HC Deb 02 July 1857 vol 146 cc794-805

Sir, I rise for the purpose of occupying the time and attention of the House for a few moments, while I make a few observations upon the award of the judges who were appointed to take into consideration the merits of the many plans sent in for the construction of the new public offices, as well as upon some of the peculiarities of those plans themselves. The want of such offices had been admitted for a long time past, and had been much complained of by the public from time to time, until at length the Government admitted the fact by coming to the determination that suitable offices should be built. But although it was a matter long talked of, it cannot be said to have been very prominently forced upon the attention of the Government until within the last two years, and it is only very recently that active steps have been taken in reference to it, by inviting competition from all nations for tenders for the undertaking. The result of that invitation we have all seen in the specifications and drawings that have been sent in; so that it may be said that we have now arrived at that stage of progress in the undertaking, when it becomes imperatively necessary to pause, and weigh well and maturely and deliberately the next step, ere it be too late; for once the final step be taken, the Government may find themselves plunged headlong into an undertaking, the vastness of which it is scarce possible to comprehend, and which must necessarily entail upon the country for many years to come, a most enormous expenditure of the public money. I believe that all, or nearly all, the public newspapers in this kingdom have given publicity to the result of the deliberations of the judges, and have sent forth to the world, the award they have made; at least I saw it in several of the newspapers published yesterday. Now, it is no part of my object to find fault with that award, and I had no intention whatever of doing so when I rose to address the House on this subject; on the contrary, I am of opinion that the judges have shown that they well deserve the high opinion entertained of them by the public for their distinguished abilities, and I am convinced that this House and the public at large will agree with me, that these gentlemen have most ably and conscientiously discharged the very onerous, difficult, and delicate duty they had undertaken. It is, therefore, not without considerable regret, that I feel compelled to say, that although those gentlemen have evinced the exercise of no inconsiderable amount of taste, as well as skill, capacity and strict impartiality; yet, as a matter of taste, that I do not entirely concur with them. But, if I have the misfortune to differ from those gentlemen upon that head, it can only be attributed to the fact that a great deal too much haste has been evinced in the manner in which the final proceeding has been hurried forward, to the many difficulties which this precipitation throws in the way of their coming to conclusions which they expected would prove satisfactory to the House and to the public, as well as to the many competitors who had sent in plans and drawings. Her Majesty's Government are deserving of much credit for the course they have adopted in throwing open the tenders to foreign competitors, a course which has resulted in the judges having awarded one of the principal prizes to a Frenchman, a fact which speaks volumes for the honesty and impartiality of the judges, and must satisfy our neighbours that they can have justice and impartiality from English gentlemen, who can duly appreciate real merit and talent, come from what quarter of the world it may. But now with regard to the details of the manner in which it has been proposed to have these buildings disposed. It has been seen that the determination come to is, that these extensive public offices are to consist of various large blocks of buildings, each block to be separate and distinct in itself; and for this purpose, three different sets of prizes in the first place were proposed, for the Foreign Office, the War Office, am the general block plan. Now, I should like to know upon what grounds that determination has been arrived at. I am at a loss to understand it, inasmuch as it will have the effect of preventing the buildings being built upon one uniform plan and thus, there will be no such thing as uniformity or harmony of plan or design. In order to illustrate, this I will call the attention of the House to the first prize for the building proposed to be occupied as the Foreign Office, and also to that for the War Office, both of which, I assume, are to be erected according to the dispositions of that block plan which has received the first prize in its department. This block plan emanated from a Frenchman, and he being a Frenchman, naturally enough, was desirous of introducing the internal plan of the Tuilleries and Louvre, which, as we all know, is an oblong court, crossed in its breadth by one of the main thoroughfares of Paris. He has, therefore, ingeniously planned a similar oblong court, extending from St. James's Park to the River Thames, while Parliament Street, as a street, disappears in this plan, and is reproduced merely as a line of way across. This is a bold and ingenious design, and perhaps under the limited conditions of the competition, it was the best that could be adopted. But when I come to the other designs, I find that their architects have fallen upon a common-place conception; namely, square masses of building, preserving more or less existing lines of street, and with nothing like the great court-yard embraced by the Louvre. Now, how are these masses of building to be accommodated to the block plan? Are the three architects to be turned into a Commission, something like that we have just heard of, though not with a Bellenden Ker at its head, in order to consolidate their designs? Who is to be the judge on this subject? The great mistake is not in deciding too soon upon rebuilding the public offices, but in commencing in a hurry the execution of this scheme. Our architects were called into the competition, not to work upon preconceived ideas, but to give ideas to their employers. The settlement of the block plan ought to have been a matter of the most mature consideration, and the highest architectural and engineering talent throughout the country ought to have been brought to bear upon it before it was decided upon. Instead of this, the matter was referred to a Committee of this House, on whose Report alone a particular block of houses was fixed upon as the absolute area within which the public offices were to be circumscribed. Three distinct schedules of prizes were then propounded, and it is a remarkable fact, that though most of the competitors went into the competition for all three branches—block plan, Foreign Office, and War Office—yet, in no single instance, has one man carried off more than one prize. The gentleman who has been declared by the judges to be the successful competitor for the War Office, sent in a design also for the Foreign Office; and it is somewhat curious to observe, that those two designs closely resembled each other; and yet when his design for the Foreign Office was compared with that of the gentleman who has been declared the successful candidate, the latter carried away the prize so successfully, that the design of the former gentleman for the Foreign Office was "nowhere." In fact, with respect to those two designs from the same individual, they may well be compared to the Siamese twins, having undergone the operation of being dissevered. In the case, again, of one of the minor prizes for the War Office, that prize was carried away by a gentleman, whose elevation for the Foreign Office, though absolutely related with the other, was rejected. Hence will arise many of the peculiarities and complexities which are sure to be found attached to such a complicated competition, although thrown open to the talent and genius of foreign nations. Now, with all these facts before us, I think the House will agree with me, that there ought to have been either a commission or a preliminary competition, at which the block plans should have been arranged; information ought to have been sought from architects, engineers, and amateurs, at home and abroad; a great imperial plan ought to have been insisted upon, and every advantage ought to have been taken of an opportunity which may never again recur. When all the conditions had been arranged, then one range of buildings should have been decided on all massed together under a single roof. There ought to have been one competition for all the public offices, while the successful design might have been carried out as the funds were forthcoming and opportunities presented themselves, and so we should have been released from the complication which must occur before long in respect to the difference between the block plan and those for the offices. Another mistake has been committed, which will prevent the complete success of this great undertaking. We are in possession of perhaps the most magnificent range of park land which any city in the world could boast of within its limits. There may be finer parks at Vienna and elsewhere; but for extent of sylvan scenery and exercise ground, and for amount of pure air in the heart of the metropolis, London is unequalled. Beginning with Kensington Gardens, you come next to Hyde Park; the open ground is resumed at the Green Park; the Palace-gardens may, as regards the fresh air they afford, be included, and then the range terminates with St. James's Park. Well then, following up this line of route, this last-named park brings you within, I may say, a few yards of the Thames. Then we arrive at a point which, under any other circumstances, would afford a grand and most varied and beautiful perspective following the course of the river, just at that curve in its course which gives on one side the fullest view of St. Paul's, as well as the countless spires of the city churches, and on the other of Westminster Abbey and the new Houses of Parliament. But all this splendid perspective is utterly lost from the extensive masses of those most squalid, wretched, and tottering buildings which offend the eye in the vicinity of St. James's Park. It would be extremely desirable that all this lumber should be removed, and that the park should be continued down to the river side, and that thus an improvement worthy of the age—worthy of this great and wealthy metropolis and of the country should be effected. And what, let me ask, is to prevent it? There is at present a Bill on the table providing for the purchase by the nation of this very block of houses, but it is proposed to devote the land on which they stand, not to the improvements I have mentioned, but to the rebuilding of the public offices, which, if finished, will for ever shut out the Thames from the parks. Why should this House give its sanction to such a proceeding as that? Is there no plot of ground now unoccupied on which these offices could be planted? I believe there is. The Parade behind the Horse Guards is a spot for which probably no one would claim any particular beauty or utility. I say, then, that if the Parade and the Horse Guards, and the Admiralty, were taken down, there might be laid out with little difficulty a piece of ground approximating to eight acres in area, 750 feet in length, and 400 in width, on which the whole offices might be reared. They would stand in that position isolated and magnificent, and then the site of the block of houses I have spoken of could be appropriated as garden-ground that would stretch to the water side. Into this of course would be thrown the garden opposite Palace Yard and the Abbey Yard, and thus there would be an open space of something like twenty-four acres, bounded on one side by the river, while isolated in the middle would stand the public offices, and further to the north the new National Gallery. If, however, these offices are built where the Government proposes, they will cut off everything from everything for ever. The parks will never reach the water side, the new National Gallery will be intercepted from the Houses of Parliament, the public offices will be crowded in, and the proposed embankment of the Thames will be deprived of what would be its noblest establishment. I am sorry to see that the competitors were limited in their plans to buildings of three stories. This height is, I know, in favour with speculative builders in the streets ramblingly distributed by them over new districts, but men of taste have learnt to discard it in their private houses; and yet it is to be perpetuated in what ought to be the most magnificent building of the age. I have already said that the present is an opportunity which may never occur again, and therefore I entreat of the House to bear in mind that important fact, and not to lose sight of it; for, once lost, it never can again be taken advantage of. Now is the time for the House to decide, whether this shall or shall not involve and decide the question of the future architectural beauty and magnificence of London—whether our parks shall be made the marvel of the world, the most magnificent specimens of landscape gardening ever known, or whether they shall remain patchy and blotchy, and cut off from the noble river which on one side might bound them. But I may perhaps be met by the argument of cui bono,—I may be asked, "Why do all this? I meet that by asking the House, Will it sacrifice such an opportunity as now is offered of making these vast and magnificent improvements in this part of the metropolis, and rush hastily and headlong into the adoption of plans and suggestions which have been as hastily acted upon up to a certain point, and which are in themselves exceedingly crude and ill-digested. I pray for a little consideration, a little pause, and I am satisfied that all the good results naturally to be anticipated by the competition which was a noble idea in itself, may be realized. With respect to the style, I will only say that it would be a vast pity if regard were not had to unity of design with Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster. I am aware that the Gothic style is not very popular at present in this House, on account of the expense which has attended the construction of the building in which we are now assembled; but much of that expense is attributable to the selection of an impure style of Gothic architecture, and to the absence of a proper system of contracts, especially in the earlier stages of the work, as the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Public Works pointed out the other night. In conclusion, then, I again entreat the House to pause while there is yet time, and consider this question well, ere the too common error be fallen into, of mistaking outward ornament and mere tinsel, for real architectural grace and beauty, and therefore I do trust that the House will not come to any final conclusion upon the site and the style of architecture of these new and vast public offices, until the whole subject has been more fully and maturely discussed.


said that, having received the Report of the judges on Monday evening, he had presented it on Tuesday to the House, and he thought that it would have been better if his hon. Friend had deferred his observations until that Report, which was now in the printer's hands, had been circulated among hon. Members. When the scheme of a competition was first devised a number of architects and other gentlemen waited upon and requested that he would name a mixed Commission to decide upon the designs, and he determined, therefore, with the consent of the Government, that the Commission should consist of seven gentlemen—one Member of the House of Peers, one Member of the House of Commons, Viscount Eversley, so long Speaker of the House of Commons, and four gentlemen connected with scientific societies. The judges who were selected were the Duke of Buccleuch, from the House of Lords; Mr. Stirling, the hon. Member for Perthshire, from the House of Commons; Viscount Eversley, the late Speaker; Earl Stanhope, the President of the Society of British Antiquaries; Mr. Brunel, as the representative of the civil engineers; Mr. David Roberts, of the Royal Academy; and Mr. Burn, to represent the architects; and he had never heard a single objection raised to the composition of that tribunal. In consequence of pressing business the Duke of Buccleuch was obliged to leave London for Scotland, and was unable to attend after the first meeting, and they all knew the sad event which had prevented Viscount Eversley from attending of late; but he had received a letter from his noble Friend, in which he stated that he entirely concurred in the selection which had been made of the block plan, and of the designs for the War Office and for the Foreign Department. So far as the first prizes were concerned; and he was happy to state that the other judges had been unanimous in all the designs which they had subsequently selected. He would now state the course which he proposed to take in reference to those designs. A great number of models had been sent in for the Wellington Monument—already fifty had been received from British artists, and nearly forty from foreign artists. He proposed, as soon as those models could be set up, that they should be exhibited in the interior of Westminster-hall, and that on the existing hoarding should be affixed the designs which had been selected for the block plan, for the War Department, and for the Foreign Office. It would be very inexpedient to come to any conclusion as to the relative merits of those plans until the House and the public had had an opportunity of inspecting and considering them. He was aware that his hon. Friend took a different view, perhaps a more intelligent view, than he (Sir Benjamin Hall), considering the duties of his office, could venture to submit to Parliament. He agreed with his hon. Friend that, if all the intervening buildings between the Park and the Thames were removed, one of the most splendid sites in the world would be obtained; but, looking at the House of Commons, and at the vote come to the other night, he did not think that he should meet with much success if he were to propose such a scheme as that, which would add at least £1,000,000 or £l,500,000 to the plan already contemplated. He had therefore contented himself with taking a very small proportion of the ground proposed to be taken by his hon. Friend, and he hoped that there would be no objection to that; at all events, that which he would propose would not only be part of an ultimate whole, and would not interfere with the plan for throwing open the view to the Thames. If it should be the pleasure of the House that there should be two new offices erected, as there really ought to be, for the benefit of the public service—namely, one for the War Office, and another for the Foreign Office; and if they should not disapprove the plans which had been selected by the judges, he would endeavour during the recess to make the plans as perfect as possible with regard to the interior arrangements. He would have drawings prepared in conformity with those interior alterations, he would have the quantities also taken out, and he would place the drawings and the quantities in the hands of a limited number of the most eminent builders in the kingdom. Tenders would then be sent in, and he hoped that he should be able to state to Parliament what would be the entire ultimate cost of those erections. Indeed, if those preliminary steps were taken, he saw no reason why a person in his position should not be able to give something like a guarantee to the House that the buildings should be completed for a sum named, with such trifling addition for contingencies, as was always allowed. That was the course which he proposed to pursue, and he hoped that it would meet with the approval of the House.


was anxious to ask the Secretary for the Treasury when the Vote for harbours of refuge (No. 1) would be proceeded with? He had expected it to be proposed to-night, and he now found that other Votes stood for consideration.


said, that the first Vote which would be considered was in connection with the British Museum, If time permitted, the Vote to which the hon. Member referred would come on in the course of the night.


said, that he would suggest that in addition to the drawings about to be exhibited, there should also be models of the proposed new buildings made to a certain scale. The public would thus be better enabled to judge of the nature and correctness of the designs which had been approved.


observed, that the right hon. Baronet had not stated the intentions of the Government with respect to the site of Westminster-bridge, and the alterations to be made in conformity with some general plan.


said, that what he stated some time ago was that, after receiving the award of the judges on the plans for public offices, he would take into consideration what should be done with Westminster-bridge. He had only received the award little more than forty-eight hours ago, and therefore he could not yet state positively what should be done with respect to the matters referred to by the hon. Member, but he hoped to be able to do so before long.


said, he wished to say a few words on a subject cognate with that which had been brought under the consideration of the House. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. B. Hope) had spoken with great ability on the importance of throwing open the Thames to the park. No doubt that was very desirable, if it could be done, but before the Thames could be thrown open to the park with any advantage, comfort, or decency, they must, first purify it. It was impossible, in his opinion, for any man to speak in terms sufficiently strong of the abominations by which the river was at present polluted. The Thames might be made a great object of beauty in the metropolis; while it certainly was a great highway, an enormous amount of traffic passing daily along it between the city and the west end; and he had been in the habit of going to and from the city in steamboats. He should do so no longer, for in the present state of the Thames it was impossible for any man who had any regard for his comfort or nose, or for his health, to be upon the river. He was satisfied that its condition must be injurious to the public health. He came up it the other day—it was a hot day—and the river emitted throughout its whole course, and not merely where the drains ran into it, a most abominable stench, which was so much increased, as the steamboat ploughed up the water, as to become quite unsupportable. He had made up his mind never to travel in that way again. During the hot weather last year the hon. Member for Richmond (Mr. Rich) was made seriously ill by one single voyage between Westminster and the city. It was a scandal that this magnificent river should be converted into an open sewer, poisoning the health of the population. If the cholera were to visit the shores of the Thames the most serious results must be apprehended, and he therefore thought that no amount of expense ought to be spared to restore the Thames to its pristine purity, and he earnestly hoped that his right hon. Friend the Chief Commissioner of Works would take the earliest and most effective measures for the attainment of that important object.


remarked, that he thought it well that public attention had been called to this subject. He was anxious to know how soon the plans submitted by the Metropolitan Board of Works to the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir Benjamin Hall) would be returned, and the Board enabled to proceed with the purification of the Thames.


said, that public attention had long been anxiously directed to this subject, and it would be very satisfactory to know what was being done with the designs for the improvement of the river. He entirely concurred in the observations which had just fallen from the hon. Gentleman respecting the state of the Thames.


said, under the Metropolis Act of 1855 the Metropolitan Board of Works were diverting the sewerage from the Thames, and might, if they pleased, intercept sewers on each side of the river. They were bound to submit the plans to the First Commissioner of Works for his approval. He had received those plans at the close of last year, and referred them to three eminent engineers, Captain Galton, Mr. Simpson, and Mr. Blackwell, one of whom he saw a few days ago, and was told that they had gone thoroughly into the case, and hoped to be able to submit the plans to him in a fortnight, with such alterations as they deemed necessary. As soon as he received them, he should forward them with the Report to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and perhaps it might be convenient that a copy of that Report should be laid on the table of the House, in order that the House might see how the Act of 1855 was likely to be carried out, and what the great scheme was which was submitted to the Government by the three Commissioners.


said, he must complain that the House was not earlier in possession of the way in which the Government proposed to move the Estimates.


said, that his hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. Beresford Hope) had suggested what should be done in the way of improvement on the Westminster side of the river, and he begged to suggest something in the way of improvement on the other side. Every one must admit that the buildings opposite the New Palace at Westminster were most unsightly, and, as a new bridge was to be built, he suggested that an endeavour should be made by the Government to obtain possession of those buildings on the opposite side of the river, for the ground there would become exceedingly valuable when the Westminster side was thoroughly improved. If a good class of houses were built there by the Government, they might be found an excellent speculation, and serve to pay part of the expenses of the buildings on the Westminster side.


inquired where the money to purchase the buildings was to come from.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.

Main Question put, and agreed to.