HC Deb 29 May 1868 vol 192 cc1045-53

said, he rose to call attention to the site of the New Law Courts. That site was accepted by the House at a time when the embankment of the Thames had scarcely been commenced, and when it was impossibly for the House to have decided fairly upon so important a point. There was an opportunity now, however, of carrying out a most magnificent design, and of carrying it out without additional expense and with the greatest advantage to the public. Three conditions should be satisfied in the choice of a site for such a building: there must be space, light, and air. Another point should be remembered—that things beautiful in themselves became more beautiful still by juxta-position. Thus, a woodland scene, and a venerable abbey, each beautiful in itself, had new charms when placed side by side. Apply this principle here. Nothing could well be finer as a building Bite in European capitals than the banks of the Thames. There was nothing like it in Europe, except the Neva and the Tagus. Well, place the Law Courts on the river side, and their architectural effect would be greatly enhanced. The three conditions requisite in public buildings were space, light, and air. The site on the Thames Embankment combined these requisites. At present it was proposed to build the Law Courts on a site which would give a frontage of 700 feet and a depth of 550 feet. Now, the Quarterly Review had shown clearly that that space was utterly inadequate. When erected the Law Courts would be surrounded by most miserable streets—such as Carey Street, Drury Lane, and its purlieus. He had seen an estimate showing that in order to procure the necessary approaches it would be necessary to spend another £1,000,000: and the Courts would be so crowded that they must be enlarged at a probable cost of £1,000,000 more. On the other hand, between King's College, adjoining Somerset House, and the Temple, you had 1,000 feet of river frontage, with a depth to the Strand of 700 feet—150 feet deeper and 300 feet longer than that of the Strand site. The accommodation would be admirable, the approaches would be made for you, the Underground Railway would be close by, and yet the House hesitated to acquire a site which would be unequalled in any capital in Europe, because they had formerly agreed to place the Law Courts in the Strand. Some of those Gentlemen (among them Mr. Abraham) who had been of opinion that the Strand would be the best position were now most anxious to place the Law Courts on the Embankment. The objection that, having bought the site you must make use of it, reminded him very much of the answer given in one of Mr. Dickens's works by a man who was getting very drunk on a bottle of bad port, and who, when remonstrated with, said, "I cannot help it; I have paid for the wine and I must drink it," Why should the House throw away £2,000,000 and lose all the advantages they would derive from the adoption of the Embankment site? They had performed a good and philanthropic work in purchasing the present site and clearing it from the dens of dirt and infamy with which it was crowded, even if they had never intended to place the New Courts there at all. The persons whom it would be necessary to turn out from the houses between King's College and the Temple might be transferred to the vacant ground which had been bought fronting the Strand. The calculation was that the land would cost about £1,000,000; but the result would be a great economy in comparison with the existing site, for the Embankment and the Strand would be ready-made approaches. They would have only one street to open out, leading from the Strand down to the River. He did not care how admirable the architecture might be, the building on the site now contemplated could not have the same beauty as if placed upon the Thames Embankment. They had now got a great opportunity of beautifying the metropolis, and not only that, but of doing honour to the whole country, for almost everyone was interested in whatever promoted that end. Some Gentlemen might consider that such a matter was not worthy of the attention of Parliament; but he, on the contrary, had been much struck by the truth of a passage on this subject which he would read to the House— The greatest statesmen and philosophers have ever considered the cultivation of art, and the building and adornment of cities, as of primary political importance. Plato attributes the origin of legislation to the cultivation of the arts. Public buildings are the most lasting and effective ornaments of the country, and at the same time the cheapest the people can obtain. No matter how important matters of political feeling might be, it was most desirable that when we were going to spend millions of money we should be sure of doing what was right and beautiful. He had brought forward this subject thus briefly because he thought it desirable that the House of Commons should know the position in which it was placed, for upon it would rest the responsibility of whatever decision might be come to. To the House of Commons therefore he appealed, before it was too late, to take advantage of an opportunity of beautifying the metropolis which might never occur again, and which, if lost now, might be lost for ever.


said, he desired to express his concurrence in the recommendation of the hon. Gentleman. We had laid out a large sum of money, and obtained what he (Mr. M. Chambers) thought at the time would be the most eligible site for the New Law Courts. But since that expenditure and the partial clearing of the ground it had become known that it would be next to impossible to accomplish the original grand scheme. They had had the mortification of seeing that some of our ablest architects had failed in producing even one design adapted for the purposes in view. There were, however, reasons which, might account for that failure. In the first place, the site was perfectly inadequate and unfit for its object. It was upon a steep descent, or ascent, and of a very irregular shape. In the next place, there would be the greatest difficulty in getting access to the edifice if erected. He had been informed by a gentleman of great experience that it would cost half as much as had been already expended to make proper approaches. Then, with regard to the nature and situation of the plot of land, he did not know whether any Gentleman in that House had ever walked in that unfashionable neighbourhood; but if so, they must have discovered that the houses to the west were the dirtiest and worst that could possibly be imagined, and to the north and east equally unsightly. Of course those houses could not continue in the neighbourhood of the Courts, for they would be an absolute disgrace. But what would be the result? Why, that these must all be bought and pulled down; and how much that would cost it was not for him to say. But everyone knew that as soon as a spot was improved and beautified, that moment the adjacent lands and premises were rendered three, six, and even tenfold more valuable than before. But besides, light and air could not be obtained without buying other property, hemmed in as the Courts would be by Carey Street, Bell Yard, and Chancery Lane. Then how were they to approach the Courts from Holborn and the West End; for access would be required from every side? Owing to the land being on a slope, it was most remarkable that in one of the two plans—the external and internal—which had been most approved, the Judges, counsel, witnesses, and, in fact, all who had to go to the Courts, would have to ascend, as he was told, nearly as high as the Chamber in which he was speaking, by means of a magnificent staircase. How they were all to climb so high was matter for consideration. Some people said there were such things as lifts; but if they were to put such an expedient into practice how ridiculous they would make themselves. He ventured to say that we laid too much stress on external beauty, or florid ornament, and did not sufficiently consider, in the first instance, what the object of the building was, and what the purposes were for which it was intended. He thought solidity and sedateness should be consulted, and he was disposed to prefer the mixed Roman and Grecian or Palladian architecture to towers and turrets and the monastic or cathedral style proposed in the plans. Before any active measures were taken it should be ascertained by the authorities how much had been paid for the present site, what sum it would be likely to realize either now or a few years hence, and what a new site on the Thames Embankment would cost. His impression was that if the latter site were purchased and cleared the value of the present one would immediately be considerably raised, so as to preclude any danger of loss; and a building having the Embankment on one side and the Strand on the other would have an access far superior to one erected on the north of the Strand. We should not be in too great a hurry to do something simply because we had a site in hand. No plan having been adopted, no harm could ensue from waiting. It would be bettor even to sustain some loss than to have a bad site and a bad building; but from the experience of the Metropolitan Board of Works with regard to some of their purchases, he believed that if the matter were properly managed the change of site would be attended with gain rather than with loss.


said, he felt some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Baillie Cochrane)—who was known in that House for the interest which he took in matters of taste—in his desire for the erection of a fine building on the banks of the Thames, and he admitted that on purely aesthetic grounds there was much to be said on behalf of that site. He could not, however, admit that it was preferable to the present one in point of convenience and economy. It was obviously undesirable that the Courts should be bounded by two noisy thoroughfares; and the present site, while having the Strand on the one side, would have on the other streets which, though wide, would not be thoroughfares, except for persons attending the Courts. The slope, moreover, so far from being a disadvantage, would be a great advantage; for it would furnish a considerable amount of space for records on the lower side, while the ground floor would be at a proper height to prevent inconvenience from the traffic. The site, too, was just in the centre of the legal quarter, equi-distant from Lincoln's Inn, the Temple, and Gray's Inn, so that one object of a concentration of the Law Courts would be accomplished, and the convenience of the gentlemen of the long robe would be consulted. On the other band, a site on the Embankment would cost at least twice as much; for the houses in Norfolk and Arundel Streets, and all the streets which would have to be pulled down, were of a more valuable description than those which had been purchased for the Carey Street site, the cost of which, moreover, had not exceeded the original estimate. If 1,000 feet instead of 700 feet were required, the extra space could be obtained at less expense on the present than on the proposed site; but he did not believe that such an enlargement was necessary. Many architects, indeed, had fancied that the present site was insufficient; but this question depended on the amount of accommo- dation which the Government might finally determine upon. It had not been necessary to consider this point before the final adoption of plans; but he felt confident that when the plans were ultimately adopted and were carefully scrutinized, with a view of avoiding any unnecessary Offices or Courts, additional space would not be required, and that it would not be necessary to expend much money upon the approaches to the Courts. The site was amply sufficient for the real and necessary wants of the Courts. There was another ground on which the House ought not to make any change. An immense inconvenience would be caused by the delay which would arise from changing the site—a delay of at least five years. Four years had already elapsed since an Act was passed authorizing the purchase of a site for the Courts of Law. He hoped the Government would endeavour to push on the work with as little delay as possible, and that, now the Report of the Attorney General had been received, they would give effect to the report of the judges as to the design to be adopted, so that the two architects might proceed to prepare a plan with reference to any change that might be determined upon as to the number of the Courts. He entirely demurred to the assertion that these designs were so bad that none were worthy to be selected. The reverse was the fact; for the difficulty of the judges arose rather from the excellence of the designs than their want of merit.


said, it was evident that considerable delay would occur before the plans of the New Courts were settled, because the Commission of Judicature proposed great alteration in the system of the Courts of Law, and it would be absurd to build a Palace until they knew what Courts were wanted, and what Parliament would do upon the Report of that Commission. He thought it would be a great advantage to have the Law Courts built upon the Thames Embankment; because there they would be accessible both by land and water, and would not be surrounded by old and low streets and lanes like those which surrounded the selected site. Then as to the question of ornament and beauty the Thames Embankment was, in his opinion, far preferable to the present site. Having bought a site it might be said that it was necessary to make use of it; but if they had not, after all, got a good site, it was better not to use it. Dr. Johnson being at a tavern where the wine was not good, said that he called for the wine for the good of the house, and he abstained from drinking it for his own good. The site already bought was as good as a bank note, and, if sold, it would probably fetch more than the Government had given for it, especially if it were settled that the New Courts were to be built in immediate proximity to the site. With regard to the style of the new building, the plans were very picturesque, but none of them were, in his opinion, appropriate to the style of a Court of Justice. They seemed to be formed of reminiscences of feudal castles, cathedrals, and chapels,—one imitating the interior of Westminster Abbey, and others being reminiscences of the Sainte Chapelle at Paris and various picturesque buildings on the Continent. What was wanted was a plain, handsome, and noble style, with no ornament at all. He thought the Four Courts at Dublin was a building which would be a very good model of a structure of this kind. It was elegant, yet plain, with no ornament; yet it was admired by all persons of taste. Why could not the new Courts be built something in the style of Somerset House? It would be less expensive than the fanciful Gothic building in which they were assembled, on which thousands had been thrown away on ornament consisting of a repetition of panels and an excess of details, the result being very florid and very expensive. It was a building resembling a wedding cake, covered with ornaments, but unfit for the purpose for which it was intended. What was wanted for the New Courts of Law was a structure with an exterior plain and severe, and in accordance with the uses for which it was designed.


said, his hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Baillie Cochrane) had expressed a hope that the Government would not hastily decide on the site of the New Courts of Law. But the Government had no decision to make in the matter. This question had been decided years ago by both Houses of Parliament—not hastily, nor by one decision, but after consulting the highest authorities, and by repeated Acts of Parliament, extending over a series of years. Ten years ago a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into this very question of site. That Commission reported in favour of the present site. Parliament sanctioned the purchase, which was now vir- tually completed, and the whole legal profession were anxiously awaiting the proper steps to be taken to carry out the intentions of Parliament; yet at such a moment the hon. Member had thought proper to raise the question of an entire change of site. If the question could be re-opened, no doubt much might be said in favour of the site of the Thames Embankment; but the question had been definitively settled by the Legislature. In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Devonport (Mr. Montagu Chambers), he was able to state that the site had cost £789,000 up to the present moment, and there were additional purchases and contingencies, so that the total amount for the purchase of the site would amount in a very short time to £896,000. The hon. and learned Member asked what they could sell the site for, two, five, or ten years hence? It was impossible to form anything but the most vague conjecture as to that. They knew what the site had cost; but what it would sell for if put into the market was a matter of speculation about which he could give no opinion offhand. Then it was said it was a drawback to the present site that the Strand was not on a level with Carey Street; but he thought it would be found that there was as great, if not a greater, slope between the Strand and the Thames Embankment. There could be no doubt that, as far as the suitors were concerned, the Carey Street site would be extremely convenient. Then, again, the House had, from time to time, appropriated considerable funds for one of the best public buildings of which we could at present boast—namely, the Public Record Depository, behind Chancery Lane. Including the sum of £60,000 sanctioned by the House the other day, during the last few years upwards of £200,000 had been expended on that building. It was of the greatest importance that the public records should be kept in immediate proximity to the Courts of Law; and that point ought also to be taken into view when they were asked to place the Courts of Law on a different site from that which Parliament had decided upon. He did not think, therefore, that the present Government ought to take upon themselves the responsibility of changing the decision of the Legislature on that matter; and he felt that if anything of that kind were now attempted, not only would the greatest delay ensue, but in all probability there would be an immense outlay incurred, he did not say of public money, because the fund applicable to that purpose was the Suitors' Fund, but there would be an immense demand made upon that fund, the result of which no human being could tell. Most probably, however, at the end of four, five, or six years, when the new site had been purchased and cleared, and when the Government of the day had selected the architect for erecting the building, other Gentlemen would rise in the House and say that the circumstances were altered, that a still better site might be obtained in the east, the west, the north, or the south, the whole question would be left in suspense, and no final decision whatever would be come to. On the question of space, he agreed with the right hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Cowper). The site already acquired was seven acres; and if the Courts of Law could not be accommodated on that space, their requirements must be very extraordinary indeed. Under those circumstances, as his hon. Friend (Mr. Baillie Cochrane) had made no Motion, he hoped he would be content with the discussion which had just taken place.