HL Deb 10 March 1914 vol 15 cc444-8

My Lords, I beg to ask the First Commissioner of Works whether he can give any information to the House as regards the condition of the roof of Westminster Hall, and an estimate of the time which its repair is likely to take.


My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend behind me for giving me an opportunity of saying something on this subject, and I hope, in view of the fact that Westminster Hall is a national possession, I may receive your Lordships' indulgence if I go at some length into the present condition of that building. We have gone lately at some length into the question of the stability of the roof, and many authorities on the historical and archaeological side have been consulted. The most interesting of the information obtained, however, was from the actual building accounts deposited in the Public Record Office, and these have given us in some detail particulars of the materials used, and also the cost of certain of the items which were involved in the structure of this great roof.

As noble Lords may be aware, the existing roof is not part of the original structure erected by William Rufus, but was constructed by Richard II at the end of the fourteenth century. From the records we learn that a great percentage of the timber, which is particularly referred to as large oak trees and small oak trees, came from the King's Park at Odiham, and the Wood of the Abbot of St. Alban's at Bernan, and a wood referred to as being from Kingston-on-Thames. From these accounts it appears that Hugh Herland was the man in charge of the timber work, and Henry Yeveley, the King's Mason and Surveyor of Works, was in charge of the mason work. Hugh Herland, however, would appear to be responsible for the design of this great roof. In order to provide for the strain of the great new roof Richard's masons built strong flying buttresses against alternate bays of the side walls where abutment was not otherwise provided by existing buildings. The walls were further strengthened by blocking up the original arcaded wall passages.

A number of repairs to the roof have taken place at different times, and the first of which we have any detailed account took place in 1663. The lead was partly taken off and recast, the gutters were repaired, and various members of the roof were made good with new timber. In March, 1664, the battlements of the Hall were repaired, and in 1681 the pinnacle at the south end was pieced with Caen stone. At what date the lead of the roof was replaced by slates is not quite clear; but in 1782 there is a record of repair of the slating with Westmoreland slates, and the change seems to have been made between 1760 and that date. In 1788 a Committee was appointed to inspect the buildings adjoining Westminster Hall and the two Houses of Parliament, and when Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Soane made a further report, referring particularly to the dangerous state of decay of the masonry of the north front of the Hall, the Treasury approval for the necessary repairs, estimated at £20,000, was obtained in 1819. However, by the end of the year 1821 some £13,000 odd had been spent. In 1822 a further sum of £5,451 was spent on the north front, the coffee houses which masked the bases of the towers being now removed. In 1820 ten new dormer windows were made in the roof as part of the preparations for the Coronation, and it appears from contemporary drawings that by that time there was a dormer window in each bay, numbering twenty-four in all.

Sir Robert Smirke, who reported in 1834 on the general question of the repair of the interior of the Hall, said that, the roof having been repaired in a very substantial manner a few years before, he did not perceive that any further works were then required for its preservation. His work in the Hall consisted of a great deal of repair and renewal of the stonework, the lowering of the floor to its former level, and the removal of the pilasters set up in 1782. That cost about £17,000. In 1850 Sir Charles Barry prepared a scheme for strengthening the Hall roof with iron ties, which was carried out; and nothing more seems to have been done to the roof until 1885, when Mr. J. L. Pearson removed the twelve dormers on the west side. The dormers on the east side were removed in 1889, and in 1891 the iron work of the roof was painted. In 1896 Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Taylor reported that the roof was in fair condition, but recommended the substitution of lead for the slate covering, on the score of lightness.

Your Lordships will readily understand that it is no easy task to inspect a roof of that size, and, above all, to inspect it in such a way as to obviate any risk from fire; and therefore a somewhat inadequate inspection was only made by the men who were employed in dusting the roof. But when the care of the Hall was transferred to the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Office of Works in March, 1912; it was decided, in view of the total lack of information as to the real condition and stability of the roof, to undertake a thorough examination of certain representative trusses and bays. These bays were chosen to cover the different conditions which prevailed in the roof owing to certain works of repair that had been undertaken in the past, and they included two bays which were supposed to be practically untouched by any works of renovation at any time. Eight trusses and six bays were scaffolded from the floor of the Hall to the full height of the roof, a distance of more than 90 feet. Arrangements were made to carry electric wires in steel tubing up the scaffolding, in order that artificial light might safely be used on the various stages and the condition of the trusses accurately ascertained. No risk of fire was thus incurred, and detailed schedules have been prepared from this examination which illustrate with the utmost accuracy the condition of every timber in these eight trusses and six bays.

I regret to say that a very serious state of decay was found to exist throughout the whole of the portion of the roof examined. This decay was found to be due almost entirely to the ravages of the larvæ of an anobiid beetle, known as the Xestobium tessellatum. The effect of dry rot was also recorded, but this did not amount to serious dimensions. The most dangerous result of the depredations of the larvae appears to be due to the fact that in almost every instance the timbers have been attacked at their main structural points (the junction of the various members of the roof) where the great stresses in the structure occur. In numerous cases the junctions of these great timbers have been hollowed out to the merest shell, and large cavities exist in which even the disintegrated dust of the timbers has disappeared. The condition of the roof is such that had its construction and principles of design not been scientifically sound, many of the trusses would undoubtedly have fallen.

The problem may be stated in the following terms. It is necessary to ensure the stability of the present roof structure and to take such steps as will prevent, or at least diminish, further depredations of the larvae of the Xestobium tessellatum. The most obvious means of securing these objects would be to replace throughout the roof the decayed beams in the structure. But the decay has progressed so far, and is of such serious dimensions, that if this method were adopted it would be necessary practically to reconstruct the whole roof. Apart from the great cost involved by such an undertaking, it is highly questionable whether such a new structure would be of any historical interest. It has therefore been decided to attempt a scheme of strengthening which will preserve every vestige of sound timber now existing in the roof, and only to cut and piece the timbers in so far as cavities and perished wood occur. To adopt this method it will be necessary to carry out a scheme of steel reinforcement. By this means the great stresses carried by the present structure will be transferred to the steel reinforcement, which in turn will transmit such stresses in the form of dead loads on to the walls. The steel structure will be made so as to be practically invisible from below, and will not only carry the stresses of the roof, but will secure for a vast number of years every separate timber in the present structure. The system of steel reinforcement proposed will also permit of the removal of the modern oak struts and strengthening pieces, and also the steel rods and bars inserted in the roof from time to time, which break across and upset the original lines of the trusses.

The work will be of considerable difficulty of execution and is certain to be costly, but until one bay has been successfully treated it is impossible to frame a firm estimate for the whole of the proposed works of strengthening. While the works of strengthening are being carried out it is intended to arrange for the removal of the modern cast-iron flêche, and to provide for a system of ventilation throughout the whole of the upper portions of the Hall roof, including the re-erection of a ventilating flêche on the lines of the original one instead of the one which is now there. A sum of £10,000 has been inserted in the Office of Works Estimates for the coming financial year, which are about to be considered in another place. With reference to the question of the preservation of the rest of the timbers from further attacks by the larvae of the Xestobium tessellatum, a small Committee of experts in chemistry and entomology have been assisting the Office of Works with their advice, and they have made a series of elaborate and most interesting experiments with various chemical subjects. Various methods of treatment have been suggested and considered, and it is expected that the results of the deliberations of this Committee will give us a method of treatment which will satisfactorily deal with the difficult problem of this insect.

I am hoping before long to lay a White Paper before both Houses of Parliament embodying the reports dealing with the roof, and also to be able to place in the Library of this House and in the Library of the House of Commons a series of most valuable and interesting drawings which have been completed by the officers of the Department, in order to show the condition of the roof. It is a long time since I have seen drawings so interesting or so well done as these, and I am sure when the time comes they will interest all the members of your Lordships' House. Your Lordships will probably realise from what I have said that it is impossible at the present time to state any date as to when the work will be done, but we hope a great deal of it may be executed without the present scaffolding which is now disfiguring Westminster Hall. We shall certainly do our best to remove that scaffolding as soon as we possibly can. It only remains for me to thank your Lordships for having listened to this technical explanation with so much patience, and to say once more that I am glad to have had an opportunity of placing before your Lordships and the public generally the present condition of the roof of Westminster Hall.

House adjourned at ten minutes past Six o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.