Mr Barry’s War


Caroline Shenton Oxford University Press 288 pps. £25 ISDBN 978-0-19-870719-6

The first thing to say about this book starts with the title, which is most misleading. Her previous volume was entitled The Day Parliament Burned Down, which, although has more than of a whiff of a disaster movie about it, at least it stated categorically what it was about. Perhaps, ‘Mr Barry’s Battle’ would more apposite? War or battle, Charles Barry’s skirmish certainly did test his mettle, and his ultimate ‘victory’ over bureaucracy, hostile politicians, strikes and spectacular feats of untried civil engineering, are evident in one of the most recognizable buildings in the world.

When Barry won the competition to design and build the new Gothic Houses of Parliament, he thought this would be a chance of a lifetime and would make him rich and famous. After the old Palace of Westminster burned down on 16 October 1834, Sir Robert Smirke, an in-house architect with the Office of Works (originally called the Office of Woods) and designer of the Mr Barry’s War By  British Museum, was asked to assess what was salvageable and re-roofable.

Sir John Soane had a hand in reconfiguring the House of Lords in order to accommodate Queen Caroline’s trial for alleged adultery, in advance of her estranged husband’s coronation, while Smirke designed more temporary accomodation. An open competion was arranged, of which there were 97 entries, and, after rows about corruption, favouritism, and an all-out slanging match between the losing architects, Barry was declared the winner.

And that’s where his troubles really started. The engineering challenges of building on the swampy quicksand that was Thorney Island, were solved by constructing an enormous concrete platform, known as ‘Barry’s Raft’, even with having two massive towers.

Having over 1,000 Peers and MPs, each trying to stick his oar in, while awaiting nearly 25 years for their ‘home’ to be finished. Barry took on the irascible genius Augustus Pugin to design the interior decor of ‘the world’s most famous secular cathedral to democracy.’ It was all happening amid social turmoil, Chartism, leading to the stonemason’s strike, enormous railway termini being
constructed all over the capital, the Great Stink of 1858 and outbreaks of cholera. It took the great Victorian civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette to design a sewage sytem that took the effluent beyond the metropolitan area.

There were overspends, mainly through the MPs changing their minds, with more criticism heaped upon poor Barry and to a lesser extent, Pugin, but together they battled on and although he would have gladly ‘thrown in the trowel’ after one scathing attack, and a confontation with a heating and ventilation expert, with whom he had not consulted, Dr Reid, he and Pugin persevered with their vision and produced an iconic monument, known all over the world, as famous as Caroline Shenton states in her well-told tale of skullduggery and intrigue, as the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and Taj Mahal.

Now that the Houses of Parliament are crumbling and in need of a £4bn renovation, one wonders whether Ms. Shenton would be on hand to witness and record the rows about the costs of the re-fit amongst the backbiting back-benchers as history repeats itself?

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