While I was browsing at the Astrolabe on Sparks Street two days ago (which, sadly, is closing down soon), I happened upon this neat photograph of the old Canadian House of Commons, taken in 1898, 18 years before the great fire destroyed the original Center Block and the Victoria Tower. Library and Archives maintains a collection of official photographs of the interior and exterior of the Old Center Block, but this photo does not appear in the official collection. I have therefore decided to share it with you all because of its historical significance. And, if we’re honest, there is probably a significant overlap between those who would find this old photograph interesting and those who read Parliamentum! At any rate, this photograph deserves to be shared with a wide audience.
This original Center Block and Victoria Tower originally served as the Parliament of the United Province of Canada and became the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada after Confederation. They were built between 1859 and 1866, though judging by the photos and dates in the Library and Archives’ collection, Victoria Tower gained an upper level and spire circa 1870.
As you can see from Library and Archives’ collection, the interior shots of the Old House of Commons are taken from the government side, to the speaker’s right, and therefore show primarily the opposition benches. But this photograph from 1898 was taken from the opposite vantage point and therefore shows a side of the Old House of Commons that most of us haven’t seen before. I thought that the Old House of Commons is in the Uncanny Valley with respect to the current House of Commons; it looks somehow at once familiar yet also strange and unusual. The Old House of Commons was rotated 90 degrees relative to the New House of Commons, so it was wider than it is long. Based on the over-exposure in this and the Library and Archives’ photos, we can see that the Old House of Commons had skylights. Six chairs on the government side look more ornate than all the others, and I suspect that the Prime Minister sat in the chair furthest to the left in this photograph. If that is true, then the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition would have sat opposite each other and between the Clerks’ Table, whereas they sit well behind the Clerks’ Table in the New House of Commons. The Speaker’s Throne looks more ornate as well.
Most interestingly of all, the famous portrait of Queen Victoria, which now rests outside the main entrance to the Senate along with portraits of our other sovereigns and which was saved from the Great Fire of 1916, appears in the background of this photo in the galleries. In a way, the Commons is an odd place to put the Sovereign’s portrait, given the convention and parliamentary privilege that the Sovereign cannot enter the House of Commons!
Please let me know in the comments what other interesting things you observe. Merry Christmas!