Speaker's Chair

Awe-inspiring and intricately carved.

The Speaker’s Chair, an awe-inspiring, intricately carved neogothic-style chair, sits in the House of Representatives Chamber and is a replica of the United Kingdom’s own Speaker’s Chair in the Palace of Westminster. Carved from oak and timbers from both Westminster Hall and HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, the Chair speaks to Australian democracy’s deep ties to the United Kingdom.  

The table of the House of Representatives chamber looking up to the Speaker's Chair at the end. Papers and books cover the tables. The chair is wooden, leather and ornate.
Black and white photograph of Hon Littleton Groom presiding as Speaker in the House of Representatives with the Clerk of the House in front.
Cursive script on a label on the side of the Speaker's Chair with the words 'The Royal Arms over the chair are carved in oak from the timbersof Westminster Hall (1399); the hinged flaps are of oak from Nelson's flagships HMS Victory (Trafalger, 21st October, 1805).

Centre: Sitting in the Speaker's Chair the Sir Littleton Groom is presiding as Speaker in the House of Representatives, May 1927
Credit: National Archives of Australia: A3560, 3091

The Speaker’s Chair was formally presented to the Australian Parliament on 11 October 1926, a gift from the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association. Crated up like a modern-day IKEA flat pack, the chair travelled from the UK on the Australian Commonwealth Line steamer Hobson’s Bay and then by train to Canberra. Unpacked and assembled, the Chair measures a towering 4 metres.  

The entire piece uses dowels rather than screws or nails.

This coloured technical drawing shows the proposed design of the desk that was added to the Speaker’s Chair. There are four different viewpoints of the desk with an outline of the chair drawn in pencil behind the desk detail. The front, side, and section of the desk are painted in  with a light grey watercolour .

This coloured technical drawing shows the proposed design of the desk that was added to the Speaker’s Chair. There are four views of the desk with an outline of the chair drawn in pencil behind the desk detail. The front, side and top view of the desk are painted in a light grey watercolour.

Credit: National Archives of Australia, A2617 76/1420 

The Westminster Chair upon which the Speaker’s Chair was based was destroyed during an air raid in 1941. In an act of solidarity, the Australian government presented the UK with a replica of the Australian chair carved from Black Bean, an Australian rainforest timber. The new chair was inscribed with ‘The Gift of Australia’ and remains an enduring symbol of the connection between Australian and British democracy. The House of Representatives chamber is currently closed for an extensive program of conservation work, but will be open again next year. 

Physical description

The Speaker’s Chair is a large, heavily carved neogothic-style chair made from honey brown coloured oak. A green leather seat on the wooden base is surrounded by carved wooden panels on three sides and an overarching canopy. There is a small desk in front of the chair, added later as a practical feature, but the wood was matched perfectly. Three carpeted steps, matching the green carpet of the main floor of the House of Representatives chamber, lead up to the chair on both flanks.

The panel behind the seat has a carved scrolling leaf and floral decorative pattern. The centre panel above features a crossed mace and black rod motif. The canopy above the seat features four carved pillars and the British Royal Coat of Arms in the centre. The back of the chair features 10 carved panels showing details such as Queen Victoria’s initials, Tudor roses, the black rod and the mace. The chair has carvings on both the inside and outside of the chair.

An inscription on the front of the platform reads: ‘Replica of the Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons at Westminster, presented to the House of Representatives at Canberra by the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association, comprising Members of both Houses of Parliament, as a fitting symbol of the great Parliamentary tradition which binds together the free Nations of the British Commonwealth. Anno Domini 1926.’

On the sides of the Speaker’s Chair, there are Latin inscriptions which translate to ‘The hand that deals justly is a sweet-smelling ointment. A heedful and faithful mind is conscious of righteousness. Justice is influenced neither by entreaties nor gifts. Liberty lies in the laws. Envy is the enemy of honour. Praise be to God.’

A black and white photo of the House of Representatives Chamber with men sitting in rows on leather chairs in a U-shaped pattern. A large ornate chair at the front of the room has a man sitting in it.

The presentation of the Speaker’s Chair to the Australia Parliament by the United Kingdom Branch of the Empire Parliamentary Association, 11 October 1926. 
Credit: National Archives of Australia A3560, 2399 

Who built the Speaker's Chair?

The Speaker’s Chair was built by Messrs Harry Hems & Sons of Exeter under the direction of Sir Frank Baines of Her Majesty’s Office of Works in the United Kingdom. It is based on the UK’s Speaker’s Chair, designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, one of the interior designers for the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after it was destroyed by fire in 1834.

Photographs and plaster casts were used to produce the Australian chair to ensure that it was a faithful copy of the original chair designed by Pugin. Messrs Harry Hems & Sons used traditional medieval methods, using no nails, screws or sandpaper to construct the Speaker’s Chair. Remarkably, the chair is held together entirely by dowels.

What did the chief architect John Smith Murdoch think of the proposed gift?

John Smith Murdoch was not immediately taken with the Empire Parliamentary Association’s proposed gift. He was concerned that the neogothic-style chair would look out of place in an Interwar Stripped Classical building and furniture. His protests fell on deaf ears. The chair was assembled in the provisional Parliament House in 1926, where it remains today.