Building the New House of Keys

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The Keys met in Bishop Wilson’s library at medieval castle town from 1710, but by 1792, the building had fallen into such a poor state of repair that a Royal Commission on the Isle of Man noted that:

‘…the Keys assemble in a mean decayed building little more than sufficient to contain the number which they consist.’ 
Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for the Isle of Man – 1792 (Ref: IOMMM F64/42X)

In 1813, after many demands for a new meeting house for the Keys, the Duke of Atholl instructed Thomas Brine, Clerk of Works for public buildings, to produce plans and estimates for a new House of Keys.

When these plans were presented to the Home Department and Treasury in London, they were rejected on the grounds of cost.

In 1817 the Keys asked Brine to undertake a survey of the existing building, which he condemned as being in a ‘dilapidated state’.

The neglected state of the chamber led the Keys to hold their meetings in the relative comfort of the George Inn on the Market Square, Castletown, which was considered:

‘…highly improper for any Court of Justice and particularly so, for one of such importance in this Island as the House of Keys.’
Journal of the Keys, Oct 1817 (Ref: IOMMM 9191/2/2)

Brine was asked to provide a new set of plans, but on a smaller (and cheaper) scale. Although all concerned agreed that a new building was required, no-one could agree who should pay the total cost of £1039-10-0d. The British Treasury thought it should be paid for with Manx taxes but the Keys thought the tax would be excessive.

A compromise was reached when the Keys offered to fund some of the costs and the work was finally approved on 31 May 1819, almost 30 years after it was first discussed.

The building which you can see today was completed in 1821.

What the papers say!

The new House of Keys building, designed by Thomas Brine, was completed by January 1821 and the Keys began a new chapter in their history.

However, the Keys had occupied their new building in Castletown for less than a year when the Editor of the Rising Sun newspaper received an extraordinary letter criticising the layout of the building, and the architect in particular, saying:

‘…the most glaring defects in a public edifice are perceptible in the House of Keys: neither the exterior nor the interior of the building give any idea of its being a Senate House of a respectable body of Representatives, or rather the Parliament House of the Isle of Man…

The Court Houses of Douglas and Ramsey are very appropriately designated – ..but here no distinctive ornament is placed, there is neither order nor consistency preserved in it: the portico light is trifling and the windows are small and numerous: the external appearance more like that of a small country villa, or village jail, than a Senate House. On examining the interior, I was like displeased and disgusted: the Speaker’s chair is a little elevated, but “crammed in a space I blush to own” – the recess of the windows! Where the Speaker is obliged to have the lower half of the window – shutters closed, to screen him from the gaze of passengers in the street: around the walls, and under the ceiling, where a bold and appropriate cornice ought to have been placed, is a light and delicate moulding, “fit only for a lady’s bedchamber”: and, instead of some suitable ornament or flower on that part of the ceiling from which its chandelier is to be suspended, is a thing with a few circular moulding, or rather scratching upon it, resembling both in dimensions and appearance, a turned pot lid !!!

The designer of this building has committed an outrage on all the admitted principles of architectural beauty: on my visit, expectation led me to believe it would prove one of the most chaste structures in the country; instead of which, I beheld this meagre and paltry edifice [this miserable apology for a Senate House].’
The Rising Sun newspaper. 19th January 1822