March 2019 Issue 1

A story in the air

A cartoon from Punch magazine in 1846 on Reid’s work


Stand in Central Lobby and you have a unique view of both Chambers, the places where for over 160 years politicians have shaped our country. But if you want to get a glimpse of a different political story, that determined the shape of the Palace itself, then look up, towards the ceiling…

This story doesn’t centre on the two Houses, rather two remarkable individuals – the architect Charles Barry and the man who would later be called the grandfather of air-conditioning, David Boswell Reid.

In 1840, Reid was appointed by the House of Lords to serve as ventilation engineer for the new Palace, following the fire in 1834 which destroyed the original building.

A simple idea for ventilation

Reid’s idea was simple. Bring fresh air into the Palace from shafts in the Elizabeth Tower and Victoria Tower and distribute this air through the building. A third, central tower above Central Lobby was proposed to release hot air.

But in practice, it proved to be anything but straightforward. Reid and Barry continually clashed, with the architect unwilling to modify his vision for the Palace to make space for the ventilation plans drawn up by Reid.

Delays and disruptions

Delay followed delay, and a series of Parliamentary enquiries ensued.

Dr Henrik Schoenefeldt is studying the Victorian ventilation system as part of the Restoration and Renewal Programme. He says the disruption to the building works was simply too much for one House.

“The House of Lords voted to end Reid’s involvement in the design of their Chamber, believing that it would reduce the risk of further delay. As a result of this vote, Reid was left working on the ventilation inside the Commons Chamber only, with Barry responsible for the rest of the Palace.”

Consequently, Reid’s idea of a central ventilation system for the whole building was abandoned.

Separate ventilation between the Commons and Lords

More dramatically, this separation of responsibilities led to Parliament building a series of walls to separate the Commons ventilation arrangements from the Lords.

One such wall is still in evidence today, high above Central Lobby, where the roof space is clearly split right down the middle, dividing the Commons system from the Lords.

So next time you’re passing through Central Lobby, don’t forget to look up. It will be a reminder of the challenges that this building has presented since the day it was built.


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