HL Deb 19 May 1871 vol 206 cc1028-31

asked Her Majesty's Government when it is intended to erect the Building for the reception of the British Museum Natural History Collection on the piece of ground at South Kensington, made over to the Nation by the Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851; and under what license or authority a portion of such ground has been occupied by refreshment booths in connexion with the Royal International Exhibition, and whether such occupation is intended to be permanent or temporary; and whether Her Majesty's Government are aware that carpenters and other workmen have been openly at work on such ground during the whole of the last and two preceding Sundays, and whether steps will be taken by the Government to prevent a continuance of the use of public property in this manner? Their Lordships were perhaps aware that the land, on which it was proposed to erect the Museum, was purchased with the surplus funds of the Exhibition of 1851, and was made over by the Commissioners to the Government for the sum of £150,000; the actual value of the land being about £250,000. There was, however, a condition that the ground should not be used for the mere purpose of building, but that it should be devoted to the purposes of science and art. Since then the ground had remained vacant, save that it had been subjected to such occupations as his Question inferred. Last year the question was brought before the House of Commons in the shape of a small Vote for the building, and on a division the propriety of keeping this ground for the Natural History Collection of the British Museum was affirmed by a considerable majority, and the money was granted. He was afraid that since that time nothing had been done by the Government, and that the grant of money lapsed at the termination of the financial year. The ground was now occupied by refreshment booths in connection with the International Exhibition, and the remaining space was used as a lumber yard, where the packing-cases, shavings, and rubbish of the Exhibitors were deposited. He did not think it could be shown that these booths were buildings devoted to science and art. Considerable scandal had been caused during the last three Sundays by carpenters and other workmen pursuing in this open piece of ground their ordinary occupation, with its usual accompaniments of noise and confusion. He took it for granted that the Government were not aware of this annoyance to a peaceful and quiet neighbourhood, and he trusted they would take steps to prevent its recurrence. The noble Earl (Earl Granville), both from his position in the Government and as one of the Exhibition Commissioners, would no doubt be possessed of information which would enable him to answer the Question.


said, he rose to reply on behalf of the Board of Works. When at the close of last Session Parliament sanctioned the erection of the proposed Natural History Museum Mr. Waterhouse, the architect, was directed to prepare sketch-plans of a building suitable for the reception of the Collection. As soon as these preliminary plans had been prepared they were forwarded for consideration to the Trustees of the British Museum. Some time was required to settle questions which arose; but, as soon as the sketches had been approved by the Trustees and the Treasury, instructions were given to Mr. Waterhouse to prepare the complete plans and drawings for the construction of the building. He was accordingly now engaged in completing the final plans and drawings for the new building, and as soon as they were ready—which would be within two or three months—tenders would be invited for the construction of the building. An estimate had been laid on the Table of the House of Commons for £40,000 to be expended on the building this year. With regard to the second part of the noble and learned Lord's Question, he might state that the Commissioners of 1851 sold this piece of ground some time since to the Government for less than market value, stipulating that it should be applied to purposes connected with science and art. This being the case, the First Commissioner of Works considered it right and fair to give the temporary use of a small strip of this land to the Commissioners to assist them in their endeavours to promote science and art. This would not interfere with the erection of the proposed public building. Her Majesty's Government had not been aware that workmen had been employed the last three Sundays. There was, however, no doubt that if the private persons who held these refreshment departments were communicated with they would be careful not to wound the susceptibilities of the neighbourhood. He himself was living exactly opposite, and must confess that he had never noticed any unusual activity on the Sunday.


said, his complaint was that there had been the usual amount of business as on week days. Having given notice of his Question, he expected that the noble Earl would have been able to ascertain whether that work had been carried on.


explained that until lately his connection with the Commission had been merely of an honorary character, and he was not acquainted with details of the work which had been done. There appeared to be some difference in the evidence of the noble and learned Lord and the noble Duke as to the working on Sundays.


remarked that they agreed on the point.


said, his noble Friend meant that no work had been carried on to his knowledge. The application of the Royal Commissioners seemed to have been a legitimate one, considering that they had given the Government this land for so much below its value; and he thought its use for refreshment places necessary for visitors to the Exhibition was not incongruous. He was sure the Commissioners would take care that no desecration of the Sabbath took place in the future.


said, that his noble and learned Friend's Question was, whether the Government would take steps to prevent any desecration of the Sabbath such as he had witnessed?


said, his right hon. Friend the First Commissioner of Works would make inquiries into the matter, and adopt proper measures. He would, doubtless, be seconded by the Commissioners, and, he hoped, meet with a ready acquiescence on the part of the contractors.


was of opinion that there ought to be no further delay in the erection of the building for the Natural History Collection, and inquired when the Government contemplated commencing that great national work?


said, that the Vote of £6,000 last year was inserted in the Estimates for the purpose of raising a discussion, and of deciding whether the building should be erected. Although he was unable to state the precise date at which the buildings would be begun, the plans were definitely settled, with the exception of some comparatively unimportant alterations lately suggested; and he believed that no unreasonable delay was to be anticipated.


said, there had been no lack of energy on the part of the Trustees of the British Museum; but he thought there had been unaccountable delay on the part of the Treasury.


said, there was one significant symptom which no one had noticed. The numbers of the houses opposite to this piece of ground had recently been altered to 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9; and that looked very much as if 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 on the opposite side were to follow.