National Geographic : 1946 Aug
Yanks at Westminster BY CAPT. LEONARD DAVID GAMMANS Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom With Illustrations by Staff Photographer B. Anthony Stewart OON after the United States came into the war, I spent a week at the great British naval base of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Anchored here was an air craft carrier of the U. S. Navy. I met the captain ashore, and he persuaded me to come aboard his ship and address his men, on the promise of being given a large dish of ice cream, which I had not seen for two years. I spoke to more than a thousand officers and men on the flight deck and somewhat rashly invited them to look me up in the House of Commons if ever they came to London. Some months later, as I was sitting in the Chamber of the House, one of the attendants whispered in my ear that the "whole American Navy" was in the lobby asking to see me. When I went out, there were my friends from the aircraft carrier, asking me to fulfill my promise to take them around the House of Commons. Came to See, Learn, Compare This was only the first of the many hun dreds of parties of American soldiers and sailors I have shown around.* It has been a most interesting experience, and I can only hope that they enjoyed it as much as I did. They were of all types. Some were men who were just doing a tour of London and had included the House of Commons. Others ob viously had a knowledge of English history and wanted to see the place where much of it had been made (page 224). Then there was that small but select band of men who had studied constitutional law and history and were anxious to learn in what way British democracy differed from their own. Most of the parties I took around consisted of about 25 men. Generally they were Amer icans, but I remember one Saturday afternoon when a party of 30 included six Canadians, four Australians, two New Zealanders, two turbaned soldiers of the Indian Army, a Pole, a Frenchman, and a Norwegian. Two of the GIs addressed the Pole in his own language, to the surprise of their com panions. This was in the early part of 1944, when the vast Allied Army of many races was gathering in England preparing for the in vasion of D Day. The way two million American boys man aged to crowd into the small space of Great Britain during that year is a tribute to the adaptability and the essential good manners of the youth of the United States. The British were pleased to welcome them in their homes, but it was a tight squeeze. This led to the music hall joke, "I heard an Englishman speak in Grosvenor Square." The vast array of buildings which houses the British Parliament is known as the Palace of Westminster (Plate IV). It is, in fact, a royal palace and comes under the charge of the Lord Great Chamberlain, one of the oldest hereditary offices under the Crown. From the days before the Norman Conquest down to Henry VIII, the King lived in a palace on this site. For many centuries Par liament had no fixed home. It was summoned by the King to various places, and sessions of Parliament were held in Lincoln, York, Oxford, and other cities of the Kingdom, but this inconvenient practice came to an end with the Tudor kings. Since that time Parlia ment has been housed on this historic site on the banks of the Thames. The fact that it is still a royal palace gives the Members of Parliament one curious priv ilege. The building is not subject to any licensing laws, and while the House is in session Members can get a drink at times which would be impossible outside. The old Palace was frequently badly dam aged by fire and was largely destroyed in 1834. Luckily, three of its most historic and beautiful parts survived that fire: Westmin ster Hall, the Crypt Chapel, and the Cloisters. Building Older Than English Language Westminster Hall is probably the most his toric building in England. It was built by William Rufus in 1097 and is, in fact, older than the English language. It adjoins New Palace Yard, so named in 1094 to differen tiate it from Old Palace Yard. The building was restored in 1394 by Rich ard II, who put on the famous wooden roof. This roof, however, had to be completely re stored more than 20 years ago when it was attacked by the deathwatch beetle. * See "When GI Joes Took London," by Maj. Frederick Simpich, Jr., NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, September, 1944.