Researchers in the Palace of Westminster have discovered a long-forgotten doorway and passage running through the wall of Westminster Hall.
The passageway was created in 1660-1661 as part of the processional route for Charles II’s coronation. As the main way to the old House of Commons – where St Stephen’s Hall now stands – the doorway would have been used by many significant historical figures, including Samuel Pepys and William Pitt the Younger.
A brass plaque erected in Westminster Hall in 1895 commemorates the place where the entrance once stood, but not much was known about the passageway, which was believed to have been filled during reconstruction work after the Second World War.
This all changed when Parliament’s Architecture and Heritage Team discovered photographs and plans of the passageway among thousands of uncatalogued documents during a research project on the Palace of Westminster. These showed the existence of a chamber concealed behind thick masonry on the Westminster Hall side, with the other side hidden behind wooden panelling running along the walls of St Stephen’s Tudor cloister.
Documentary evidence suggested the existence of a hinged flap in the panelling, secured by a small keyhole, and when this was located and opened, a small, stone-floored chamber was revealed. This space contained a bricked-up doorway and the original hinges for two 3.5m-high wooden doors, which would have opened into Westminster Hall.
Dendrochronological (tree-ring) analysis of the chamber’s ceiling timbers suggested that the trees they came from were felled in spring 1659; this result was combined with accounts from 1660-1661 as evidence for the creation of the doorway and passageway. The new dating analysis disproves the claim on the Westminster Hall brass plaque that Charles I used the passageway when he attempted to arrest five MPs in 1642.
Another interesting aspect of the rediscovered chamber is that it contains graffiti left in 1851 by a bricklayer working for Sir Charles Barry during the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after the medieval building had been largely destroyed in a catastrophic fire of 1834. It states: ‘this room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale’. It also names some of the stonemasons who had restored the cloisters, and ends ‘Real Democrats’, suggesting that they may have been part of the Chartist movement, working-class advocates for male suffrage.
The plans that led to the room’s rediscovery will now be digitised to ensure that the memory of the doorway will not be lost again.