Tea on the Terrace

Tea on the Terrace of the House of Commons was, by the beginning of the twentieth century, regarded as an integral part of the London ‘season’, the three month or so round of parties, races, dinners and balls (as well as rather more staid entertainments such as the Chelsea Flower Show, the Royal Tournament and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition) that was enjoyed, or sometimes endured, by high society.

It’s easy to see why: exclusive access to a site of power and the opportunity to watch celebrities at close proximity, as well as the view of the River and Lambeth lit  by the setting sun, and, of course, the strawberries, were frequently celebrated in the press. The papers also recognised the attraction for the hosts, Members of Parliament who liked to relieve the tedium of long evenings and nights on-call for a division by inviting attractive young female relations and their friends. As Florence Fenwick-Miller, feminist, biographer of Harriet Martineau and journalist, wrote in the ‘Ladies’ Column’ of the Illustrated London News in September 1891

The House of Commons tea is good; and there is a special and very agreeable “House of Commons cake” always in cut; and, if the weather be fine, it is pleasant to consume the meal at one of the little tables on the terrace with the broad stream of Father Thames flowing beneath, not silvery and rippling as he is in his earlier youth, but beautiful still, with the grey stately solemnity of a course nearly finished. Altogether, tea on the terrace makes a most pleasant little rite of hospitality; and I have always thought members were rather to be envied for being able to give so pretty a little party at such slight expense and trouble. Members, I may mention, are not expected to ask gentlemen to thse parties; it is a function sacred to our sex. Of course, no lady would go alone unless she were a very near relative of the member; but even two friends can accept an invitation, though parties of four or five are more generally invited.

Occasionally journalists speculated, E.M.Forster-like, on how it might all seem to the ‘humble city clerk, returning to his suburban home on a penny steamer’ (as the Shepton Mallet Journal put it in June 1892).

When did it all start? The idea of a terrace predated Barry’s design for the new Houses of Parliament following the fire of 1834, and perhaps echoed the extensive garden area within its destroyed predecessor: Sir James Wyatville included a terrace in the designs he presented to the Select Committee considering new parliamentary buildings in 1833. The imposing river frontage, with its long terrace, was an important part of Barry’s design, completed around 1849. It was plainly intended for recreation, though the famous stench from the Thames would no doubt have put most of society off from enjoying tea until Bazalgette’s new sewerage scheme started to clean up the river during the 1860s. In July 1873 the Terrace was reported by The Graphic to be crowded with Members and their friends as the Shah of Iran passed by on a steamer, and in 1877 the Illustrated London News mentioned that Members and Peers ‘lounging’ on the Terrace would be able to watch a swimming race between Putney and Westminster bridges for the Lords and Commons challenge cup (itself an indication of how much the water quality must have improved by then). With Members and their guests milling around, the Terrace could become a focus for cheeky political demonstrations, such as that mounted by the Irish party in 1890. They hired a barge, and during the dinner hour anchored it just off the Terrace, rigging up a screen and magic lantern on which they showed slides of William O’Brien and others addressing mass meetings in Tipperary while an Irish member standing on the barge shouted out explanations. (The suffrage campaign pulled off a similar stunt in 1908, though without the magic lantern.)

In the 1880s the presence of women among the visitors already attracted mostly admiring notice. A slightly disturbing illustration of a ‘midsummer night on the Terrace of the House of Commons’ appeared in the same newspaper on 30 July 1881, the accompanying text telling how the terrace was:

conveniently situated for the serving of the lighter description of creature comforts—such things as a cup of tea or coffee, a vanilla ice, a bottle of zoedone, or a sherry cobbler, not to speak of a cigar, which are kept on hand in the interior of the legislative club-house. About nine or ten in the evening, with the sultry July weather that prevailed during the long discussions in Committee on the Irish Land Bill, no small degree of temporary solace was here obtained by some of the honourable gentlemen, especially if their wives and daughters kindly accompanied them, after dining at home, to the scene of their belated parliamentary labours.

It was over the next decade that tea and strawberries, rather than Zoedone (apparently a new and popular non-alcoholic beverage), became established as the thing for visitors to the terrace, and tea on the terrace an integral part of the guided tour given by MPs to their female visitors. The tour might also include a visit to the Ladies’ Gallery to see a debate in progress, and perhaps a squint through the small window or peephole beside the main entrance into the chamber, which (oddly) seems to have become a popular privilege for women accompanying Members. Dinner in the Strangers’ Dining Room could be involved too. Henry Lucy wrote in his sketch for the Graphic in June 1892 that the practice had only begun in the previous (1886-92) Parliament: ‘the fashion was firmly established on the afternoon when Mr [Joseph] Chamberlain entertained two duchesses, taking tea at a small round table, whilst Mr Labouchère, pale to the lips, and momentarily forgetful of his cigarette, stood prominent in the ring of Radicals looking on at this final leap of their Lost Leader’. Presumably Lucy meant sometime around 1886, when Chamberlain’s vote against Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill was a huge blow to the Liberal radicals.

The volume of visitors increased notably in the early 1890s. The growth brought with it a number of inconveniences and some discontent. Lucy wrote that the rush between five and seven o’clock had become in the summer of 1891 ‘seriously embarrassing’. The terrace, corridor, and lobbies were ‘as full of fashionably dressed ladies as is the Park at church parade on fine Sundays’. The congestion in the Lobby had become so great that the Speaker imposed restrictions on using the peephole into the chamber; there was talk of limits being imposed on access to the Terrace as well. Mrs Fenwick-Miller darted in to make the suffragist point:

Who are the anonymous and ungallant MPs who are raising a complaint about the visits of ladies to members at the House of Commons? They assert that the unfortunate members are perpetually harassed by surprise visits from constituents’ wives, who want to be taken through such parts of the House as the female foot profane is permitted to pass over. These ladies demand to have Mr Gladstone and other prominent men pointed out; feminine chatter and giggles disturb the solemn atmosphere of public business; and then comes the main point of the indictment—the unasked visitors in bonnets expect to have tea on the terrace offered to them! Poor member! Bazaars have bored him, cricket clubs aimed at his pocket, chapel-building funds demanded blackmail, local swimming baths begged of him for prizes, hospitals pleaded for subscriptions, and anxious parents sought an establishment in life for their sons. All this the MP has patiently borne—all these forms of extortion and distress the successive Corrupt Practices Acts have left in full swing. But now that it comes to ladies’ tea on the terrace occasionally, the milch cow runs dry. A special Corrupt Practices Act is to e passed, formally forbidding ladies begin admitted to the terrace, and this at the very moment when the New Zealand house of Representatives have resolved to admit women as members.

When in 1892 one Member’s wife was said to have circulated invitation cards to “Tea on the Terrace” it caused particular irritation, and was probably a factor in the Speaker’s decision to create a ‘Members only’ area, with a line drawn from the doorway giving access from the Commons to the Terrace. ‘To the left of it’, wrote Lucy, ‘only the foot of man may tread. To the right Paradise will bloom. Benedick may, an he please, cross over and visit Beatrix; but the foot of Beatrix may not, under unnamed pains and penalties, cross the boundary line’.

The new rule did little to deter visitors. In 1896, the pressure on the waiting staff from the Commons dining rooms led to the innovation of waitresses to serve the tables on the Terrace. Coming just after a huge petition for female suffrage had been displayed in Westminster Hall in May 1896, Henry Lucy remarked that ‘Women, routed out of Westminster Hall when they brought their petitions in favour of female suffrage, have established themselves on the terrace of the House of Commons….  The waiters who have hitherto struggled with excess of orders have disappeared. In their place trip a company of girls neatly dressed in black, with white aprons and caps’. One of them can be seen in the Benjamin Stone photograph of the visit of the President of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives in 1902 above (NPGx128583: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The Terrace is usually referred to as belonging to the House of Commons, though it stretches along the entire frontage of the Palace, covering the Lords end, as well as the Commons end. The problem for peers was that their end of the Terrace was rarely bathed in sunshine and therefore considerably less attractive, ‘the western and bleaker end of the long promenade’, as Lucy put it. And therefore while peers did use their end, they usually preferred to join Members of the lower House at other, ‘liveliest’, one. Lucy did mention one exception, though, in his account of the 1896-1902 Parliament: the lord chancellor, Lord Halsbury, ‘presiding at a tea table round which clustered a dream of fair women’. The drawing, by Francis Carruthers Gould, makes him look like the Mad Hatter.


1896 may have marked another peak in pressure on the terrace, since the subject was again discussed in the House of Commons in mid June, at the instance of Sir Henry Fowler. An Irish member, Patrick O’Brien, responded by complaining of attempts ‘to deprive us of the only pleasure I know of in Parliamentary life—that is, the right of taking lady friends on the Terrace’. The idea of limiting access to women who had secured seats in the gallery, and a few more who were allocated Terrace tickets by ballot each was was raised by Dr Tanner (the Member for Mid-Cork). O’Brien retorted that the Crypt should be opened, so that Tanner and his friends, ‘who cannot bear to see ladies having tea on the Terrace, might retire there to indulge in meditation and prayer’. (The two were on opposite sides of the Irish party following the bitter split of 1890. Nothing was apparently done, and Fowler raised the question again early the following year: he suggested that there had been another attempt by the wife of a Member to issue invitation cards. Indeed, there may have been several, for a correspondent to The Times in July 1897 wrote:

Sir, I herewith enclose you a card of invitation to tea on the Terrace of the House of Commons which I have received frmt he member representing the constituency in which I reside. Setting aside the fact that I have never seen this gentleman or voted for him, surely it was never intended that the Terrace fo the House should be used for the purpose of entertaiing wholesale the political supporters of a member?

E.N.M. Kindersley, Captain late her Majesty’s 19th Foot.

“Mr & Mrs —– request the pleasure of Capt. & Mrs Kindersley’s Company to Tea on Terrace of House of Commons on Monday 19th July. Meeting at the Central Hall, 4 20. RSVP”

Unfortunately, The Times suppressed the identity of the Member concerned.

In a subsequent estimates debate, Dr Tanner continued to complain about the use of the Terrace for ‘a society parade’. The government did take some action to relieve the pressure. The solution was to build a new staircase to the Terrace: the stairs (presumably what are now the tearoom stairs) were a particular bottleneck during divisions, as Members rushing up from the Terrace and the Dining Rooms to vote met guests, sauntering down from the lobby to enjoy themselves. To prevent the crush, the First Commissioner of Works arranged for a new staircase to be built to allow visitors a more direct access to the terrace from the main (Principal) floor – I suppose the staircase which now extends from the Upper Waiting Hall to the corridor below. The radical liberal and newspaper proprietor Sir John Leng congratulated him on the innovation while attacking the ‘ascetic and misogynist feeling against improving the facilities of access to the Terrace’, though Aretas Akers-Douglas, the Commissioner, admitted that he was himself by no means an enthusiast for the access of women to the terrace.

Virtually all of the discussion about the Terrace was conducted in terms of gender – male visitors seem scarcely to have been mentioned, though the photographs suggest their frequent presence there. The admission of women to a demarcated zone within a largely male preserve was seen by some of its opponents as both inconvenient and trivialising. Whether the ‘ascetic’ label was appropriate, though, or the main objection the conversion of Parliament into entertainment, rather than the presence of women as such, is far from clear. Lucy identified two of the opponents of admission as Colonel Mark Lockwood and Colonel Saunderson, ‘men who hold that there is a place for everything and that everybody, especially woman, should be in her place’: Lockwood (later Lord Lambourne) was mostly known for being a sporting friend of King Edward VII; Colonel Saunderson was a prominent Irish Unionist. There may also have been an element of social jealousy towards those who were better connected: one Member grumbled that the Terrace was monopolised by only a few, who were responsible for most of the visitors.

The attempt to limit female access to the Terrace was Canute-like. Henry Lucy suggested that the House authorities failed to take action because they were all married men, and presumably themselves subject to the pressure of wives, daughters and other relatives to ensure their continued access. But it wasn’t just relatives who placed pressure on Members to gain access, for it’s noticeable how frequently American tourists are mentioned by journalists writing about the terrace. ‘Penelope’ complained in the West London Observer on 25 July 1885 that she was exhausted after ‘pioneering an American friend through Westminster’, but had managed to secure the patronage of a Member to visit the terrace, ‘a restful oasis for the jaded law-makers, especially with tea and bread and butter, a full view of St Thomas’s Hospital over the water’ . (Henry Lucy chortled a few years later over the story of an American lady, taking tea on the Terrace and gazing at the Hospital, inquiring “Are these the houses of your aristocracy?”) A 1904 guide to the London sights and the season aimed at the US market, London of Today, advised

If I wanted to see everything that might be seen of this world-famous and august national assembly, I would set my wits to work to know a peer (not too aged, perhaps, though age is not seldom given to kindness and courtesy too) and a rising MP, preferentially (if he will forgive us) of the Winston Churchill type of man. When he is in the cabinet I hope he may deem the possession by an American lady of a copy of this publication a sufficient introduction to a seat in the gallery, or perhaps on the Terrace.

It was almost another two decades before women were able themselves to go behind the forbidding ‘Members Only’ sign on the Terrace. A little gossip piece in the Dundee Courier in 1921 remarked that ‘While tea was being served on the house of Commons terrace yesterday afternoon, Lady Astor was observed at the far end, driver in hand, earnestly practising her swing at golf.’




2 thoughts on “Tea on the Terrace”

  1. The photograph of the President of the Belgian Chamber of Deputies shows the pleasingly tiled floor of the Terrace. This is now invisible, but apparently well-preserved, beneath the rather ugly concrete tiles which now form a kind of false floor of the Terrace, some three feet above the original, installed when the parapet wall was raised by a similar height in the 1960s or 70s as a protection against flooding. Will it perhaps be restored to sight when the great refurbishment of the Palace takes place? The Thames barrier was supposed to have removed the flooding threat, though on some days of the year the high tides seem very close to the where the top of the old parapet must have been.

    The Terrace remains a remarkably contested site of recreation. Access to it is one of the most jealously guarded and widely envied privileges of rank amongst the officials of the House and staff of Members, and this issue is raised in almost every discussion about culture wars in their ranks. Michael Martin for a while banned the denizens of the Press Gallery from the Terrace (before he was Speaker, as Chair of the Administration Committee) on the grounds that they intruded on the privacy of MPs, and the journalists never forgave him, making his subsequent Speakership a misery.

    But it is indeed one of the best places in London to have a drink – and one of the few remaining places on the parliamentary estate where MPs can have a smoke between divisions or other duties.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s