In Depth

Houses of Parliament: ten fascinating facts you didn’t know

The building is an icon of British politics, but holds some rather unusual secrets within its walls

Houses of Parliament

Officially called the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament is the physical home of British politics.

From its cavernous hallways and ornate neo-gothic exterior to the red and green benches that adorn its upper and lower chambers, the building has been the site of world-changing decisions, undergone multiple gruelling renovations and even withstood bombardment by the Nazis during the Second World War.

This building also holds plenty of strange secrets and quirks. Here are ten of the most fascinating:

The name predates the Norman conquest

The building's official name is the Palace of Westminster, due to the fact that a palace was constructed on the site of the modern-day Parliament building by Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon monarch of England, some time between 1045-1050.

Rebuilt during the Victorian era as a neo-gothic palace, it is an “eight-acre jumble of buildings, courtyards, passageways and corridors”, the BBC says. “There are 100 staircases, more than 1,000 rooms and three miles of passages.”

The monarch opens Parliament each year

The State Opening of Parliament usually takes place each November, or after a general election, and is a great opportunity to do a little royal watching as the Queen rides from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in the Irish State Coach, PlanetWare says.

“Once in the House of Lords, she declares the new session of Parliament open and a gun salute is fired in Hyde Park and at the Tower of London. The Royal Entrance, a 50ft high doorway, is used by the monarch to enter Parliament.”

This year, however, there will be no state opening: last year the Government opted for a two-year parliamentary session to cover the Brexit process.

The House of Commons was destroyed during WWII

In 1941, the chamber of the House of Commons was destroyed in a bombing raid.

It was rebuilt to designs by Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of both Bankside and Battersea power stations, as well as the much-loved red telephone boxes dotted around the city, Guide London says. “All the countries of the British Commonwealth contributed to the refurbishment. Australia provided a replica of the original Speaker’s chair and Fiji provided one silver gilt inkstand.”

The Commons is designed to discourage sword fighting

The Daily Telegraph reports that two sets of red lines on the floor of the chamber of the House of Commons - just in front of the front benches of the government and the opposition - are “supposedly greater than two sword lengths apart so that no opposing members become embroiled in a duel mid-debate”.

Lending credence to this theory, site adds that real swords are kept “on the special purple ribbon loops by the coat hangers in the members’ cloakroom”.

There isn’t enough space

Despite there being 650 MPs, the Commons chamber has only 427 seats - meaning there is often standing room only on big days, such as the Budget.

If they wish to save a seat, MPs have to turn up at the chamber at 8am and place a "prayer card" in the place they would like to sit. They then have to be in the chamber at the start of that day's sitting, for prayers, the BBC says.

“For over four centuries, every day in the Commons has begun with prayers, which last for three minutes and require MPs to face the wall for the duration,” it says, adding that the reasons for this are unclear.

The building was once abandoned due to a foul smell

“In the 1800s, business in Parliament had to be abandoned due to the foul-smelling gases rising up from the Thames,” Time Out says. “That was during the Great Stink of 1858, when the river was the main exit route for all the human waste the city produced.”

However, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette is credited as having redirected much of the human and industrial waste from the Thames shortly after this, vastly improving the scent of the river.

A mace must be present or Parliament yields no power

The mace in Parliament is the symbol of royal authority and without it neither the Commons nor the Lords can convene or pass laws, according to Parliament’s own website.

“The House of Commons mace is a silver gilt ornamental club of about five feet in length, dating from the reign of Charles II,” it says. “It is placed on the table of the House, except when the House is in committee, when it rests on two brackets underneath the table.”

The Lords uses two maces, one dating from the time of Charles II and another from the reign of William III.

Legislation uses a 1,000+ year-old form of French

When a proposed new law, a bill, is sent from the House of Commons to the House of Lords, the clerk of the Commons writes “Soit bail as Seigneurs” on it - which means “let it be sent to the House of Lords” - in Norman French.

The bill is then tied up in green ribbon, the colour of the House of Commons, and carried by hand through Central Lobby into the House of Lords.

It has a snuff box

Smoking has been banned in the House of Commons since the 17th century, the BBC reports, so a snuffbox is maintained next to the entrance in case MPs want perking up before a long debate.

However, the site adds that it is rarely - if ever - used by MPs, with some calling for it to be removed.

“As I walked into the chamber today, I noticed the snuff box still provided for MPs by the entrance," Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said during a debate on Commons working hours in 2012.

“I hope that members will take this opportunity to bring the Commons out of the snuff age and into the 21st century.”

It is infested with mice

Parliament spent a record £130,000 trying to deal with mice and moths disturbed by building works in 2016 according to the Daily Mail.

Mice are a “perennial problem in the historic Westminster buildings, with the creatures often seen scurrying across desks and even in canteens”, the site says, adding that the high cost covers employing a full time “pest control technician” and laying more than 1,700 “bait stations” around the building.

Parliament is open to visitors, with the option of seeing the free Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition in Westminster Hall until 6 October

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