Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Priscila Pivatto & Emma Peplow, ‘MPs in their own words: the History of Parliament’s oral history project’

Our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar was an internal affair, as Priscila Pivatto and Emma Peplow spoke on the History of Parliament’s own national oral history project, which is recording MPs’ memories in their own words. We began by introducing the project and our progress so far (you can find out more here), before discussing some preliminary findings from our project for post-war British political history.

We discussed both the positives and negatives of interviewing MPs for an oral history project – especially as it rather unusual for an oral history project to focus on a group already in the public eye rather than capturing the memories of ‘ordinary people’. However, on the positive side we noted that our project was uncovering new material and giving a different perspective on life at Westminster. For example, personalities and characters emerge from our interviews, and many were deeply emotional and reveal major issues, motivations and commitments that were not necessarily found elsewhere. The number of MPs who considered themselves ‘outsiders’ at Westminster is also striking in what is perceived to be an elite, homogeneous group: whether thanks to class, gender, access, party or religion, there was certainly ‘segregation’ in Westminster (to use the words of MP Teddy Taylor). This is particularly revealed in this interview extract from former Labour MP Alice Mahon:

On the other hand, as with any oral history project, memories are themselves constructed by the interviewer and have to be treated with care. This can be a greater problem for MPs who are keen to present a particular narrative of their careers.

We then turned to some findings from our project, based on a sample of 60 interviews. Our discussion focussed on the reasons given by MPs for entering politics. We uncovered three key reasons for entering politics: firstly, the influence of family, either through the direct example of family members’ involvement, such as Peter, Lord Carrington:

Or through an atmosphere at home of discussion and debate, as remembered here by Frank Judd:

Secondly, education could be a key factor in enlightening their political views, especially those who went to grammar or public school. Jill Knight, for example, remembered first becoming interested in politics thanks to a reaction to a left-wing English teacher, whereas others, such as Kenneth Baker, discussed debating societies, mock elections or the active encouragement of teachers. A smaller group became involved in politics because of a specific cause – for Conservatives, this may have been the Attlee government or the Winter of Discontent, for Labour, this might be anti-apartheid activism or involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. For some, their interest in politics began at school or in the home but they were motivated to become actively involved, or stand as an MP, because of these specific issues.

We then briefly looked at the routes to Westminster and analysed different experiences and strategies MPs used to become selected as candidates. In discussion afterwards, there were several suggestions of further avenues to explore, such as the possible links between motivation and the type of career the MPs had, and many were interested in how MPs viewed their time at Westminster. We were helped in our discussions by several volunteer interviewers from the project, who shared their experiences as well.


Our final seminar for the term takes place this evening as Eliza Hartrich will speak on ‘Influencing Parliament in fifteenth-century England: some observations on ‘The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye’. Full details are available here. Hope you can join us!

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Exeter elections in the 1990s: Witness Seminar

On 27 October we held our first ‘witness seminar’ at the Devon Heritage Centre as part of From the Grassroots: an oral history of community politics in Devon. The aim of a witness seminar is to bring together a small group of people who were involved in particular event or organisation to share their memories. The result is different from a one-on-one oral history interview and often more lively, especially as the participants respond to one another’s memories.

Our seminar focussed on elections in Exeter during the 1990s. The participants were Rod Ruffle, Liberal Democrat councillor for Exeter, Jeff Coates who held various roles in the Exeter Conservative Association including party Chairman and President, and Eddie Lopez, election agent for Labour MP Ben Bradshaw. We hoped to also be joined by Joan Morrish, Liberal Councillor for many years, but unfortunately she was unable to do so – although you can read about her interview for From the Grassroots on our website.

Our discussion lasted over two hours and the audience were treated to the inside view of politics in the constituency. We began with impressions of Exeter politics in 1990s. All three recognised that the Labour party was extremely well-organised in the city, even though the Conservatives had held the parliamentary seat from 1970 to 1997. All three also noted a change in campaigning recently – a theme emerging strongly in From the Grassroots interviews – from canvassing and visiting voters to more reliance on social media.

Our speakers soon turned to the two parliamentary election campaigns in the 1990s. In 1992 Jeff Coates remembered that he was confident of a Conservative victory, despite national divisions and concerns, because of the popularity of sitting Conservative MP Sir John Hannam. Rod Ruffle, on the other hand, remembered that his experience in canvassing had not led him to expect a Conservative victory nationwide. Sir John Hannam indeed held his seat in the city with a majority of over 3,000.

The 1997 election in Exeter was much more controversial. Before the campaign even began the Labour candidate, John Lloyd, had been de-selected following intervention from the National Executive Committee after a controversy emerged over his past involvement in anti-apartheid activism in South Africa. Eddie Lopez remembered arriving in Exeter in 1996 to find a party still recovering from the divisions caused by this. In the Conservatives, Jeff Coates remembered Hannam’s decision to step down came as a surprise, and recalled his own attempts to be selected as the parliamentary candidate. However, the party instead chose Dr Adrian Rogers. For the Liberal Democrats, Rod Ruffle remembered expecting a hard campaign – but in fact the Liberal Democrat vote remained fairly consistent from 1992.

The campaign itself was dominated by Dr Rogers’ decision to use Ben Bradshaw’s open homosexuality – one of the few candidates to do so at that time – against him. Eddie Lopez remembered that this was a difficult time for Bradshaw, who faced ‘obnoxious’ material and some direct abuse, but in fact it was a ‘godsend’ in what became an ‘exciting’ campaign: Bradshaw won the seat with a swing of 12.5%. Jeff Coates remembered not expecting to win in 1997 thanks to national issues, but agreed that the Conservative party in Exeter were still in some ways struggling with the aftermath of this campaign.

As an observer, the strong impression left by the event was that, although these three were clearly political rivals with distinct views, their mutual respect was clear – even in arguments about current politics!

You can find out more about From the Grassroots on the project’s website – and stay tuned for news of our exhibition in the New Year!


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Thomson ‘with the wooden leg’

It’s Disability History Month, and in honour of this year’s theme, ‘War and Impairment:
The Social Consequences of Disablement’, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Senior Research Fellow of the Commons 1640-60 section, looks at the life of Col. George Thomson who lost a leg at the battle of Cheriton…

Over the centuries, military veterans will have been a familiar sight at Westminster, especially in the aftermath of international campaigns or civil wars.  In the mid seventeenth century, for instance, maimed and disbanded soldiers or their widows and dependents lobbied Parliament for arrears of pay and for compensation.  Former officers sat in the House.  So too did serving officers, despite the so-called Self Denying Ordinance (April 1645), which attempted for political reasons to exclude them.

In the autumn of 1645, by-elections were held to fill vacancies caused by death or by the expulsion of MPs who had supported King Charles I from the outbreak of war in 1642.  Among parliamentarian loyalists ‘recruited’ to Westminster was Colonel George Thomson.  This new Member for Southwark was something of a celebrity owing to the way in which he had dealt with a disabling wound sustained in combat.  A story circulated in London that when his leg was shot off at the battle of Cheriton (29 March 1644), ‘so far from being discouraged … he said he had another leg to lose for Jesus Christ’ (The Journal of Thomas Juxon, ed. D. Lindley and D. Scott, Camden Society, 5th series, xiii. 49–50).  Fitted with a wooden prosthesis, Thomson lived for another 45 years, during which he put in some dedicated public service.

Even before 1644, Thomson had had an extraordinarily varied and productive life.  In 1623, at 16, this Hertfordshire gentleman’s son went with his siblings to join their eldest brother, Maurice, in Virginia.  At 21 he was a lieutenant in the militia in Elizabeth County and at 22 a member of the Virginian House of Burgesses.  Returning to England around 1630, the brothers developed far-flung business interests extending from Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean and India, and in commodities including tobacco and silver wire; Maurice, in particular, became extremely wealthy.  Following the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1641, they became procurers of supplies for the troops sent to quell it, and they continued to provide stores to the military through the British civil wars, as well as joining the militia or the army themselves.

George Thomson devoted no less energy to being an MP.  At first one preoccupation was to obtain his arrears of army pay, in what was probably a test case before the House.  He also sat on committees evaluating the claims of other veterans.  However, despite continuing commercial commitments (including beer-trading in Southwark), he soon threw himself into raising money and troops for the war effort.  When in 1647 the Presbyterians and the City of London tried to negotiate peace with the king on their terms, without reference to the New Model Army and the Independents, Thomson and his fellow Southwark MP, distiller George Snelling, mobilised their local militia and opened London Bridge to let the army cross the Thames and seize control of Parliament.  Under the commonwealth (1649–1653) Thomson was an indefatigable member of the navy and the excise commissions, attending day in and day out, reporting detailed budgets to the House and contributing to the reorganisation of the navy that allowed it to win a notable victory against trade rivals the Dutch.

Thomson’s opposition to the setting-up of the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell resulted in the termination of his commissions.  For the next five years he lived in retirement, although the wealth and connections of the Thomson brothers made their expertise and resources valuable to the regime; Robert continued to hold government office and Maurice became governor of the powerful East India Company.  In 1659 George and his youngest brother William Thomson, a London alderman, both sat in the Commons.  Pragmatists, they anticipated the return of the monarchy; the brothers assisted former navy colleague George Monck to bring about the Restoration, helping to ensure the fleet would be loyal to Charles II.

Despite this, for a few years after 1660, the brothers were under suspicion – George, William (still an MP) and Robert because of their real or supposed religious opinions; Maurice because he allegedly supplied naval intelligence to the Dutch.  Samuel Pepys was thus surprised when in 1667 he heard that ‘Thomson with the wooden leg’ was a prospective commissioner of naval accounts (Pepys’s Diary, viii. 569–71).  Within a few weeks George Thomson was in post.  Soon Pepys acknowledged that Thomson was not only ‘mighty kind’ to himself, but also ‘likely to mind our business more than any’ (Pepys’s Diary, ix. 68).  He later found him – apparently characteristically – discovering errors in ships’ logs which other inspectors had missed.  Rehabilitated, the brothers served in the admiralty or in Parliament into old age.


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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Alice Ferron, ‘The widow’s peak: early Stuart female voices of authority in Parliament.’

Alice Ferron, a final year PhD student at University College, London reports back on her paper at the last ‘Parliaments, Politics, and People’ seminar. Alice spoke on ‘The widow’s peak: early Stuart female voices of authority in Parliament’…

My doctoral research has centered on various strands of censorship in women’s writing in the first half of the early modern period. I am interested in the concept of the ‘liberated female voice.’ My paper looked at how five widows sought to navigate the stigma of print in printed parliamentary appeals. Whereas the notorious prophetess, Lady Eleanor Davies, more obviously mediated her own voice by taking on the persona of the prophet Daniel, some lesser-known widows more subtly used the rhetoric of universality to stress the general widow’s plight and to separate themselves from their printed appeals.

I argued that close reading early Stuart women’s appeals forces us to confront what the current scholarship tells us about the chronology and the style/tone of women’s petitioning. Much of the historiography and literary criticism that examines female appeals looks at the period after 1640 where groups of women, such as the Levellers in 1649 petitioned parliament to ask for the release of some of their leaders. For many literary critics, these group petitions marked a decisive moment in women’s literary history, but these later petitions drew on tropes established by single women petitioners in the first part of the period. Moreover, historians who have studied female appeals have argued that the voices of the petitioners gained strength from either the claimant’s individual voice or from the persuasive force of a number of different female voices. Widows’ appeals to parliament show us that petitions could be both universal and individual. These female petitioners emphasized that their grievances reflected the plight of many women, but they petitioned parliament alone.

The paper prompted an extremely interesting conversation and gave me several new ideas to expand my research. The limited biographical information on many of these women means that we cannot know the logistics of their suits or even in some cases if their bills passed. However, by focusing on women’s voices in the most unexpected of places we can tell a story about female authorial strategies, which is perhaps surprising. Women sought to negotiate the stigma of print by emphasizing the universality of their claims to show that their act of writing was not individual but rather for the greater good.


Join us tonight at the ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar when Priscila Pivatto and Emma Peplow from the History of Parliament will speak on ‘MPs in their own words: the History of Parliament’s oral history project’. Full details here.

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Seventeenth-century calls for English devolution

With the publication today of the Smith Commission recommending further powers for the Scottish Parliament, Philip Baker, Research Fellow on the 1624 Parliamentary Diaries project, discusses proposals for English devolution during the 1640s…

The current demands for greater devolution and decentralisation of power from central government raise the prospect, as some commentators have acknowledged, of the most significant constitutional changes since the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. But not dissimilar calls for a redistribution of power from Westminster to England’s local communities were heard somewhat earlier in the seventeenth century, at the height of the civil war of the 1640s, and would have brought about a fundamentally different form of constitutional settlement.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the increasing centralisation of English government. In addition to the refusal of Charles I to call any parliaments between 1629-40, the crown’s attempts to enforce strict compliance with its military, fiscal and religious policies undermined the discretionary powers of local officeholders. But far from ending this process, the years of civil war and parliamentarian rule only brought about its escalation. The creation of numerous bureaucratic committees at Westminster and of a whole new tier of local government – the county committees, which were closely managed by parliament – rode roughshod over more traditional practices of self-government within local communities.

Reactions to these changes took various forms. Some counties saw the rise of neutralist club associations, which took up arms against both royalist and parliamentarian forces and petitioned Westminster for the restoration of their traditional local rulers and organs of government. The demands of the London-based petitioner movement known as the Levellers went much further. These included the abolition of the central Westminster courts and the transfer of legal jurisdiction to local courts, an extension of the parliamentary franchise and the election of local officials, including ministers. Like other religious nonconformists, the Levellers also opposed the idea of a compulsory national church.

At a time of significant disenchantment with Westminster politicians and their practices, major changes to the political system were contemplated by the Levellers and other contemporary pamphleteers – changes which have also been debated over recent months and years. These included the need for regular, fixed-term parliaments; for a reduction in the number of MPs; and for formal procedures for the accountability of MPs to their constituents, including the power to recall them.

Many of the Levellers’ ideas were brought together in a series of draft written constitutions called the Agreements of the People – the earliest attempts to produce a written constitution in the English-speaking world. These documents would have created a nation of self-governing communities with an unprecedented level of local authority and power, and were often presented as a restoration of past practices. But while such a vision of the English state had obvious medieval antecedents, it was an appeal to a largely imaginary past with an alternative value system.

The Agreements of the People were never implemented, although some of their proposals influenced the constitutions of the 1650s, and they obviously aimed to devolve power at a much lower level of society than is being considered at present. It remains to be seen if the current calls for decentralisation remain, like those of the 1640s, mere popular rhetoric or if in time they will become a constitutional reality.


You can read more from Phil on the Agreements of the People in his earlier blogpost for us ‘The Agreements of the People, 1647-49′.

You can also read our full series on the political relationship between England and Scotland, published earlier this year in the run up to the Scottish Referendum, here.

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‘You have behaved like a man of honour’: the duel between John Wilkes and Samuel Martin

Last night the London Record Society held a launch event for ‘The Diaries of John Wilkes, 1770-1797‘ edited by our own Dr Robin Eagles. Here, Dr Eagles relates one of Wilkes’s extra-parliamentary duels…

The St James’s Chronicle of 15-17 November 1763 carried a story of a duel fought between two unnamed persons of distinction. The account confined itself to reporting the fact that the duel had happened and that one of the participants now lay delirious and in agony from his injuries in his house in Great George Street. Oddly, the same issue contained a separate and rather different account of what must have been the same duel (and its aftermath). Unlike the other, brief summary, this was detailed and named names. The duel had been fought on 16 November between John Wilkes and Samuel Martin, the latter a fellow MP and former secretary to the treasury. The quarrel was the result of Martin’s stinging attack on Wilkes in the House of Commons in the wake of the North Briton No. 45 affair. As well as being a former member of the administration that Wilkes had attacked so openly, Martin had his own reasons for wishing to bring Wilkes down, having been the subject of vicious criticism in the paper’s earlier issues.

Wilkes’s immediate response to Martin’s speech in the House, in which Martin accused Wilkes of being ‘a cowardly rascal, a villain and a scoundrel’ was silence. Parliament had long taken a dim view of members fighting one another and there would have certainly been a move made to enforce a peace had Wilkes responded to Martin’s harangue. Wilkes, thus, kept his place and left it until after the day’s proceedings were over to write Martin a reply. In it he took pleasure in emphasizing that he was indeed the author of the pieces criticizing Martin, provoking Martin to do what he no doubt hoped he would: demand satisfaction.

Wilkes’s origins were in trade, but he was intent on reinventing himself as a gentleman. In this he had been only partially successful. Although he could claim the distinction of being squire of Aylesbury, thanks to his marriage to an heiress, he had recently had his courage and honour called into question over his handling of a duel fought with Lord Talbot in 1762 and another abortive affair with a Scots captain, Forbes, whom he had happened across in Paris in the summer of 1763. Martin’s demand for satisfaction offered Wilkes another opportunity to prove his bravery and his credentials as a person of honour. He readily agreed to the duel, which was arranged to take place in the environs of Hyde Park. As if to emphasize his sang froid about the whole business, according to one paper, Wilkes even called in at a poulterer’s on his way to the agreed ground to place an order for some woodcocks.

Having found a suitable place, the men agreed the rules they were to abide by and prepared to fight. The duel itself, as was not infrequently the case, was botched. Having been arranged hastily and in secret, no seconds were involved, though Wilkes does seem to have taken the trouble to make sure a servant followed him at a distance. Both men brought a brace of pistols and (at Wilkes’s insistence) they each exchanged one of their pair to ensure that there was no foul play. According to the newspapers’ account of the fight the first shots fired both missed and Martin’s second pistol then failed to fire at which Wilkes, with characteristic generosity, put his second pistol aside. The men then reloaded, turned and fired again. This time Wilkes was hit just below the belly. The bullet ricocheted off his waistcoat buttons, which saved his life, but drove the ball downwards into his groin.

Both men responded to the situation with the expected gentlemanliness of the times. Martin offered to get Wilkes to a chair so that he could be treated, while Wilkes assured Martin that he was satisfied Martin had behaved properly and that his opponent should make himself scarce to avoid trouble. Wilkes was then carried home where a surgeon managed to extract the bullet. According to the papers Wilkes was in ‘great spirits during the operation’. He also had the satisfaction of receiving visits from some worried friends: the duke of Bolton, Earl Temple and William Pitt the Elder.

Unsurprisingly, and as suggested by the contrasting accounts in the St James’s Chronicle, the various versions of the affair do not entirely agree. [For other accounts see John Sainsbury, John Wilkes: the Lives of a Libertine,77-9 and Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty, 153-6.] Both Wilkes and Martin, for instance, wrote about the event (Martin in vindication of his actions in case Wilkes died). Unlike the newspaper account, it seems to have been Wilkes’s pistol, borrowed from Martin, and not Martin’s that misfired and there is some suggestion that Wilkes suspected Martin had given him a faulty pistol deliberately. Martin was at pains to insist that both weapons were properly set up and that Wilkes’s fiddling with the borrowed piece had caused the charge to fall out, but other suggestions about Martin’s behaviour, combined with revisited accounts of Captain Forbes’s attempts on Wilkes in Paris added to an impression that Wilkes was the wronged party. It was even hinted that he may have been the subject of multiple assassination attempts. This, of course, added to his heroic status as an upholder of the people’s rights against a dubious administration. Most important, though, was Wilkes’s handling of the affair. He emerged with his reputation as a man of honour enhanced. Although the continuing legal actions against him and his need to recover from his injuries led to his self-imposed exile in France, at his return in the early months of 1768 he was no longer an outsider whose courage could be questioned, but a man willing to stand (defenceless) against the assaults of the administration and – perhaps most important of all – to keep smiling as he did so.


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The History of Parliament’s Annual Lecture 2014: Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch

On 5th November our annual lecture was delivered in Portcullis House by Professor Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch. Professor MacCulloch has published widely on the Reformation, including a recent biography of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, not to mention featuring in many television and radio programmes. He lectured on ‘Parliament and the Reformation of Edward VI.’

Jan Laski

Jan Laski

Professor MacCulloch began with a letter written to Edward’s sister Elizabeth on her succession to the throne in 1558 by the Polish Evangelical reformer Jan Laski (known in Western Europe as Johannes Alasco). Laski had been a key figure in Edward’s reformation, but in his letter to Elizabeth he was critical about her brother. Edward’s religious changes were a work of ‘parliamentary theology’, and he urged Elizabeth not to make the same mistakes as her brother. Although the phrase ‘parliamentary theology’ was intended as an insult, it was an accurate comment on the whole English Reformation.

The reformation in England was unique because of the role of Parliament; major events such as the break from Rome (in the 1534 Act of Supremacy) were undertaken in legislation passed by the institution. MacCulloch argued that Parliament gave the sometimes unpopular and contentious religious changes a degree of authority and legitimacy, but by using Parliament in this way the Tudor governments, probably unintentionally, made Parliament itself more important. Parliament was at the centre of events and the final word on religion for both sides.

Professor MacCulloch discussed a number of ways that both Evangelicals (Protestant reformers – although the word ‘Protestant’ was not used at the time) and conservatives used Parliamentary legitimacy to justify their policies or to resist religious changes. For example, in the early years of Edward VI’s reign the conservative Bishop Edmund Bonner refused to follow royal decrees on religion because they would counteract the ‘6 Acts’ passed by Henry VIII’s last Parliament. Professor MacCulloch then detailed the work of Edward’s reformation and how major aspects of very controversial theology – such as the new communion service in Edward’s prayer books – could be decided by compromise in Parliament. MacCulloch stressed how Edward’s reformation was the product of the evangelical clergy (often influenced by debate abroad), the regime and political circumstances.

Edward’s reformation was cut short by his death in 1553 (and much reversed by his sister Mary’s reign). Professor MacCulloch concluded his lecture by noting that Elizabeth I did reject a return to ‘Parliamentary theology’ – she did not allow her Parliaments to debate her religious settlement of 1559 despite growing pressure to do so. As such the Church of England was left with an ‘ambiguous’ doctrine that shaped the rest of the Reformation in England.


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