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Secret 17th-Century Passageway Discovered in British House of Commons

Parliament has posted photos of its members and collaborators delighting in the discovery

Parliament at sunset (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

The oft stony-faced members of British Parliament have a new reason to crack a smile: namely, a rediscovered secret passageway in the House of Commons, unveiled during a recent spate of building restorations.

Constructed for the procession to Charles II’s coronation banquet in 1661, the covert tunnel led to Parliament’s oldest building, Westminster Hall, and remained in use for the next 150 years. During its 17th- and 18-century heyday, the passageway hosted the likes of English diarist Samuel Pepys and Robert Walpole, the first de facto prime minister of Great Britain, according to a statement. Benjamin Franklin would also have passed through the chamber on visits to the House of Commons, reports Anna Schaverien for the New York Times.

“To think that this walkway has been used by so many important people over the centuries is incredible,” says House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle in the statement.

Though historians knew of the passageway’s existence—still commemorated by a brass plate demarcating a long-gone door in Westminster Hall—most assumed it had been shuttered and sealed from both ends after the bombings of World War II. But while sifting through palace documents at the Historic England Archives in Swindon, reports Brian Wheeler for BBC News, a team of historical consultants stumbled upon plans alluding to another entrance installed some 70 years prior in a stretch of paneling on the cloister behind Westminster Hall. A subsequent search yielded a long-unnoticed brass keyhole previously assumed to lead to an unremarkable electricity cupboard.

After Parliament’s locksmith fashioned a key to fit the lock, the team pushed into the wall’s paneling, which “opened up like a door into this secret entrance,” as historian Liz Hallam Smith of the University of York says in the statement.

Behind the hidden door was a small, stone-floored room where the delighted historians discovered the original hinges for two wooden doors that would have opened into Westminster Hall, reports Lilit Marcus for CNN. Stretching across the chamber’s ceiling were beams that date back to trees felled in 1659—a timeline that falls in neatly with Charles II’s official crowning, an analysis of the wood’s tree rings revealed.

The team also unearthed scrawls and graffiti commemorating some of its previous visitors—some many centuries old. In the wake of an 1834 fire, construction workers commissioned by Sir Charles Barry entered the chamber to block the passage at either end. “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale,” one piece of writing boasted. Another scribble, signed “August 11th 1851 Real Democrats,” identifies the masons as probable members of the working-class male suffrage Chartist movement, according to the statement.

“Charles Barry’s masons were quite subversive,” Hallam Smith tells BBC News.

After nearly a century of silence, workers ventured into the room once again, returning to carve the small, recently rediscovered door into the paneling of the adjacent hallway. Someone had the bright idea of introducing electricity in the form of a light switch, the team’s search found. Amazingly, a large Osram bulb marked “HM Government Property” still illuminated when the switch was flipped.

As a part of Parliament’s ongoing Restoration and Renewal Program, the written plans that aided the team’s discovery will be immortalized in digital form to ensure the doorway never disappears again, says Mark Collins, Parliament’s estates historian, in the statement.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” adds Collins. (Accordingly, a series of photos posted on Parliament’s social media accounts shows several team members joyously ducking in and out of the entryway.) “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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