The Palace of Westminster has been the seat of government for almost a millennium. First as the home of the Sovereign and the Court, subsequently as the meeting place of Parliament which, since the Declaration of Rights in 1689 is the supreme law making body.
Lords and those representing the communities - the Commons - met together in the palace. Following the death of Edward 1, the two 'Houses' met separately. The Lords in the White Chamber, the Commons, in various rooms in the palace. The upper Chapel of St. Stephen was secularised at the Reformation and was used as the Commons Chamber from 1547 until destroyed, along with most of the Old Palace, by fire in 1834. The present chamber is part of the new building completed in 1852 and rebuilt in 1950 in much the same form after war damage..
It was in the old Commons Chamber (illustration) that Wilberforce debated. First elected in 1780 when only 21 years old, for Hull (his birthplace), he chose to represent Yorkshire from 1784. He retired from contested elections in 1812. Electoral procedure differed greatly then. He sat thereafter for the Borough of Bramber until forced by poor health to leave Parliament in 1825.
William Wilberforce is associated in the public consciousness with the Anti-Slavery Movement on behalf of which be fought for 38 of his 45 years as an M.P. Reading accounts of that fight offers an insight into the complexities of parliamentary procedure which remain much the same today. Wilberforce was not a single-issue politician. Throughout his career, he championed a number of measures related to the betterment of the lives of his fellow citizens. The substitution of hanging for burning as capital punishment for women illustrates prevailing conditions.
It is often overlooked that his work was carried out at a time when Parliament faced grave issues on the world scene war with France, war in America among them - that consideration was given to him is a tribute to the democratic system.
Wilberforce worked tirelessly to effect an improvement in the manners and morals of his contemporaries in the Commons and beyond. Success cannot be attributed directly to him, but the decade immediately following his retirement witnessed the passage of a number of measures: electoral reform, revision of the Poor Law, government grants for education, Factories Acts, Roman Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the Test and Truck Acts, most of which he had applied his influence. The beginnings of a process culminating in the Welfare State of today.