Secret Passageway Reveals Clues to UK Parliament’s Ancient Past
A secret passage has been found in the world-famous House of Commons in London. This passageway was forgotten for at least 70 years. Its rediscovery is allowing researchers to better understand one of the most famous parliaments in the world.
The find was made during a multi-year long restoration project and was uncovered by the Parliament Architecture and Heritage team. The BBC quotes Liz Hallam Smith, a professor who works on the project, “we 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.” Subsequently, the team began to search for the doorway immediately.
Secret Passage Found Behind Hidden Door
Ms. Hallam Smith told Heritage Daily that “as we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass key-hole that no-one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard.” A key was made by the British Parliament’s locksmith. The locksmith was able, with great difficulty, to open the paneling in the Tudor style corridor in the West Cloister.
They found a small entrance, that led to a stone chamber with the other doorway bricked up. According to The Japan Times, “the passage led out of Westminster Hall — the only building to survive a devastating fire in 1834 that destroyed the House of Commons and Lords.”
Part of the doorway, that was bricked up, found in the secret passage in the UK Parliament. (Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament)
In the little passageway was graffiti from the 1830s made by a bricklayer who helped to rebuild the medieval parliament after it was gutted by a great fire. According to Heritage Daily, some of the graffiti read “this room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale.”
There are a number of other names on the wall and they signed themselves as the “Real Democrats,” reports Heritage Daily. This would suggest that they were Chartists, that is members of a radical movement that wanted political and social reform in Britain. These men have been identified in census records and it is hoped that their descendants can be traced.
Pencil graffiti found in the secret passage is still visible. (Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament)
Coronation of Kings and Queens
In the secret passageway, they found some wood paneling. The researchers used techniques from dendrochronology to calculate the age of this wood. According to CNN, it was established that “the wood on the ceiling of the small passage was chopped down in 1659.” This is in line with the documentary evidence that shows that the doorway was made in 1660-1661 for use in the coronation of Charles II.
It used to allow a procession from the House of Lords to enter into a hall where a banquet was being held to honor the king and queen. A brass plaque on a nearby wall states that the passageway was used by Charles I as he tried to arrest five MPs, but now this is believed to be false.
It also appears that the passageway was used in subsequent coronations. It is believed that the route was also utilized by MPs when they wanted to visit the Speaker of Parliament. However, the doorway was sealed in 1807 and was only briefly reopened during restoration work after the 1834 fire.
The other side of the door from the secret passage found in the West Cloister of the UK Parliament. (Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament)
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The Forgotten Passageway
It was rediscovered during the restoration of the UK Parliament after it was badly damaged during WWI by German bombers. A small door was built to allow access to the passageway, but it was once more covered over. For some 70 years, it went unnoticed at the back of the Labour Party’s parliamentary offices.
One of the reasons why it was forgotten was that many believed that it had been simply walled up or filled in with construction materials. Heritage Daily quotes Mark Collins, Parliament’s Estates Historian, as saying “to say we were surprised is an understatement – we really thought it had been walled-up forever after the war.” The Speaker of the House of Commons visited the site and expressed his admirations for the researcher who made the discovery.
CNN quotes Mr. Collins as saying that the “palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.” There are plans to make it part of tours of the historic building, which is visited by many thousands of people from around the globe every year. It is believed that the passageway will be recorded as part of the restoration and renewal digitalization project. This will ensure that this historic secret passage, which was traversed by king and politicians, is not lost or forgotten ever again.
Top image: Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, poses inside the newly-rediscovered secret passage. Source: Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament
By Ed Whelan