HL Deb 11 March 1889 vol 333 cc1349-53

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the state of the public buildings in the Metropolis, said: My object in bringing forward the question of public buildings so early in the Session is to anticipate the Estimates in the House of Commons; because, as a general rule, whenever there is any proposal made in this House with reference to improvements in public buildings, the answer is that the money is already appropriated. I am not going to complain of what the Government has done during the Recess in the matter of public buildings; I cannot make that complaint, because they have done nothing at all. With respect to the public offices, and especially the Admiralty and the War Office, this discussion has been going on for 25 years. Committee after Committee have sat, plan after plan has been proposed, there has been the battle of sites and the battle of designs, and yet nothing has been done at all. It is a most extravagant policy, because the country is paying for the hire of public offices an amount of rent which, if capitalized, would have erected the most beautiful and perfect buildings possible. I hope Her Majesty's Government will be able to explain why the plan proposed in 1886 has not been carried into effect. My great object in bringing forward this question is to show the indifference, not only of this Government, but of every other Government, to this important subject. Take, for instance, the question of the housing of the National Portrait Gallery, a collection thoroughly worthy of the country, which was removed to the Bethnal Green Museum some three years ago, at the instance of Mr. Gladstone, who was one of the trustees. I was a trustee, and I ventured to differ with Mr. Gladstone, but the collection was removed. Mr. Gladstone was then in office, and he assured Parliament that suitable provision would be made and an adequate gallery provided; but nothing has been done. There the pictures remain in Bethnal Green, and the more recent acquisitions are hid away in any cellars that are available in the National Gallery. After all, the exhibition of the pictures at Bethnal Green has not added one visitor to the ordinary number of those who attend the Museum there; the pictures are treated with absolute indifference. I submit, my Lords, that it is intolerable that this magnificent collection—especially that unique collection of portraits of the illustrious men of our country which could not be replaced if destroyed by fife or otherwise—should be deposited in a quarter of the town where they are practically lost. The trustees of the National Gallery have presented a memorial, "urging upon the Government the desirability of providing a suitable place for the pictures now located in Bethnal Green Museum," but no notice has been taken of the memorial. As to the question of site, there are two sites already available, either one of which could be secured at a comparatively small expense. I may mention especially the site of Lord Carrington's former house in Whitehall. As an instance of the unsatisfactory policy pursued with regard to public buildings generally, I may refer to the Parliament Street Improvement, for which a sum of £17,000 was voted. Instead of a good plan being decided upon and carried out, and all the buildings on what is called the George Street site being pulled down, and a handsome block of public offices, close to the Houses of Parliament, and in every way convenient, being erected, the work of demolition and reconstruction was entrusted to a company, and after the lapse of two years nothing has been done. My Lords, this is really the only country in the world where no interest whatever is taken, either by the rulers or the people, in the beauty of its Metropolis. In Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna the public buildings are worthy of great capitals, and even in our Colonies the people take great pride in their public buildings; but here nobody seems to care. With regard to the new buildings on the west side of Westminster Hall, I admit that outside the work is well done; but inside it has been discovered that there is no space, according to the plans, to make a necessary corridor, so that the rooms actually run into one another, and are of on use at all. It is the same with the Royal Courts of Justice. There is not half the accommodation required. There are corridors which lead nowhere and windows which let in no light. I think that the Government should either explain the causes of this unsatisfactory condition of things, or else contend boldly that they have no responsibility in the matter. I beg to ask the Question of which I have given notice.


I have no doubt your Lordships will appreciate as I do the intention of my noble Friend in bringing this question before your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that he wishes to see improvements carried on in the Metropolis, and he would also like to see those valuable collections of pictures and portraits which belong to the country pro- perly housed. I will not follow my noble Friend through all his observations, because I have answered some of those questions during the last two or three years, over and over again. With regard to the Admiralty and War Office buildings, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Parliament Street improvements, to which my noble Friend has referred, the House is aware that a great many plans have been placed before Parliament and the public for a long time past, and the plan known as that of Leeming and Leeming had not only been adopted, but the work had been commenced. Parliament interfered and took the question up, and a Committee was appointed in 1885, and re-appointed in 1887, to take the whole thing in hand; and, because they had done nothing immediately, it was hardly right to blame the Office of Works for the delay. The plan to be adopted for the Admiralty would be the basis upon which the War Office plans would be considered, because the one greatly depends upon the other. I have never given any pledge as to what would be done; I have only tried to tell exactly what was being done. The carrying out of plans by the Office of Works depends entirely on the Parliamentary grants; and this year, owing to the special demands on the Chancellor of the Exchequer in connection with the Navy, it is more than ever improbable that money will be forthcoming for public works. With regard to the Admiralty, a small sum has been put into the Estimates for the purpose of allowing the work to be begun. A proper home for the pictures in the National Portrait Gallery will be built as soon as the money is granted. There will be no difficulty in the matter of plans or sites, so soon as the necessary funds are available. My noble Friend said just now that he thought the pictures would never come back from Bethnal Green; but I must remind him that they were sent distinctly on loan, and they will be brought back as soon as there is a proper lodging for them. With respect to improvements in Parliament Street, a private company two years ago obtained an Act of Parliament for the erection of certain buildings, on the condition that £500,000 was raised before the works were begun. This condition has delayed the carrying out of the scheme, but I am informed privately that there is no doubt that the requisite money will be subscribed before very long. The Office of Works have made proposals to the promoters of the company for the sale of certain land in Parliament Street in which the Government had an interest; and though no official reply has yet been received, the First Commissioner of Works has reason to believe that the proposals made as to price and so on will be acceptable to the promoters.

At a subsequent period:—


I understood from the statement of the noble Lord (Lord Henniker) that there were about 140,000 visitors to the National Portrait Gallery before the removal of the collection to Bethnal Green. I should like to know if he could tell us in round figures what the number of visitors has been since the removal?


I have not the figures with me, but I believe that last year and the year before last there were three or four times as many visitors to the Portrait Gallery at the Bethnal Green Museum as compared with the number who visited the National Portrait Gallery in the year immediately preceding the removal of the collection.