Votes for Women and the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17

January 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17, which first sat in October 1916 and reported on 27 January 1917.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Joint Project Manager for the Vote 100 Exhibition Project, discusses the significance of the Conference for women’s suffrage.

The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17 was the brainchild of Walter Long MP, President of the Local Government Board. By mid-1916, the House of Commons had been considering electoral reform for some time, without agreement. It was clear that some kind of franchise reform was necessary in order to allow men on military or naval service to vote at the next election. Many MPs were keen that men working in other militarily-useful industries should also be able to vote, and given the importance of women’s contribution to the war effort, it became necessary to at least consider whether some women should be included too. But the Commons could not agree, and Long suggested a cross-party, cross-House body to make recommendations. The Speaker was asked to chair it, which he agreed to with some reluctance, writing to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith,

I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm. I fear that the number and complexity of the issues, which will be raised as we proceed, will overwhelm us and it will be almost impossible to obtain anything approaching unanimity upon the more important topics which will come up for discussion. [Quoted in Rolf, p43]

Despite the Speaker’s misgivings, the Conference went on to meet successfully over 26 sittings throughout Parliament’s recess and through a change of government in December 1916. It was made up of 32 MPs and Peers, chosen by the Speaker to ensure party balance and also a balance of opinion on controversial issues such as women’s suffrage and proportional representation. As well as franchise reform, the Conference was asked to make recommendations on redistribution of seats, electoral registration, and method and cost of elections. Women’s suffrage campaigners including Millicent Fawcett lobbied the Conference members throughout, to ensure their cause was given proper consideration.

Although no formal record was made of the Conference discussions, the Speaker explained in his memoirs that he took less controversial issues first on which it was easier to get consensus, and then moved to more controversial ones, including women’s suffrage. It is also noticeable that when certain Conference members resigned who were known to be anti-suffrage (Frederick Banbury, Lord Salisbury and Robert Finlay) he appointed pro-suffragists.

A few Conference members wrote accounts afterwards, which give a flavour of the proceedings. These included Alexander MacCallum Scott MP, who gave much credit to the Speaker for his approach:

He told the Conference plainly that it was not a Parliamentary Debating Society… the Government had asked us to find a way, and we had got to find a way… From that moment he took the Conference in hand. When the two sides sat and stared blankly at each other he took the initiative and put proposals for their discussions… He had no political axe of his own to grind… and he succeeded in dominating the Conference. He created the atmosphere of conciliation. [Quoted in Pugh, p76]

One of the most dedicated women’s suffrage supporters at the Conference was Willoughby Dickinson MP. Dickinson was the only one of the Conference members with a perfect record of both attending and voting in favour in Parliamentary divisions on women’s suffrage [listed in Fair, pp294-5]. Dickinson recorded that on 10 and 11 January 1917 the Conference agreed to consider the question of women suffrage by 18 votes to 4; agreed there should be some measure of women’s suffrage by 15 votes to 6; but a motion was lost that this should be on the same terms as men, by 10 votes to 12. From his scribbled notes it also appears that they voted on motions that women should have the franchise at age 25 (no figures given), 30 (11 for, 8 against); and age 35 (12 for, 3 against). Then, by his own account:

I made my proposition that vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, suffrage clause went forward! [‘A veteran recalls the passage of the Franchise Act’, Willoughby Dickinson papers, London Metropolitan Archives F/DCK/027/28 & 29]

The Speaker duly reported that the Conference decided by a majority to recommend that the franchise be conferred on all woman who were on the local government register, or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’ [Conference report].  William Bull MP later remembered how age 30, rather than 35, was inserted during the drafting of the Representation of the People Bill in 1917:

As Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr. Walter Long (now Lord Long), who was President of the Local Government Board at the time, I attended the meeting of the Drafting Committee. Lord Long took the Chair, and there were also present the Home Secretary and the draftsman. When we came to the question of the age, Lord Long said, “This is rubbish,” and he struck out 35, and put in 30. The Committee agreed to that. [William Bull, House of Commons Debates, 29 Feb 1924]

There was still opposition in both the House of Commons and House of Lords to women’s suffrage, but the Bill passed on a free vote in both Houses.  The Act as passed gave the vote to all men aged 21 years or older and to men on military or naval service from the age of 19. Women aged 30 or older who qualified for the local government franchise, or whose husbands did, were also given the vote. It was thought during debate that this would give the vote to about six million women, although the eventual figure was approximately 8.4 million women.  The Speaker explained later in the House of Commons that:

It was thought desirable that women and men should be somewhere about on a parity and we took the age of thirty which was the nearest we could get to make the number of women voters equal to the number of men. [The Speaker, House of Commons Debates, 4 April 1919]

The accounts of the Conference and the debates during the passage of the Act make it clear that it was not possible for Parliament to agree equal franchise in 1918 – that had to wait another ten years, until the Equal Franchise Act 1928. But despite the age and property restrictions on women, the 1918 Act was a huge concession of principle. Gender alone was no longer a barrier to voting.  As we move towards celebrating the centenary of the vote for all men and some women in 2018, we should also remember the crucial role of the Speaker’s Conference of 1916/17, which is not well remembered today, but without which the Act could never have happened. In particular credit is due to Conference members such as Willoughby Dickinson MP, and to Speaker Lowther.



This blogpost came from research for an article for a future edition of Parliamentary History, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 in February 2018; and in work done for a Vote 100 display, which can be viewed online here:

Further reading

  • Neal Blewitt, ‘The franchise in the United Kingdom, 1885-1918’, Past and Present, 32 (1965), 27-56
  • David Close, ‘The Collapse of Resistance to Democracy: Conservatives, Adult Suffrage and Second Chamber Reform, 1911-1928’, Historical Journal 20:4 (1977)
  • Conference on electoral reform: letter from Mr Speaker to the prime minister. Cd. 8463, 1917-1918
  • Hope Costley-White, Willoughby Hyett Dickinson 1859-1943: A Memoir (1956)
  • John D Fair, ‘The Political Aspects of Women’s Suffrage during the First World War,’ Albion, 8:3 (1976), 274-295
  • Millicent Garrett Fawcett, What I Remember (1924; reprinted 2004)
  • Nicoletta F. Gullace, “The Blood of our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (Basingstoke, 2002)
  • House of Commons Library, ‘Speaker’s Conferences’, Standard Note SN/PC/04426 (2009)
  • James William Lowther, A Speaker’s Commentaries (1925)
  • Homer Lawrence Morris, ‘Parliamentary Franchise Reform in England From 1885 to 1918’, no 2 vol XCVI in Studies in History, Economics and Public Law (New York, 1921), chapter ix
  • Martin Pugh, Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18 (1978)
  • David Rolf, ‘Origins of Mr. Speaker’s Conference during the First World War’, History, 64:210, (1979) 36-46
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The election of debtors to the early Stuart House of Commons

Facing up to the consequences of Christmas spending is a common problem in January, but for some in serious financial straights the past, parliament provided a solution. Dr Andrew Thrush, editor of the House of Lords 1603-60 section, tells us more about early 17th Century debtors in the Commons…

Not all of those who entered the Commons in the early seventeenth century did so from the noblest of motives.  While many were undoubtedly eager to enter St Stephen’s Chapel because they wished to serve the interests of their constituents, or to promote religious reformation, others were rather more self-serving.  Some, desirous of employment, hoped that conspicuous service in the Commons would bring them to the notice of the crown; others merely sought to continue the family tradition of sitting at Westminster.  Among the least edifying reasons for seeking election was the need to escape debtors’ prison.  In order to prevent the business of either House from being disrupted, all members of Parliament enjoyed immunity from arrest.  However, this necessary privilege created a perverse incentive for election among those who were unable or unwilling to pay off their debts.  In the Addled Parliament of 1614, at least eleven members gained seats so as to defeat their creditors.  They included such notable figures as Sir William Cavendish, returned as junior knight of the shire for Derbyshire.  Heir to the future earl of Devonshire, Cavendish racked up enormous debts because he declined to restrict his spending to his formal allowance.  Other conspicuous spendthrifts who sought refuge in the Commons that year included both representatives for Lancashire, Sir Cuthbert Halsall and Sir Thomas Gerrard, 1st bt.  In 1625 the Devon gentleman Arthur Bassett was actually languishing in debtors’ prison when he was elected to serve for the Cornish borough of Fowey.

In theory, it was illegal for those who had been outlawed for debt to serve in the Commons.  As early as the mid fifteenth century the judges had ruled ‘that matter of outlawry was a sufficient cause of dismission of any member out of the House’.  However, despite the risk of damage to its reputation, the Commons consistently refused to expel outlaws.  In 1559, for example, they declared that John Smith, though outlawed, ‘should still continue a member of the House’, while in 1593 they refused to unseat Thomas Fitzherbert, even though he had twenty-two judgments against him for debt.  During the early seventeenth century the only debtors to whom the Commons denied admittance were Sir William Cope, elected for Banbury in 1625 despite having been put in execution for debt, and Sir Thomas Monck, returned for Camelford in 1626 while in prison.

The Commons’ reluctance to root out those of its members who had been outlawed for debt was not entirely unreasonable, as the case of Ferdinand Huddleston, returned for Cumberland in 1624 despite there being twenty-four outlawries against him, demonstrates. During the debates on this case in the Commons’ committee for privileges, it was observed that outlawry ‘may happen to the best man in a county’. Most men of means needed credit at some time or another, if only to tide them over until the next quarterly rents were due. Under such circumstances, it was understandable if payments to creditors were sometimes late and court action ensued.  Members of the committee also observed that it was wrong to deprive the commonwealth of the services of those deemed most able by their electors to serve in Parliament for something as trivial as debt.  They also noted that ‘outlawries … are for the most part gotten behind men’s backs and without their privity’.  This fear, that members ambushed by their creditors might find themselves expelled from the Commons, was of long standing, for in 1604 a bill to prohibit ‘lurking and secret outlawries’ received two readings.

In essence, the House of Commons believed that its composition should be decided by electors rather than by private moneylenders.  However, the crown took a starkly different view.  In 1604 the new king, James I, issued a proclamation forbidding the election of outlaws to the forthcoming Parliament, ‘for wee may well foresee, how ill effects the bad choice of unfit men may produce, if the House should bee supplied with Bankrupts and necessitous persons that may desire long parliaments for their private protections’.  James was almost certainly encouraged to issue this proclamation by the lord chancellor, Lord Ellesmere, who believed that outlaws were unfit to be lawmakers and that it was the role of Chancery, not the Commons, to determine who was eligible to sit at Westminster.  During the course of the ensuing parliamentary elections, Sir Francis Goodwin was returned for Buckinghamshire, only to be disqualified by the attorney general on the (mistaken) grounds that he was an outlaw and replaced by the privy councillor Sir John Fortescue.  However, in the ensuing struggle between the Commons on the one hand and the king and the privy council on the other, it was the latter who came off worse.  The Commons, horrified that ‘a chancellor may call a Parliament of what persons he will, by this course’, declined to turn their attention to the king’s plan to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland until their claim to jurisdiction was upheld. Faced with the prospect of unwelcome opposition to his pet project, an alarmed James was forced to concede that the lower House, as well as Chancery, was entitled to validate returns.  In so doing, he effectively handed victory to the Commons, whose right to determine the outcome of elections was never again challenged by Chancery.  The Commons thereupon quietly abandoned their promise to pass legislation that would prohibit outlaws from sitting in future.  To have done otherwise would have been tantamount to making a rod for their own backs.


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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Philip Aylett, ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’

Dr Philip Aylett (House of Commons/Queen Mary, University of London) reports back from his ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar paper last year: ‘The political origins and impact of Commons select committees: some 20th century case studies’…

In a paper delivered to the seminar on 29 November I talked about the role of committees in Parliament, and especially in the House of Commons. I said that, in particular, select committees – cross-party groups of MPs or peers, often asked by the Commons or Lords to inquire into and report on specific questions or issues, often in relation to government policy and administration –  had been a fundamental and often highly active part of life in both Houses since the early days of Parliament.  The Victorian era had then seen a great flowering of committee activity on both private and public matters.

In the last century or so select committees have been largely or exclusively composed of backbench MPs, giving these Members scope to influence events and policy. That was important, I argued, because it had implications for the relationship between government and Parliament.

I went on to trace the 20th century history of investigatory select committees, and to ask why they almost disappeared from view between the First World War and 1960. This remained something of a mystery, but the popularity of party committees of MPs on specific policy areas may have had something to do with it.  The paper argued that, by the late 1950s, some of the key functions of Parliament, including the task of holding Ministers to detailed account for their performance in office through select committee scrutiny, had become weakened.

Then I concluded by contending that since the mid-1960s select committees had grown gradually stronger and more effective, in ways that made them, today, politically and even constitutionally important. Along the way I picked out political events that helped select committees to grow in significance, turning up some unlikely and perhaps unintentional heroes of parliamentary reform, including Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.

Along with others, these party leaders of the mid-60s developed a realistic and workable model of select committees that would be attractive to the modern MP; this would concentrate on scrutiny through inquiry and report and would avoid the burdensome tasks of legislative drafting and budget setting and financial monitoring.  I also suggested that the revival of select committees after 1966 or so had been encouraged by the influx of a more highly-educated cadre of MPs, especially on the Labour side; these Members might be considered better equipped than previous cohorts to take on analysis of policy and administration.

The discussion was lively. Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament thought that I had been too kind to many of the 19th century committees and had conflated ‘modern’ investigatory committees with earlier Commons bodies with different and not always commendable roles. Dr Paul Hunneyball made similar points in relation to the 17th century.  Professor George Jones suggested that the modern committees were too fond of grandstanding and could be seen as unconstitutional, inflating the role of the MP and undermining the proper function of government. Committees should avoid second-guessing Ministers on policy issues, he felt, because most MPs had been elected to support the governing party and its policies.


Watch this space for next term’s ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar schedule!

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Review of the year 2016

It’s been yet another busy year here at the History of Parliament Trust. By far the most exciting event was the publication in July of our very first volumes focussing on the Upper House. The House of Lords 1660-1715, published in five volumes, features the biographies of nearly 700 spiritual and temporal peers, along with an introductory survey. The volumes are now available through Cambridge University Press and you can read some tasters in our ongoing blog series.

Organisationally, there was a big change for us this year as Patrick, Lord Cormack, our Chair of Trustees for fifteen years, stood down. Our new Chairman, Gordon Marsden MP, paid tribute to Lord Cormack’s chairmanship, stating that he has left the Trust ‘far more prominent today both within Parliament and outside it’. We look forward to a new era under Gordon Marsden, who has been MP for Blackpool South since 1997, is the co-Chair of Parliament’s All-Party Arts and Heritage Group and a former Editor of the magazine History Today.

We’ve held some great events this year, beginning in April with our conference, ‘Speaking in Parliament: History, politics, rhetoric’ in collaboration with Professor Christopher Reid (Queen Mary, University of London). The conference was dedicated to the art and history of parliamentary rhetoric, and we held a taster session in Parliament the following month.  In November, our own Dr Robin Eagles co-organised a successful day-long workshop with King’s College, London, on ‘Henry Bennet: the earl of Arlington and his world’.

Also this year we’ve had a highly enjoyable programme at our ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar over at the Institute of Historical Research, including two papers from our Director, Paul Seaward, and our annual lecture, from Professor the Lord Morgan, celebrated the anniversary (to the very minute!) of David Lloyd George becoming Prime Minister in 1916. To celebrate this year’s Parliament Week we held two virtual events: a popular blog series on ‘Unlikely Parliamentarians’ throughout the years, and our first ever live Twitter Q&A on parliamentary history. There will be plenty of opportunity to come along to a History of Parliament event in 2017, with a conference planned in November on Popular Sovereignty to mark the anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, and a number of talks and lectures planned in parliament. Watch this space for more!

We celebrated more achievements from students, at school and university. Our 2015 A level competition winner was treated to a tour of Westminster before receiving his prize in April, and 2016’s joint dissertation competition winners were presented with their prizes at our annual lecture this month. More news on this year’s schools competitions soon, and we’re delighted that so many of you are using our KS3 resources.  There’s also still plenty of time to enter submissions as well for Parliamentary History’s 2017 prize for early career academics.

Aside from all of this our sections have been continuing with their research, revisions and preparing for publication, but our researchers have still been able to update you on their findings and give some historical insights into what has been a dramatic year in politics. We discussed 17th Century impeachment in the light of Brazil’s politics, reflected on by-elections and many aspects of the European Referendum and aftermath through insights from our oral history project; a series on party splits; medieval relations with Europe and some reflections on precedents used in the High Court’s recent ruling. We’ve celebrated different anniversaries, from the First Gulf War, the Suez Crisis and the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. Stephen Roberts, editor of the 1640-60 section, wrote a series on the trials of ‘Writing Parliamentary Biographies’, and Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons has continued her look at MPs who died fighting the First World War.

We’ve now interviewed over 150 MPs for our national oral history project, and 139 of these have been deposited at the British Library. A great big thank you to all of our volunteers helping us with our sound archive.

Happy New Year to you all, and here’s to another great year in 2017!


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‘A good preparation for Christmas’: Revolution and Augustan Yuletides

Christmas cheer at times came a distant second to political intrigue for those featured in our recently published volumes, The House of Lords 1660-1715. Dr Robin Eagles and Dr Charles Littleton tell us more…

Christmas was not always a time of mirth and celebration at the English royal court in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Christmas of 1688 was marked by a severe political crisis, as in the two weeks leading up to the day itself the Catholic king James II lost his nerve, and ultimately his kingdom, in the face of William of Orange’s invasion and march on the capital. James’s first attempt at flight had failed when he was recognized at Faversham and brought back to London on 16 December to an (ironically) enthusiastic public reception. William responded by sending a detachment of his troops into the capital to secure the royal palaces, and a delegation of English peers to persuade James to leave the palace, ostensibly ‘for his own safety’. James had little choice but to agree and travelled to Rochester under Dutch escort. In the early hours of 23 December he slipped away and was this time able to make his way to France, with the tacit encouragement of William, who wanted him out of the country.

For James’s own brother-in-law, Henry Hyde, 2nd earl of Clarendon, Christmas Eve was hardly a day of festivity.  After learning of the king’s flight, he lamented in his diary ‘Good God! What will become of this poor, distracted and distempered nation? … It is like an earthquake’. He was one of the peers and bishops of the realm that had been meeting at William’s request since James’s departure. The session of 24 December was particularly long, lasting from the morning until half past five in the evening, and it became hot-tempered as the discussion quickly turned to the circumstances of James’s escape and whether it constituted a voluntary abdication of the throne. ‘A good preparation for Christmas’, commented Clarendon wearily. The Lords met again on Christmas Day, but their proceedings were mercifully briefer, as the main business was to present William with addresses requesting him to summon a Convention to settle the nation and to take over the administration of the realm.

James II undoubtedly endured a miserable Christmas, abandoned by his own daughter Anne, humiliated and put under restraint by his nephew (and son-in-law) William of Orange and compelled to flee his own kingdom and seek refuge with his cousin Louis XIV of France. Meanwhile, the usually morose William could allow himself a small celebration at the thought that he might soon govern both England (and Scotland) and be able to bring their resources into play in his campaign against Louis. Sure enough, on 13 February the Convention Parliament formally offered William and his wife, Mary, the crown of England.

Dour from the beginning, towards the end of his reign William III became if anything more withdrawn. A newsletter of 27 December 1701 noted that for the Christmas service two days before, the bishop of Salisbury (Gilbert Burnet) had preached before the king at Kensington, but had been requested ‘to be short in his discourse by reason of the coldness of the season’, with which the asthmatic king struggled to cope. William may not have revelled at yuletide but the accession of Queen Anne early the following year did not necessarily mean much increased jollification at court (or elsewhere) either. By the time of her accession, Anne was in poor health and her reign was characterized by vigorous politicking between the parties from which the festive season offered no respite. In the December 1705 debates on the regency bill, following ‘much blustering in the House of Commons’ and ‘the foulest Billingsgate language’ Robert Harley claimed ever to have heard, one Tory MP, Charles Caesar, was committed to the Tower. He remained there over Christmas and for the remainder of the session. There was equal dissent on the Whig side with the radical Whig organ, The Observator, complaining of a gradually worsening state of affairs. In the issue for 26-29 December 1705 ‘Countryman’ griped:

if I can’t keep a good Christmas I can do nothing; Christmas comes but once a Year; and in the Days of Yore they us’d to say It brought good Chear along with it; but now the case is alter’d, unless it be here and there; Our Country Gentry can’t afford to keep as good Houses as their fore-fathers did.

It was not just the country gentry who struggled to identify reason for good cheer. Personal tragedy also stalked the queen and in October 1708 the death of her consort, Prince George of Denmark, plunged her further into introspection. Her bedchamber was fitted out with bedding in appropriately sombre purple and it was not until the onset of the Christmas season that the onerous requirements of mourning were partially scaled back. In mid-December the theatres reopened but New Year festivities were muted and it was not until March 1709 that the queen at last gave way to petitions on behalf of silk manufacturers to allow her ordinary subjects out of their sombre black clothes for the sake of the economy. She, herself (and thus the court) remained in mourning until Christmas 1710.

All this is not to say that the Augustan age was without wassail. The duke of Bedford’s accounts noted him doling out Christmas boxes and New Year gifts to a variety of people, ranging from the king’s trumpeters (10 shillings) to the doorkeepers of the House of Lords (£1) and the drummers and marshals of two regiments (£2 for each set). If the king of Prussia was noted as giving his queen and daughter fairly traditional gifts of diamond rings for Christmas, Lord Gower may have won the prize for one of the odder presents when he offered to his kinsman, Rutland, ‘a Brace of Trentham oxen’. Robert Harley, meanwhile (by then earl of Oxford) as a way of averting catastrophe for his administration went one better by doling out a dozen peerages during the Christmas recess of 1711/12.


Further Reading:

  • Beddard, ed. A Kingdom without a King (1988)
  • S.W. Singer, ed. The Correspondence of Henry Hyde, earl of Clarendon, and his brother Laurence Hyde, earl of Rochester: with the diary of Lord Clarendon from 1687 to 1690 (1828)
  • Anderson Wynn, Queen Anne: patroness of arts (2014)

The History of Parliament has recently published our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is available from Cambridge University Press.

Click here for other blogposts inspired by our House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

Posted in 18th Century history, Early modern history, House of Lords 1660-1715, religious history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Paul Seaward, Do our buildings shape us?

Last month our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, spoke at our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar on ‘Do our buildings shape us? On oblongs, hemicycles, and the style of British politics.’ Here he reports back on his paper…

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. [HC Deb 28 October 1943 vol 393 c403]

Winston Churchill’s remark is probably the second most famous about the Westminster Parliament. It was famously delivered during the debate on 28 October 1943 on a motion to establish a select committee to report on rebuilding the chamber of the House of Commons following its destruction by bombing two and a half years before. There were two characteristics of the old chamber that Churchill specifically wanted to defend, that would ‘command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members’. The first of them was ‘that its shape should be oblong and not semi-circular’. Churchill regarded the semi-circular chamber, or ‘hemicycle’, common to very many continental parliaments, as redolent of a system – the ‘group system’, he called it – of PR-fuelled coalitions, a world, he thought, of backroom deals and murky party allegiances. The second was that the chamber ‘should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without over-crowding and that there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him’. The alternative would be, he argued, that for nine-tenths of the time, debates would be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of a half-empty chamber.

Churchill’s view, and his preferred manner of constructing a parliamentary chamber, has been deeply influential in Britain. Many have repeated and even strengthened the point to claim that the style of the House of Commons, with its benches ranged against each other, mirrors and entrenches the British political system, with its majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral structure ensuring that political ideas strongly contrasted and contested, rather than wishy-washy compromise and negotiation. Their opponents have often, conversely, regarded the arrangement of the chamber as a badge of all that they dislike about British politics: confrontational, name-calling, a childish game of yah-boo, rather than a mature, deliberate process of debate and negotiation.

But a moment’s thought suggests that this is overblown: there are plenty of semi-circular chambers where politics can get far more confrontational than at Westminster; there are countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems which have semi-circular parliamentary chambers. Is there any truth in the idea that the form of the House of Commons has shaped our politics? Or is it more that we have come conveniently to attach certain ideas about the nature of our politics to the shape of the chamber?

Deliberative chambers before the eighteenth century tended to be in square or rectangular rooms: Vitruvius, in the little he said on the subject, seems to have regarded this as the only option for a senate house, and the surviving Roman senate house, the Curia Julia, is an oblong in shape, and pictures of early modern chambers usually show oblongs or squares. But not always: the fourteenth century House of Commons met at least sometimes in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey, an octagonal room; and a picture of the Council of Trent in session in 1566 shows that the hemicycle was not an eighteenth century invention. When the Irish Parliament was rebuilt in 1727 a remarkable octagonal design was chosen, by Edward Lovett Pearce, who argued that it was best for audibility and sightlines. When in 1739 William Kent was planning a massive new palace to hold Parliament he went through a series of designs, including circular and elliptical chambers – though, of course, the chamber was not rebuilt until after the fire of 1834.

The Revolution in France from 1789 resulted in the creation of the new National Assembly. Given the huge political pressures to which it and its successors were subjected over the next decade, let alone the cost, it would struggle to find a suitable chamber. Its temporary locations at Versailles, a riding school and then a theatre at the Tuileries palace in Paris, were all hopeless acoustically and in many other respects: these were the locations in which the Assembly and Convention met during the most dramatic moments of the Revolution, including the Terror. But though initially a new building was regarded as too expensive, much thought went into establishing the best form for an alternative, and French architects turned to the recently-built school of Surgery, with its raked seats, set out in amphitheatre style. This would eventually be the style adopted for the new chamber, constructed in the Palais Bourbon for the Council of Five Hundred, established under the post-Terror Directory and the Constitution of Year III. The Council sat there for the first time in 1798, and the chamber is still the site of the French National Assembly.

It probably had some influence too over the construction of the House of Representatives in Washington, whose painful gestation from the amateurish plans submitted initially in 1792 for a competition to design the new national ‘Capitol’ would take nearly three decades (not helped by the destruction of the building by the British in 1814). The House of Representatives finally sat for the first time in its new chamber in 1819: while it was widely admired, its acoustics left much to be desired.

Some British commentators were now profoundly jealous of these new, purpose-built legislative chambers, with their semi-circular style. The journalist and reformer William Cobbett argued as early as 1822 that Britain needed to look towards the United States, not only in the architecture of their building but also in the working environment it creates. He contrasted the working spaces of the American assemblies –both states and federal – with the chamber of the House of Commons, ‘a place for doing little business, and that little not well.’ But the problem by now was that the idea of reconfiguring the chamber had become deeply tainted by these other spaces: republican, democratic, and, to British eyes, deeply disorderly. The worst innovation in the French and US examples had been a big public gallery – a space from which, during the French Revolution, thousands had watched, commented, shouted, catcalled, and from which they had occasionally descended to participate directly in the proceedings on the floor (including the grisly murder of one unfortunate conventionel). Furthermore, these new chambers had been constructed on a model – the ancient amphitheatre, seen through the prism of the Paris school of surgery, which assumed a single speaker addressing an audience, rather than a debate between numerous speakers. What made this particularly difficult to take was that the speaker was supposed to address not only his colleagues, facing him in the chamber, but also the serried ranks of the public, sitting in the gallery (or tribune) above and behind them.

Reformers managed to secure the appointment of select committees in 1831 and 1833 which would review proposals for rebuilding the chamber. But in both cases, while they could conclude that the current House was scarcely fit for purpose, their findings were shot down by those who were dead set against any imitation of ‘the new—and he might add vulgar—legislative assemblies on the other side of the Atlantic’, and profoundly attached to (as Peel put it) ‘the same House where Chatham, and Pitt, and Fox, and Wyndham, had made their greatest and most splendid orations’. As Sir Robert Inglis said

They would not like to convert a forum to which the greatest men who ever lived had imparted a lustre by their presence, and which they had enlightened with their eloquence—into a degraded Council Chamber unworthy of the Legislature of such a country as this.


Join us tonight for the final Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar of term when Alan Macdonald (University of Dundee) will speak on ‘The rhetoric of representation: Scottish parliamentary commissions 1638-41’.

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History of Parliament dissertation competition 2016

Every year the History organises a competition for the best undergraduate dissertation presented in 2016 on a subject relating to British or Irish parliamentary or political history before 1997. Universities across the country submit a wide range of entries of a very high standard, this year covering everything from 17th century political philosophy to Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy and managerial style.

Our judges, the Trust’s editors and editorial board, decided this year to divide the prize between two joint winners: Eloise Davies (Cambridge University) and Susannah Owen (Keele University). We met both winners last night at our annual lecture, where they received their prizes from our chair of trustees, Gordon Marsden MP.

Eloise Davies’ dissertation, ‘The Blasphemy Act of 1698’ focussed on this relatively neglected piece of parliamentary legislation. Davies discussed both the cultural and political contexts for the act, and argued that it was an important aspect of the much more well-known controversy over the decision to greatly reduce the size of the army, against the wishes of William III, after the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick ended the 9 years’ war. Davies ably demonstrated how the act highlighted the variety of political and religious groupings within parliament. Our judges considered her ‘careful, very comprehensive’ research to be ‘deeply scholarly’ and a ‘genuinely original and significant contribution’ to its field.

Susannah Owen’s dissertation, ‘Digitally Mapping Popular Political Activity in Manchester, 1792-5’, took an innovative, digital approach to an old historical controversy. Owen investigated the complicated history of radical and loyalist groups in England in the early years of the French Revolution before the passing of the Seditious Meeting and Treason Acts in 1795 effectively repressed radical groups. To do so she created an interactive map of popular political activity around Manchester in her chosen period, including 100 different historical events, and concluded that the loyalists were better at dominating public space, owing to their unofficial and formal sanction by the authorities. Our judges praised Owen’s ‘literary flair’, and felt that her ‘understanding and critical awareness’ of new digital humanities techniques was ‘handled in a quite sophisticated and subtle way’.

Many thanks to all our competition entrants for another excellent year of new research.


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