1897 - 1909

Visitors to the House

Library of Birmingham

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection
1897-1914

On entering Parliament in 1895, the noted businessman, politician and renowned amateur photographer Sir Benjamin Stone, prompted equally by his ‘intense interest in the Legislature’ and his ‘enthusiasm for the historical and the antiquarian’ sought permission to photograph at Westminster.

  

No one had previously been allowed to photograph in Parliament and MPs had ‘rigorously sought to exclude the camera from its precincts.’ However, ‘Parliamentary red tape…untied itself’ and over the next decade Stone photographed MPs of all political persuasions, groups of visitors from all over the world, officers, servants and functionaries.  

This exhibition reveals some of the highlights of Stone’s collection.

Sir Benjamin Stone M.P. on the Terrace of the Houses of Parliament, 1897.

‘It will be noticed that most of the portraits and most of the groups…have as a background a fine gateway.  This gives entrance from the Terrace to the vast subterranean passages of the Houses of Parliament.  Here on this spot, well lighted and convenient, has stood Sir Benjamin Stone’s camera, ever ready, Session after Session, for many years.’

Michael MacDonagh, Introduction, Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures, Parliamentary Scenes and Portraits, 1903.

According to an interview with Stone in The Stand Magazine (1910), the portrait of David Lloyd George (Britain’s first and only Welsh Prime Minister) ‘was taken in the middle of the budget debate.  He showed signs of the stress, but comforted himself by the thought of bringing his measure safe into port.  “Mid-stream” murmured Sir Benjamin.  “I will photograph you in mid-stream.”

Rt. Hon. Lloyd George, M.P, Chancellor of the Exchequer, July 4, 1909.
Speaker’s Procession, House of Commons, 1906.

The Speaker’s Procession leaves his residence at the Westminster Bridge end of the Palace of Westminster preceded by a Bar Doorkeeper, the Sergeant at Arms with the Mace, and followed by the Trainbearer, Chaplain and Secretary. From here begins a formal procession via the Library Corridor, the Lower Waiting Hall, Central and Members' Lobbies to the Chamber before every sitting of the House.

Visit of Basuto Chiefs to House of Commons, February 25 1909.

The Chiefs, named in The Times as “Teifo, Mojella, Lishoboro and Manfupha”, were in London to discuss their concerns related to the proposed unification of South Africa.   In his Introductory Notes to the volume of Stone’s Parliamentary photographs Michael McDonagh noted that the ‘Coloured potentates and princes who come to London’ never failed ‘to visit the House of Commons.’ Sometimes they were to be ‘seen in all the barbaric splendour of native costume, sometimes in the full fashionable rig of Piccadilly, and occasionally with a roll, fantastic blending of the East and West, in their attire.’

Milly Childers (worked 1888-1920) is best known as a portrait painter. Her father, Hugh Culling Eaerdley Childers, was Chancellor of the Exchequer (1882-5) and Home Secretary (1886) in Gladstone’s Government.  Her painting A Scene on the Terrace of the House of Commons (1909) is a group portrait of various M.P.s including Sir Benjamin Stone, Kier Hardy and Norman Lamont relaxing on the Members’ Terrace overlooking the Thames.

Miss Emily (Milly) Childers’ painting of the House of Commons Terrace 1909.
Corporal Laxon, House of Commons, 1908.

Stone’s Parliamentary Diary (June 4 1908) notes: ‘…lunch at the House of Commons with Captain Wandsop who came with his servant Dyak from Borneo in native costume.’  Whilst there is a sense of negotiation and arrangement to many of Stone’s portraits, Corporal Laxon, a former ‘Dyak Head Hunter’ and member of the Borneo Native Police), was reduced to the kind of typological representation adopted in anthropological studies, being pictured front and side profile in both native and western dress,

Louis Blériot completed the first flight across a large body of water in a heavier-than-air craft when he crossed the English Channel on July 25 1909, receiving a prize of 1000 British pounds for doing so.  According to Sir Benjamin (Sir Benjamin Stone and His Sitters, The Stand Magazine, 1910.) ‘trousers rarely come out well in a photograph. Perhaps those of M. Blériot are amongst the best.’

Louis Blériot and Madame Blériot, September 14 1909.
  Policeman Lewis Jones, House of Commons Cloisters Lobby, 1897.

In addition to photographing the M.P.s and noted visitors to the House of Commons Stone recorded many of the staff who maintained the building and supported the work of its Members.

The Night Fire Brigade, Houses of Parliament, 1901.

With over six hundred rooms and offices spread over an eight acre site, the risk of fire spreading through the Parliament building was significant.  The policemen who acted as night watchmen were therefore also trained as a Night Fire Brigade.

When this photograph was taken Big Ben’s clock – at twenty three feet in diameter - was said to be the largest in the world.   Big Ben is actually the name of the large bell which chimes on the hour, named after Sir Benjamin Hall, the first Commissioner of Works when the Clock Tower was erected.

Inner View of “Big Ben’s” Dial, 1901.

Photographed when he was Secretary of State for the Colonies the radical Liberal M.P. for West Birmingham is regarded as one of the most important British politicians of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

‘It was not a formal “sitting” for a portrait which members were asked to undergo.  It was a pleasant, easeful “standing”. The subject stands before the camera, and in a flash he is taken.  It is the real man, with all his natural perfections crowding thick upon him that we see.’

Michael MacDonagh, Introduction, Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures, Parliamentary Scenes and Portraits, 1903.

Rt. Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, Liberal Unionist M.P. for West Birmingham, 1902. 
Sir M.M. Bhowanaggree, Conservative M.P. for Bethnal Green and The Aga Khan at the House of Commons at the Coronation of Edward VII 1902.

Bhowanaggree was the first Asian-born Conservative M.P. (for Bethnal Green 1895-1906). A lawyer, Chair of the Parsee Association of Europe, author and translator, he lobbied Parliament for the rights of Indian subjects and also for the rights of Indians living in South Africa.

Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III was the 48th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims; one of the founders and the first President of the All-India Muslim League and President of the League of Nations (1937-38).

Mrs. Desmond Humphreys (1850–1938) was a celebrated writer who published over fifty novels under the nom de plume 'Rita'.  Her books included Conjugal Rights and Other Stories; The Man Who Understood and America Through English Eyes.

 

The majority of women photographed by Stone at Westminster were either the wives of M.P.s and visitors, or those who had established themselves in a field of activity outside of politics.  The first woman elected to Parliament - the Countess de Markievicz, a member of Sinn Fein, was returned to the House of Commons in 1918, but she did not take her seat.  Despite the campaign of the Suffragette Movement, women did not get the vote in Britain until the after Stone’s death in 1914.

Mrs Desmond Humphreys at the House of Commons, 1902.
  Sir Matthew White Ridley, M.P. for Stalybridge, July 1897.

White Ridley, then Home Secretary, was Stone’s first sitter at Parliament. 

“What have you got there, Stone?” asked his fellow M.P.

 “A camera” was the reply. 

“What! A photographic camera?”

”Exactly.  It is the only kind I use.” 

“But my dear Stone, such a thing is absolutely unprecedented within the precincts of Parliament. What do you propose to do with it?” 

“First of all, I am going to ask you to pose before it. You shall be my first subject.”

Sir Benjamin Stone’s First Portrait on an M.P., Newcastle Chronicle, 23 April 1910

James Keir Hardie was one of the founders of the Labour Party.  He campaigned for votes for women, self-rule for India and an end to segregation in South Africa.

‘With a very few exceptions, the portraits are full length, and not mere busts.  Clothing often helps to the realisation of character.  In any case, it is just as interesting to see the boots or shoes of a man as it is his collar and tie…In these likenesses, therefore, we have visualised the real personalities of Parliament…’

Michael MacDonagh, Introduction, Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures, Parliamentary Scenes and Portraits, 1903.

J. Keir Hardy, Labour M.P. for Merthyr Tydfil, 1908.
The Mace, House of Commons, 1899.

The Mace is a symbol of Royal Authority. It represents the power the monarchy has delegated to the House of Commons in the past.  The Mace lies on the table in front of the Speaker when members are debating. 

The Bootblack of the House of Commons, 1897.

‘The House of Commons has been called, as everyone knows, “The best club in London”…In the cellars of the House there is, for one thing, “the Valantia vat”, which holds 1,000 gallons of Scotch whiskey.  There are also bath-rooms.  A hairdresser is kept on the premises.  In the cloisters the services of George Warner, bootblack, are always available.  What more can Members require?’

Michael MacDonagh, Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures, Parliamentary Scenes and Portraits, 1903.

Arthur James Balfour was the Conservative Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. Later, as Foreign Secretary, he authored the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  Shackleton was a key figure in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration who was knighted after the Nimrod Antarctic Expedition (1907–09).

Rt. Hon. Arthur J. Balfour, M.P. and Ernest H. Shackleton, 1909.
Prize-winners at the Olympic Games: Irish-American Athletic Club, 1908.

Stone’s Parliamentary Diary (July 27 1908) notes “I was asked to take photographs of the American–Irish Society of Athletics who had just competed in the Olympian games at the Franco exhibition. This I did, taking separate ones of the winners in the games.” 

The Cloisters of St. Stephen’s, House of Commons, 1897.

‘St Stephen’s Cloisters…serves the purposes of a cloak room.  Each of the 670 members has a peg with his name attached-the names being arranged alphabetically-for his overcoat.  He carries his hat with him always, by the etiquette of the House.’

Michael MacDonagh, Sir Benjamin Stone’s Pictures, Parliamentary Scenes and Portraits, 1903.

Before the State Opening of Parliament, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster to ensure that there is no repeat of the Gunpowder Conspiracy, when Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars attempting to blow up the Palace.    

Guy Fawkes Search Party, opening of Parliament, 1901.
The Roofs of the Houses of Parliament from the Clock Tower,1897.

Under the dials of Big Ben there is a wide, open gallery from where Stone took this remarkable view of Westminster, the Victoria Tower and the Thames and the city of London beyond. 

 

Biography

 Sir Benjamin Stone MP 1838-1914

Born the son of a glass manufacturer in the year of Victoria’s coronation, John Benjamin Stone was a product of the confidence of Victorian England and the industrial power and wealth of the new industrial city of Birmingham.  An ardent Conservative, he was elected to Birmingham Town Council in 1869 and was, for ten years from 1874, President of the Birmingham Conservative Association.  He was knighted for his services to politics in 1892 and three years later was elected to serve as an MP. 

 

Stone was a man of many interests but his abiding passion was for photography and he is thought to have spent as much as £30,000 on it during his lifetime: a figure equivalent to well over £1 million today.  In 1897 he founded the National Photographic Record Association.

 

He was also an enthusiastic traveller and visited China, Japan, the West Indies, South Africa and North and South America, as well as most of Europe and published a number of books in relation to his travels.  

 

He died at his home in Birmingham on July 2, 1914. 

Credits: Story

Curator of Photography — Pete James
Audience Engagement Officer — Heidi Stacey
Project Director — Rebecca Bartlett

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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