Palace of Westminster, London

Palace of Westminster

Palace of Westminster

The Palace of Westminster, also known as the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Palace, is the meeting place of the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom—the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

A number of prominent humanists and secularists have sat in each houses. One of them – Charles Bradlaugh – was the last person to be  imprisoned in a cell in the Palace’s Clock Tower.

House of Commons

Henry Broughton stood in parliament via the pocket borough of Camelford controlled by a Whig aristocrat 1810-1812. He returned in 1815 via another pocket boorough, Winchelsea.

William Johnson Fox intermittently represented Oldham in Parliament as a Liberal from 1847 to 1862. As a supporter of the Anti-Corn-Law movement he won celebrity as an impassioned orator and journalist.

John Stuart Mill as Member of Parliament for City and Westminster 1865-1866. In 1866 he became the first person in Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote.

Charles Bradlaugh was Member of Parliament for Northampton 1880-1891 after a long struggle to take his seat (see below).

Viscount Morley was Liberal Member of Parliament for Newcastle upon Tyne 1883 – 1895 and later Montrose Burghs.

John M Robertson was Liberal Member of Parliament for Tyneside 1906 – 1918.

Clement Attlee was Labour Member of Parliament for Limehouse 1922 – 1955. He was Prime Minster 1945 – 1951.

House of Lords

Henry Broughton was given a peerage in1830 and became Lord Chancellor in Lord Grey’s new Whig government.

Viscount Morley was a peer between 1910 (where he served as Lord President of the Council) until the outbreak of war in 1914.

Bertrand Russell was the 3rd Earl Russell 1931-1970.

Clement Attlee sat in the Lords from 1955 until his death in 1967.

In 1958 Russell and Attlee were amongst a group of notables to establish the Homosexual Law Reform Society, which campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in private by consenting adults, a reform which was voted through parliament nine years later.

Charles Bradlaugh – fighting for atheists to take their place in the commons

Charles Bradlaugh – who in 1866 helped to establish the National Secular Society – tried several times to be elected to represent Northampton in Parliament. He was eventually elected in 1880, but as he was not a Christian he asked for permission to affirm rather the oath of office. The Speaker of the House of Commons refused this request and Bradlaugh was expelled from Parliament. William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, supported Bradlaugh’s right to affirm, but he had upset a lot of people with his views on Christianity, the monarchy and birth control and when the issue was put before Parliament, MPs voted to support the Speaker’s decision to expel him.

Bradlaugh now mounted a national campaign in favour of atheists being allowed to sit in the House of Commons. Bradlaugh gained some support from some Nonconformists but he was strongly opposed by the Conservative Party and the leaders of the Anglican and Catholic clergy. When Bradlaugh attempted to take his seat in Parliament in June 1880, he was arrested by the Sergeant-at-Arms and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party, warned that Bradlaugh would become a martyr and it was decided to release him.

On 26th April, 1881, Charles Bradlaugh was once again refused permission to affirm. William Gladstone promised to bring in legislation to enable Bradlaugh to do this, but this would take time. Bradlaugh was unwilling to wait and when he attempted to take his seat on 2nd August he was once forcibly removed from the House of Commons. Bradlaugh and his supporters organised a national petition and on 7th February, 1882, he presented a list of 241,970 signatures calling for him to be allowed to take his seat. However, when he tried to take the Parliamentary oath, he was once again removed from Parliament.

Gladstone’s Affirmation Bill was discussed by Parliament in the spring of 1883. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Cardinal Manning, head of the Catholic Church, argued against the right of atheists to be MPs and when the vote was taken in May 1883, the Affirmation Bill was defeated. In 1884 Bradlaugh was once again elected to represent Northampton in the House of Commons. He took his seat and voted three times before he was excluded. He was later fined £1,500 for voting illegally.

Bradlaugh decided to try again to take the oath on 13th January, 1886. The new Speaker, Sir Arthur Wellesley Peel, did not object, arguing that he had to authority to interfere with the oath-taking.

The ‘umbrella’ British Humanist Association

In 1963 the Rationalist Press Association and the Ethical Union decided to sponsor an ‘umbrella’ British Humanist Association (a precursor of the actual British Humanist Association) and its inaugural meeting took place in 1963 in the House of Commons with Sir Julian HuxleyA. J. Ayer, and Baroness Wootton among those present.


Parliament is open to all members of the UK public and overseas visitors. You can attend debates and watch committee hearings, tour the buildings or climb the famous Clock Tower and see Big Ben.

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