The Chamber

This page takes a look at the architectural and decorative aspects of the Legislative Council chamber. It also details the history of the building and renovation of the Chamber.

First impressions

Red — there is no mistaking the colour scheme in this chamber. Red is in the carpets, upholstery, curtains and wall-paper, and in the dark richness of the Australian red cedar timber used in the panelling and furniture. It is highlighted by the gold relief in the carpet and wall coverings, brass fittings and fixtures.

The colour scheme is one of the many traditions that the Parliament inherited from the Westminster system of the British Parliament in London — in this case the red of the House of Lords. Most second chambers in two-house Parliaments throughout the world, including the Australian Senate, have red as the dominant colour scheme. There are a variety of accounts as to the origins of this colour scheme, but use of red for the House of Lords (the Upper House of the British Parliament) is documented at least back to the beginning of the fifteenth century and seems to arise from the traditional use of red or scarlet as royal colours.

Just a big tin shed?

The first Legislative Council consisted of just 5 members and met for the first time on 25 August 1824 in a room in old Government House on the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets, the site of which is now occupied by the Museum of Sydney. The Council sometimes met at the residence of the Chief Justice, also in Bridge Street, and with major repairs needed to Government House from 16 February 1826 the Council met in a building in Bent Street. In January 1829 Governor Darling approved use of part of the northern wing of the General Hospital, occupied by the Principal Surgeon, as accommodation for the Legislative Council which had increased to 15 members.

The General Hospital or "Rum Hospital" as it was known, was built between 1811 and 1816 under the direction of Governor Macquarie, who granted the contractors a three-year monopoly on rum imports as payment for the building work. The hospital consisted of three buildings facing Macquarie Street. The large central wing was demolished in the 1870's for the building of the present Sydney Hospital, but the two smaller wings remain – one as the Mint building further south along Macquarie Street, while the other – the former Surgeon's Quarters – remains as the colonnaded facade of the present Parliament House buildings.

The Legislative Council had use of 6 of the 8 rooms of the Surgeon's Quarters and met for the first time in the new chamber, the northern room on the ground floor on 21 August 1829. This room adjoins the present day Legislative Assembly chamber.

When the Legislative Council was increased to 36 members in 1843, a new chamber was built adjoining the then chamber on the northern side of the former hospital building.

In 1855, with a new bicameral (two House) Parliament due to come into existence in the following year, it was decided that the new Legislative Assembly would take over the existing Council chamber and new chamber would be found for the Legislative Council. Efforts to rent Burdekin House, a mansion on the opposite side of Macquarie Street, fell through and in February 1856, a prefabricated iron building in Melbourne, Victoria, was purchased for the Council. The building, made in England, had been shipped to Melbourne and was originally intended for use as a church or accommodation on the gold fields at Bendigo.

The iron building was purchased for £1,835 and shipped to Sydney aboard the Callender and delivered to the Macquarie Street site in March 1856. In April, a tender of £4,475 was accepted from Mr Thomas Spence to erect the building on the southern end of the former Surgeon's Quarters, together with adjacent rooms and offices, and to provide internal fittings. Although the building was not entirely completed the new chamber was sufficiently advanced to allow for the official opening of the first bicameral Parliament on 22 May 1856.

The new chamber, however, had its faults, particularly in terms of ventilation, lighting and acoustics. By 1859 the gas-lit chamber had to have its original curved iron roof replaced with a gabled slate roof. Initially, too, the inner walls of the iron frame chamber were lined with the boards from the packing cases in which the building had been shipped to Sydney. These were covered with hessian and the wallpaper was plastered over this. The walls have been reconstructed since but a small section of this thrifty original arrangement has been retained and a small door cut into the wall to show visitors.

The chamber was enlarged in 1892-93 when the facade was moved three metres closer to Macquarie Street. By the 1920s the building was showing signs of imminent collapse with the deterioration of the southern outer corrugated iron wall. Large wooden props were installed in the chamber to support the ceiling and room with others buttressing the south wall against Sydney Hospital. The southern wall was rebuilt in the 1930's.

The seven busts

Around the walls of the chamber are 7 busts of prominent former Presidents and members. Those in statesman-like Roman togas were prominent members of the Council and those in ceremonial style dress with decorations are former Presidents of the Council.
In the nineteenth century it was common for groups or citizens to recognise the achievements of a public figure by commissioning a statue or bust and donating it for display in some public place. Most of the busts in the chamber were sculpted by a fashionable, Italian-born Sydney sculptor, Archille Simonetti.

Sir Alfred StephenSir John HaySir John LackeySir Frances Suttor

The busts include:

    • Four early Presidents of the Legislative Council:
      1. Sir Alfred Stephen, the first President, 1856 to 1857*
      2. Sir John Hay, 1873 to 1892 and who was also Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1862 to 1865
      3. Sir John Lackey, 1892 to 1903
      4. Sir Francis Suttor, 1903 to 1915.
    • Former members of the pre-1856 Legislative Council* — John Blaxland (bust by Durham 1814-77) and James Macarthur (bust by Charles Summers 1827-78) .
    • William Bede Dalley — was first appointed to the Legislative Council in 1861 but did not take his seat. He was a Member of the Legislative Assembly from 1856 to 1860 and 1862 to 1864 and at one time acted as Premier of the Colony. He later became a member of the Council in 1870 until his death in 1888. At the time of his death he was described by a writer in The Bulletin as "the greatest Australian yet born”.
Simonetti also sculpted the bust of William Charles Wentworth which is on display in the foyer of the Legislative Council.
* The New South Wales Parliament became a bicameral Parliament, with two houses, in 1856. Under the new Parliament the Legislative Council members were appointed by the Governor and the members of the Legislative Assembly (lower House) were elected by the people.

The books behind the President's dais

The bound books on the wall behind the President's dais are the Hansard records of debates since 1879 and they are still used today to research topics of current interest.

Restoration of the chamber

Looking at the chamber today, it is hard to imagine that thirty years ago, the original richly decorative quality had largely disappeared under coats of “public works” off-white paint and modifications including two rows of fluorescent lights. In the final stages of the large-scale rebuilding program of 1974 to 1985, and after painstaking research, both the Council and Assembly chambers were restored to their appearance in the 1890's.

The Legislative Council chamber before restoration

The best documentation on the Council's appearance existed for the year 1892 which became the restoration model. Photographs and a full glass-plate negative show clearly the gas lighting, wallpapers and carpets which have been reproduced in the restored chamber. The original packing case boards and wallpaper used to line the chamber walls were found beneath the plasterboard.

When the chamber floor was replaced in the 1970's after white ant damage, sandstone flagging and stone columns from the original 1816 building's southern verandah — demolished to make way for the chamber in 1856 — were found underneath.

Furnishing and fittings

On the wall of the overhanging public gallery are plaques with the names of the Presidents of the Legislative Council since 1856. In the 144 years since there have been only 17 Presidents.
The Vice-regal chair

The elaborate original President's chair, now used as the Vice-regal chair, was carved in 1856 from Australian red cedar, in the Louis Quatorze style with Royal insignia, by the Sydney firm of Thomas Hill and Son. The chair is now only used by the Queen or her representative, the Governor of New South Wales, when they attend the chamber on the ceremonial opening of a new session of Parliament. The President's chair, directly in front of the Vice-regal chair, was also made in Sydney about 1886 from red cedar.
On either side of the Vice-regal chair is the Australian and New South Wales flags while directly above is the Royal Coat of Arms. (see below for description).
In the centre of the chamber is the table, also made in 1856 from red cedar, and which was described at the time as "a very creditable piece of cabinet work".

Royal Coat of Arms

The coat of arms above the dais is the Royal Coat of Arms. It is inscribed with two sayings in French: Honi soit qui mal y pense — Evil be to he who thinks evil and Dieu et mon droit — God and my right. The first saying is also the motto of the Order of the Garter (an ancient order of knighthood); notice that in the coat of arms the inscription is featured on a garter.

The function of the Royal Coat of Arms is to identify the person who is the Head of State; in the case of New South Wales, the Queen or her representative in the State, the Governor. Though the relevance of the various elements to Australia is now limited, the Coat of Arms reminds us of the history and traditions on which the current workings of our system of parliamentary government are based.

The arms show various emblems of the United Kingdom, including the three British lions, the lion of Scotland and the Irish Harp. The shield bearers are, to the left, the English lion, and to the right, the Scottish unicorn. The shield is surmounted by the St Edward's Crown. Around the base of the shield are the shamrock, thistle and rose — floral emblems of Ireland, Scotland and England, respectively.

Some modern comforts

The chamber has an acoustic system which allows members and the viewing public to hear clearly the member who is speaking. There are microphones on the lecterns as well as hanging from the ceiling. The benches have speakers built into them so that members can hear the member speaking. There is also an in-house video system so that members and staff can view the proceedings in the chamber from television sets while working in their offices. This video system also feeds the internet live broadcast.

Visiting the chamber

You are most welcome to attend a sitting of the Council or to visit the chamber when it is not in session. If the House is not sitting staff will take you onto the floor of the chamber where you can feel the atmosphere and also take a look behind the secret door in the wall.

Further Information

Further Information is available in a book produced by the Parliament. "Australia's First Parliament" is a hard back full colour book which explores the restoration of the Parliament building the 1980s. It is available from the Parliament. Copies of a thesis on "Legislative Architecture in NSW: 1788-1974. A study of buildings completed or porposed" by PL Reynolds, B.Arch., PhD (NSW) is available on request.

Update this page