I love the Palace of Westminster. It’s truly one of them buildings I think everyone in the country should visit at least twice. It’s filled like an over amended bill with weird oddities, secret passageways, and grand architecture. And while the bloody thing is falling apart (and give it a chance, the site has parts dating back to the 11th century). It’s pure concentrated history. Go visit. You can stand on the spot where Charles I was sentenced to death in 1649, you can visit the statue of Viscount Falkland which bears the scars from when suffragette Marjory Hulme chained herself to it, there is fantastic art, quite possibly one of the most famous cupboards in the world, but most relevant to this post, there is also the mysterious Palace of Westminster Rifle Club.
No, I’m not being paid by the House of Commons visiting centre, not that I’d dismiss any enquiries.
One of the things I heard when I was down there, back when I was still working for an MP, was a rumour about a room you’d assuredly wouldn’t find on any tour: A rifle Range. It sounded a bit like one of them myths you’d hear after 50 rounds of Chinese whispers. Too farfetched to be true. Even a member of the House of Lords, Lord Tyler, failed to find any real answers about the range back in 2013.
But to my delight it (was) actually true.
The Palace of Westminster Rifle Club
In the basement of the House of Lords, from the 17th March 1916 until the 17th February 2015 there was a 25-yard range. Behind a non-descript door which only stated, “authorised personal only”, with an extention number of 3350, you’d find the home of The Palace of Westminster Rifle Club. It was located (supposedly) close to the spot where Guy Fawkes placed their gunpower kegs. While Handguns had been used in the range, towards the early 1990’s this had been stopped and only small calibre .22 rifles were used on the range. One 1992 article reported on the uneasiness of allowing handguns in the range – following calls by some MPs to be allowed to practice with handguns for “self-defence”. After all, the only Prime Minister who had been assassinated was shot with a handgun in lobby of the House of Commons. So, it’s understandable why MPs and Lords alike would be apprehensive about the idea.
Any actual references to the range, or The Palace of Westminster Rifle Club, are suspiciously hard to come by (I suspect with an aim to keep a low profile). Other than the FOI listed below, I managed to find one refence in a staff handbook last mentioned in 2008 . A few mentions in Hansard once with a Lord declaring an interest on a Firearms bill in 1997 and second in 1997. I couldn’t find any pictures of the range either, and not from lack of trying either. If you have one, let me know!
I also struggled to find a list of members, other than the oft quoted use of the range by Edwina Currie who like to go down to “let off some steam”. Nor could I see if the rifle club, which has a history dating back to 1862 is still in existence and has simply relocated. No wonder the place was a stuff of rumour, it feels like every aspect of the range was a state secret.
There were numerous attempts to close the range, once famously by Nick Clegg. Valid arguments were made “how could Parliament have a rifle range but not a crèche?”. But the range persisted. Only saved by the fact the space would be unsuitable for a nursery or a swimming pool. What finally killed it off? New safety regulations. The space is now used to store firefighting equipment.
But bits history of the range still remains. Four of the handguns previously owned by the club can now be found in the Royal Armouries museum in Leeds. And I’m sure, in some regard, The Palace of Westminster Rifle Club is still around somewhere having their weekly regular meetings, and having a quick pew.