20 weird facts about Parliament”

Whilst I was in the House of Parliament meeting the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey to try and unravel the visa problem for getting into the USA I was taken on a guided tour by the Office of Kerry McCarthy MP.

Being an avid fan of history, and the quirky and strange this was a pretty good trip around the ancient and not so ancient cloisters that unravelled plenty of weird and wonderful facts.

One of the world’s most iconic buildings, The British Parliament is often misquoted as the Mother of Parliaments – This is infact a misquotation of John Bright, who remarked in 1865 that “England is the Mother of Parliaments”. Formed in 1707 by the Acts of Union that replaced the former parliaments of England and Scotland. Parliament is a place of living history.

The place smells of history and smells of power. They are good smells. It’s also a place of strange, moribund and ancient sites like Nicholas Soames MP.

It’s also full of weird and fascinating quirks.

1. There is a snuffbox by the front door of the Commons. It’s been there for centuries and it’s always full of snuff. Apparently this is because smoking has not been allowed in the chamber of the House of Commons since the 17th century so the snuff box is there instead.
Whether many people actually use the snuff or not is a moot point.

2. There are hooks for swords in the lifts and gentlemen are expected to hang their words on them.
Of course, no-one carries a sword with them anywhere these days but in the cloakroom there were several plastic swords hanging on hooks as a smirking comment on this fantastically archaic situation.

3. When the mace, which was once a weapon but is now a symbol of Parliament being fully constituted, is brought into the House of Commons it is by a man who has a curious mincing walk in front of the speaker.
The walk has to be seen to be believed. It’s a fantastic piece of British pomp and ceremony. Dressed in medieval styled skintight ye anceinte clothing he shuffles along like Black Adder on acid. It’s completely ridiculous and they know it. There are stern instructions not to laugh but the crowd of on looking tourist ”œcommoners’ is giggling behind their hands.

On the other level there is something quite brilliant about these ancient rituals that stretches back through time and at one time had a real purpose.

Ritual is part of everything that we do – from having to play encores in a band to moaning about how expensive the trains are; there is something quite touching about these weird and wonderful displays that connect with a dark and distant past.

4. On the door to the House Of Commons there is a worn out chunk of wood where the official known as ‘Black Rod’ is sent to summon the Commons. In a symbol of the Commons’ independence, the door to their chamber is slammed in his face and not opened until he has knocked on the door with his staff of office. It’s another great piece of theatre.
The Members of the House of Commons follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords Chamber and stand behind the Bar of the House of Lords (at the opposite end of the Chamber from the Throne) to hear the Queen’s Speech.

My guide informed me that the worn out piece of the door was from hundreds of years of the required knocking. The down to earth doorman turned round and said the door had been there ”since 1950′.

This knocking has gone on since the last monarch to enter the House of Commons was King Charles I, in 1642. Charles flounced in with his curly locks in the air and his rather nice moustache twitching in a petulant rage when he was seeking to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of high treason. When he asked the Speaker, William Lenthall, if he had any knowledge of the whereabouts of these individuals, Lenthall famously replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” In those days they spoke properly and the chances he could have tweeted all that in one go are zero. Have we lost something?
Whether the monarch’s namesake Charles the 3rd will dare to do this in the future is yet another moot point.

5. The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace is actually a royal palace.
Parliament itself, used to be wherever the king and his courtiers were in the country. In anglo saxon days this was called the Witenagemot (“meeting of wise men”) and many taxi drivers and pub ranters would have you believe that quite the opposite is true now.
After the Norman Conquest, William I did away with the Witenagemot, replacing it with a Curia Regis or the King’s Council in our own language- which was a pretty exclusive selection of nobles.

Parliament with some sort of power emerged during the reign of Edward I who called on leading nobles and church leaders to discuss government matters. A meeting in 1295 became known as the Model Parliament and set the pattern for later Parliaments.
During the reign of Edward III Parliament had been separated into two Houses and was recognisably assuming its modern form.

6. The Hall Of Westminster is the oldest part of Parliament, and has the largest clearspan medieval roof in England- it’s quite an amazing site but built 500 years after the Hagia Sofia church was built in Constantinople- which is a proper miracle of a building.

The hall was the primary London residence of the Kings of England until a fire destroyed much of the complex in 1512. After that, it served as the home of Parliament, which had been meeting there since the thirteenth century anyway before more fires and bombings changed its role drastically to a mainly ceremonial one these days. There are plans to rent some of the smaller and grander rooms to the side to wedding parties in another case of theme park Britain. Maybe Jordan could get married in the old hall itself- a perfect ending to a thousand years of history.

7. The part of the building for the House Of Commons has a green carpet. The part of the building with the red carpet is for the House of Lords. There was also corridors with a mixed carpet but no-one was very sure what that meant.

8. The phrase ”œin the bag’ comes from a big rather worn looking velvet bag, the Petition Bag which hangs on the back of the Speaker’s Chair at the back of the House of Commons where members could post petitions that they were maybe too shy to public about’¦

9. The Division bell is the bell they ring when MP’s have to vote. The MPs then have 8 minutes to scurry from their boltholes and into the chamber to vote.

The speaker will then proclaim, “The Question is that”¦”, then states the question. Next, he says, “As many as are of that opinion say Aye.” Then, following shouts of “Aye”, he says, “of the contrary, No,” and similar shouts of “No” may follow. If one side clearly has more vocal support, the Speaker then announces his opinion to the winner, stating, for example, “I think the Ayes have it”. If that sounds very hi tech to you just wait till the next bit”¦

If the sound is too muffled and there is no clear winner, the Speaker declares a division.
They then stand up for yes or no and if there is still no clear decision then they have to go to one side of the room for aye and one side for nay, queue up and get counted.

It’s a system that goes back to the days of the Roman senate.

There a toilet behind an old oak panel where MPs apparently, who were too scared of the whips and didn’t want to vote hid. Although they could also vote yes and no if they wanted abstain- that could get confusing for the more drunken members staggering out of the bar.

10. One of the copies of the Magna Carta is hanging framed on the wall- it’s the closest we get to a constitution in the UK. We are one of the few nations on earth without a proper one. I’ve seen one of the other copies in Salisbury cathedral.

11. Emily Wilding Davison was a regular suffragette protester at Parliament, including gaining illegal entry to the building on census night 1911, when she hid in a cupboard so she could give her address as the ‘House of Commons’ on the census form.
It still seems bizarre that women didn’t have the vote until 1928!

12. The official emblem of Parliament is a crowned portcullis. The portcullis was originally the badge of various English noble families from the 14th century. It went on to be adopted by the kings of the Tudor dynasty in the 16th century, under whom the Palace of Westminster became the regular meeting place of Parliament.

12. House Of Lords was actually the highest court in the UK. it is the Supreme Court now.

13. At the time of writing this top 20- the only statue of a living person in the whole building was of Margaret Thatcher (”not for long’, a passing wag cruelly snickered). It’s an odd statue- making her look like a cartoon character wagging her finger eternally at the passing MPs.

14. Next to Thatcher is a statue of Churchill. The Tory MP’s touch his feet on the way to the House of Commons in some sort of strange form of quasi-religious icon worship. The foot touching resulted in the feet partially wearing out and they were ordered not to do it but rebelled and were allowed to continue their fawning.

The arch near the Commons is flanked by statues of Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, the prime ministers who led Britain through the Second and First World War respectively.

15. The Chamber for the House Of Commons is relatively small, and can accommodate only 427 of the 650 Members of Parliament. When parliament was rebuilt during the second world war Winston Churchill preferred it this way. Maybe it would mean less people to argue with, it also means a lot of standing around for late arrivals.

16. The two red lines on the floor of the House of Commons are 2.5 metres apart, which, by apocryphal tradition, is intended to be just over two sword-lengths.

Maybe, when David Cameron is blaming ”œthe last government’ for everything for the thousandth time or spinning his Big Society Yarn someone could have pulled out their sword and had a go. The gap apparently prevents such behavior, although they could have just jumped forward with the sword”¦

19 Westminster Hall has been used for lyings-in-state during state and ceremonial funerals. Such an honour is usually reserved for the Sovereign and for their consorts; the only non-royals to receive it in the twentieth century were Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1st Earl Roberts (1914) and Sir Winston Churchill (1965). The most recent lying-in-state was that of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 2002.

20. Although no animals are allowed into Parliament, apart from guide dogs (rural MP’s can’t bring their sheep for company) the place is infested with mice.

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  1. Nice…. but number 12:

    “12. House Of Lords is actually the highest court in the UK.”

    is inaccurate. It is no longer… it is the Supreme Court now!

  2. Re: 16. The reason they can’t jump forward is because if they go over the white line they are “out of order” and debate is suspended – which incidently is why the Speaker says “order” a lot.

    This is also allegedly where the term “out of order” comes from. Though that may be a myth.

    I’ll go back to my nerd hole now.

  3. I’m afraid the ‘fact’ about the lift isn’t true. The hooks are to hang curtains/material on – usually to protect the wooden lifts or for decorative/ceremonial reasons.

  4. Re:9
    There is also a bell in the pub near the House of Commons, so that merry MPs can scurry to the voting chambers in time.

  5. Highly F*****g entertaining read! The bit about the fellow in tights with the mincing walk had me in stitches…

    JR’s next book: The history of the U.K. from (fill in the blank) until….

    Should be a good read

  6. You were obviously paying attention!

    I am told ‘about six’ MPs regularly use the snuff box. I don’t know who they are, but I’d be prepared to bet they’re Tories.

    We don’t do the standing up to be counted at votes, perhaps they used to. It’s just shouting Aye or No and then trooping through the division lobbies. Or sometimes it’s deferred and we get to hand in bits of pink paper on a Wednesday lunchtime. In the Lords it’s not Aye or No, it’s Content or Not Content. I think that’s considered more civilised.

    I don’t think the Speaker saying “Order, Order” is anything to do with stepping over the line these days, because no-one does, it’s just what he says to shut us up when it gets noisy. Incidentally the Speaker’s cat is called Order. (I know because I named it. His wife asked for suggestions on Twitter, and I won). The Speaker says it’s a completely absurd name for a cat.

    Still on the subject of cats, the mouse problem has been raised in parliament many times, most notably by Lord Elton who asked “whether consideration will be given to acquiring a number of respectable cats to reduce the rodent population of the Palace of Westminster.” (Only respectable cats need apply!) The answer he got was along the lines that cats are filthy flea-ridden beasts… I don’t know what Order has to say about that.

    Yes, there is a division bell in the pub across the road but there are allegedly 17 or so bars in parliament (I’ve only ever found two of them) so why would MPs need to go there?

    Because Parliament is a Royal Palace no-one is allowed to die here. If someone does they are taken across the river to St Thomas’ Hospital and pronounced dead there.

    And finally, I’m sticking by my story about the hooks in the lifts for the swords. It’s a good one!

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  10. Whats the crack here? me I thought I was going to hear some juicy facts about George Clinton & Bootsy Collins the Man Who Put Bass In Yer Face!

  11. To state that “women didn\’t have the vote until 1928!” is misleading. The franchise was extended to about 8.4 m women in 1918 and to all other women in 1928.

  12. Can someone explain why the division bell gives eight minutes as opposed to, say, 10? Or 15?

    It seems like an arbitrary number, however I’m willing to wager that there is some arcane folderol behind it.

    • The time taken for a Member to walk from the furthest part of the estate to the division lobby. Personally tested by Speaker Boothroyd.

  13. Only one Prime Minister has been assassinated(although there were attempts on others).
    It was of course Sir Spencer Percival who was shot by a lone gunman at point blank range in the lobby in 1812. The shooter had a serious grudge against the government but later said he would have much rather have shot the ambassador to Russia. At first many suspected a French plot or revolutionary group.

  14. The hooks in the lifts are *not* for swords. They are to hang protective cloths on the lift interior when they are being used to move building materials etc during recesses.

    The tape on the cloakroom hangers is for real, though.


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