, however, and among its most notable residents were the writer Isaac D’Israeli, father of the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who lived at number six in the early 19th century (his son with him) while architect Sir Edwin Lutyens lived and worked at number 29 for more than 15 years after his marriage in 1897. Literary and artistic figures like Leonard and Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, who became part of what was known as the ‘Bloomsbury Group’, were also famously known to have lived in the area around the square.

Most of the houses in the square are now used as offices but among the notable buildings there are the former home of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (based in a building partly credited to architect John Nash) and, dating from 1930, Victoria House.

One of the more famous events to have taken place in the square occurred in 1780 during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots when rioters burned down the house of the Lord Chief Justice. Almost 100 years earlier, in 1694, the square was site of a deadly fencing duel between Scottish financier John Law and Edward Wilson. Law killed Wilson, was subsequently convicted of his murder and sentenced to death but escaped by fleeing to the continent. He later become the founder of the Mississippi Company.