Coachlines - January 2024

30.01.24 Dr Dorothy Thompson-Evans

An evening at the House of Commons


Friends and Liverymen of the Coachmakers enjoyed an interesting and thought provoking evening tour of the Palace of Westminster, guided by the charismatic raconteur and Member of Parliament Assistant Mark Garnier OBE.

Mark escorted us from the vast Westminster Hall, the oldest original building in Parliament where the HM the late Queen Elizabeth ll lay in state, highlighting vividly on the way the wide range of architectural features, from the stained-glass memorial of St Stephen’s Porch to the modern dynamic artwork of the New Dawn Window found at the entrance of St Stephen’s Hall designed by Mary Barnson, the artist in residence for women’s suffrage. This array of 168 colourful glass circles, inspired by the scrolls in the Act room, dim and brighten in time with the ebb and flow of the Thames tide.

The architecture was interspersed with tales of intrigue and battles, murders, and conspiracies. It was fascinating to imagine the stand-off between King Charles I and Speaker Lenthall, and to better understand the continued divide of parliamentarian and royalty; such that emblems of the crown on the epaulettes of police or armed forces are removed before entering the Commons chamber. It was exciting to stand at the dispatch boxes in the chamber imagining for an instant the adversarial stare of the opposition, the noise from benches and how much calm courage, wit and rhetoric would be needed to sway the opinion of a rowdy house.

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Most poignant was the entrance from the member’s lobby to the House of Commons. Known as Churchill’s Arch, it’s a solemn memory of the gravity of the decisions taken in the chamber within. After WWll, Winston Churchill suggested this entrance archway was renovated using war torn stone. The imperfect battered and chipped masonry reminds all entering the chamber of the consequences of authorizing military force. A moment to pause.

We were fortunate also to see golden opulence of the Lords’ chamber with its large red woolsack, which doesn’t look as comfortable as it sounds! Also in the Royal Gallery to spy the hooks for diplomatic tapestries used to cover paintings of Waterloo and Trafalgar battles during a visit by Charles de Gaulle. We also understood how paintings and statues can appear suddenly from the basement store, not necessarily in accord with Augustin Pugin’s vision; Pugin the interior designer employed by Sir Charles Barry when the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt after the fire of 1834.

With a myriad of corridors, likened to Hogwarts by our knowledgeable guide, it was easy to appreciate the pressure of negotiation and persuasion under way in small offices, bringing to life the phrase ‘corridors of power’.

The size of our tour demanded three ‘shepherds’, parliamentary researchers and assistants who charmingly ushered us in the correct direction through the many doors and provided their personal insights into the business of parliament. Our thanks to everyone for contributing their time and knowledge to this fascinating tour. Thanks also for the good company and conversation over a delicious supper. This was a splendid and enjoyable evening – our special thanks go to Master Bettine Evans, organizer Liveryman Dave Connor and especially our host Assistant Mark Garnier OBE for an exclusive insight into parliament.