The Jewel Tower - Westminster
When I told my father the other day, that I'd been to The Jewel Tower in Westminster, he said "Aaahh ... the place you see on the news next to Parliament", which is quite true. College Green is where news reporters stand to interview MPs and do their straight to camera pieces with the impressive backdrop of Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament behind them. Quite often you can see the Jewel Tower creeping in to shot to the left, but largely spends its time in the shadow of its more famous, but much younger neighbour.
Built in 1365 within the private palace of King Edward III, the Jewel Tower began life as a huge safe, a secure repository for the most valuable possessions of the Royal Household. The palace took up the whole area, now occupied by the Houses of Parliament and Parliament Square, with the Jewel Tower, situated in a secluded garden to the west and hemmed in by a moat, encroaching on land owned by Westminster Abbey. You can get a good idea of the layout of the area from the picture below.
In the same way that the Queen today travels between her different homes, her predecessors would move between palaces, Royal manors and castles dotted around the country, or indeed visit friends and courtiers in their own houses. Such trips would have involved taking a huge retinue of people, but also items like plates, bowls, cups, goblets, tapestries and other decorative objects and things that might be needed. The job of the 'keeper of the Wardrobe in the Privy Palace of Westminster', sometimes known as 'keeper of jewels and gold and silver vessels' was based at the Jewel Tower and had the responsibility of making an inventory of everything that left, supervise the goods being loaded on to carts and barges and most importantly, to make sure that everything was returned.
When Henry VIII became King and the Royal Household moved away from the Palace of Westminster, the Jewel Tower effectively became a big junk store. On his death in 1547, an inventory was taken of 'tholde Juelhous at Westminster' and was found to be full of old clothes, bed-hangings, linen, gaming tables and old children's toys and dolls. In the 17th Century, the robust ragstone building became a store for Parliamentary records and by the early 18th century it was decided in a meeting chaired by Sir Christopher Wren that the Jewel Tower needed some serious repairs, which also included protection from fire.
The Jewel Tower managed to survive the fire of 1834 that burned down the Houses of Parliament, causing the loss of pretty much all of the old medieval palace. The new buildings, which you can still see today took about 26 years to complete and as we move in to the Victorian period, the the Jewel Tower gained its third use. A larger building was required for the storage of records, which Charles Barry accommodated in the design of the new Parliament and more specifically, the Victoria Tower, which still stands directly opposite the Jewel Tower today.
In 1864 the Standards Department of the Board of Trade, sometimes known as the 'weights and measures' moved in to the Jewel Tower and set about trying to determine the definitive values of units of size, weight and volume. Basically, these are the people who decided exactly how much beer goes in to a pint of beer ... amongst other things. They remained there until 1938, and in fact on the ground floor of the building today they have a display case showing the different measures or 'standards'.
The Jewel Tower was badly damaged by incendiary bombs during WWII, and the surrounding area has changed quite radically since then, meaning that the building itself, now an 'English Heritage' site, has been excavated, preserved and opened to the public. If you do visit, each of the three floors give you an insight in to the building's incredible 650 years of history, and next time you're watching the news, keep an eye out for it behind the reporters on Abingdon Street Gardens, otherwise known as College Green.
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