Thence into the Hall

by Nick

Work took me over to the Commons for most of Thursday, and wandering back through Westminster Hall after the House had adjourned, I realised that the souvenir shop that used to be tucked away in the corner is no more.

Westminster Hall still stops me dead in my tracks every time I go through it, and it’s nice to see it entirely uncluttered, but part of me thinks it’s a bit of a shame the shop has moved. Nowadays we are most likely to think of the Hall as a ceremonial space: a place where state trials used to be conducted, where the bodies of dead monarchs and statesmen lie in state, and where world leaders – like President Obama in the image at the top of this post – address the political nation. In fact most of the year it is little more than a thoroughfare for tourists and officials leaving central lobby for the New Palace Yard exit.

But Westminster Hall used to be a working space, too. The Courts of Common Pleas, Chancery and King’s Bench sat here, and on an average day the Hall would have been alive with the hubbub of legal decisions and gossip. Something of this is captured in this early seventeenth century drawing of what I think is the south end of the Hall:

I wonder whether the two men to the right of the picture may be newsletter writers taking notes. But it seems possible they might also be a tradesman and a customer. Nowadays one only has to wander around the streets near Temple to realise that where there are lawyers, there are legal bookshops and legal outfitters. The same was true of Westminster Hall, and by the seventeenth century it had numerous shops and stalls selling wigs, pens and legal texts. This engraving by C. Mosley after a drawing by Hubert Gravelot is from 1738, but shows something of what the Hall must have looked like a hundred years earlier:

Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor to Westminster Hall and made frequent use of the shops there. Two stallholders in particular, Miles and Ann Mitchell, became good friends of Pepys’s, and provided him with a regular supply of newspapers and pamphlets. They also sold lozenges, presumably an essential purchase for MPs or lawyers giving long speeches. For Pepys the Hall was also a source of a different kind of transaction: two of his mistresses, Betty Martin and Doll Powell, were linendrapers with stalls there.

A footnote from Henry Wheatley’s edition of Pepys’s Diaries refers scathingly to the stalls in Westminster Hall:

These stationers and booksellers, whose shops disfigured Westminster Hall down to a late period, were a privileged class.

But actually it is the periods when Westminster Hall has been ‘disfigured’ that are the norm. It is only relatively recently in its history that Westminster Hall has been bare of shops. Moves from MPs and peers to override the advice of English Heritage and move the souvenir stall back there are not quite as earth-shattering as they might seem, when looked at in the context of how the building has been used over the centuries. And if nothing else it would remind me to pick up House of Commons biscuits for my colleagues on the way out of the building.