Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Martin Spychal, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met': Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Martin Spychal, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on Thomas Drummond and the 1832 Reform Act. Here Martin gives an overview of his paper…

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond is best known for his invention of a portable limelight device (which would illuminate the world of nineteenth-century theatre) and his tireless efforts as Under-Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1840, which would contribute to his premature death at the age of 43. Comparatively less is known about his work supervising the English and Welsh borough boundary commission for the Grey ministry between August 1831 and September 1832. This is something of an anomaly given that so much historical ink has been spilled over Britain’s first Reform Act. Whereas Whig reforms to the poor law and municipal corporations during the 1830s have become synonymous with the names of Edwin Chadwick and Joseph Parkes, it is unlikely that many have reserved a similar place for Drummond in their mental map of 1832.[1]

Drummond was a Royal Engineer and spent the 1820s working for the Ordnance Survey before being commissioned to develop limelight for use in lighthouses by the Trinity House Corporation in 1829 – he had spent the past few years modifying Gurney’s limelight for surveying in Ireland’s treacherous conditions. His subsequent experimentations with limelight near the Tower of London attracted considerable attention during 1830 and even led to him dining with the King at the Royal Palace in Brighton in January 1831. These demonstrations also brought him to the attention of Lord Brougham, and in March 1831 (the same month the Grey ministry introduced its first reform bill) Drummond gave a private demonstration of his light to the Lord Chancellor in a mutual friend’s greenhouse on Park Road, Marylebone. Drummond was subsequently introduced into the social circles associated with Brougham and his ‘godless institutions’ of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) and the London University (now UCL) in Bloomsbury.[2] It also led to Brougham’s suggestion of Drummond’s services to the cabinet when serious planning for the work of a boundary commission commenced in the summer of 1831.

As a result of this recommendation, Drummond set to work with ministers on setting up a boundary commission during August 1831 – and, in a move clearly indicative of Brougham and Drummond’s influence, 14 men with links to the SDUK and 7 men from the Royal Engineers or Royal Artillery were recruited to be assistant boundary commissioners. Drummond and Brougham had lofty ambitions for the commission. Brougham informed Lord Grey that in three months the commission would have completed a detailed cartographical survey of every English and Welsh borough; collected a range of locally-held ancient boundary and household valuation data from local authorities; completed an economic and social survey of each borough; and proposed new parliamentary boundaries for every borough scheduled to survive or be enfranchised by the reform bill. The extent of this task should not be underestimated – the Ordnance Survey had still not surveyed many of England’s northern towns and the state had never previously completed a survey of its ancient electoral system. Furthermore, local authorities had been unwilling to share even a fraction of this data when, during the 1820s, Brougham and his colleagues had attempted to institute minor reforms to the electoral system.[3] Accordingly, Grey and other cabinet members were highly sceptical about Drummond and Brougham’s plans, and thought it more likely the work would take three years to complete.[4]

Drummond defied Grey’s expectations, and, under his careful superintendence, the commission had completed most of its initial work by late November 1831. This led to a further expansion of the commission and of Drummond’s responsibilities, as he and his team were given three weeks to survey England’s rotten boroughs and remodel the government’s disfranchisement schedules for the government’s third reform bill.

The immediate product of the commission’s work would be nine volumes of boundary reports, the 1832 Boundary Act, and the Reform Act’s remodeled disfranchisement schedules (which became known as Drummond’s List). Drummond’s template for a boundary commission for England and Wales would also be replicated in Scotland and Ireland, whose own parliamentary boundaries needed to be redrawn prior to reformed elections taking place. Importantly, the work of these boundary commissions meant that reformed elections could take place in September 1832, almost as soon as the Grey ministry’s reform legislation had received Royal Assent.

Using a range of archival material both familiar and unfamiliar to historians of 1832, my own doctoral research explores these boundary commissions in much more detail, focusing in particular on English parliamentary boundary reform and its electoral and non-electoral impact following 1832.


Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when our own Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, will speak on ‘The uses of a parliamentary diary in the making of a royalist: the case of Henry Townshend of Worcestershire, 1640-3′. Hope you can join us!

[1] Two recent exceptions to this rule are Philip Salmon and Stephen Thompson. See P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831–32’, in The House of Commons, 182032, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge, 2009), vol. 1, 374–412; S. J. Thompson, ‘Population combined with wealth and taxation, statistics representation and the making of the 1832 Reform Act’, in Tom Crook and Glen O’Hara, G (eds.), Statistics and the public sphere, numbers and the people in Modern Britain, c. 18002000 (New York, 2011).

[2] see Rosemary Ashton, Victorian Bloomsbury, (London, 2012), 25 – 81.

[3] P. Salmon, Reform should begin at home’: English Municipal and Parliamentary Reform, 1818-32’, Parliamentary History, 24, 1, 93-113.

[4] H.Brougham, The Life and Times of Henry Lord Brougham, vol. 3, (London, 1871), 379.

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London 1264: from Magna Carta to Montfort’s Parliament.

As part of our series on Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s parliament, Ian Stone, a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, discusses how a recent discovery among the records of the Corporation of London shows just how tightly bound the citizens of London had become to Simon de Montfort’s regime in advance of Montfort’s famous parliament of 1265…

In December 1264 Simon de Montfort summoned his famous parliament, ‘the House of Commons in embryo’, to meet in London on 20 January 1265. This assembly marked a first in the history of England and of parliament, for its attendees were not just the earls, the lords (ecclesiastical and lay), the barons and the knights of the shires, but the townsmen of England too. Montfort, in seeking to build as wide a base as possible for his regime, required every major town to send two representatives to this assembly; but the men of the Cinque Ports and London, his most loyal supporters, were asked to send four men. The Portsmen and the Londoners were being both recognised and rewarded for their steadfast adherence to the baronial cause.

The period of Reform and Rebellion had begun at a parliament at Westminster in April 1258 when an armed baronial delegation marched in on King Henry III and demanded that the state of the kingdom ‘be put in order, corrected and reformed’. With this action Henry III’s ill-fated personal rule came crashing down around his ears. The Lond0ners had, on the whole, allied with the reformers from the start: in July 1258 the citizens had ‘immediately’ affixed London’s communal seal to a text of the Provisions of Oxford; in July 1263, following a violent outburst of pro-Montfortian rioting, the ‘whole commune’ of London had professed their support for the wider reforms now known as the Provisions of Oxford; and in December 1263 the Londoners had broken down the gate at London Bridge to allow Montfort and his army escape being trapped by the king’s forces outside of the city walls. As we shall see, however, it was to be during 1264 that the Londoners would really prove their worth to the baronial regime.

In January 1264 the country hovered on the brink of civil war and, in a last ditch attempt at reconciliation, the rival parties agreed to submit all matters to King Louis IX of France for arbitration. First among the baronial reformers’ list of ‘grievances which had oppressed the land of England’ was the complaint that the king was not upholding Magna Carta. Doubtless many in London would have been fully in agreement with the reformers here: after all, clause nine of Henry III’s Magna Carta promised London its ‘ancient liberties and free customs’, yet on ten occasions between 1239 and 1257 the king had suspended London’s liberties, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. When Louis’s judgment came down emphatically in Henry’s favour, the London alderman and chronicler, Arnold fitz Thedmar, writing his account of these events within a few months of Louis’s judgment was equally as emphatic: the Londoners, the men of the Cinque Ports and ‘almost all the ordinary people of England’ objected to Louis’s award. The attempt at arbitration had failed and across the country civil war broke out.

By 10 March 1264, if not earlier, bands of Londoners led by Hugh Despenser were attacking exchequer and royal officers in London, as well as ravaging the lands of not just royalists but even members of the royal family in the home counties. In his chronicle Arnold fitz Thedmar wrote that soon afterwards the barons and men of London were joined together by oath, but historians have made little of this rather jejeune entry. However, the text of this remarkable oath has recently been discovered in a document found among the records of the Corporation of London [subscription required]. What this document shows is that twenty-one leading Montfortians, of whom one was Thomas fitz Thomas, mayor of London representing the commune of the city, swore an oath on 31 March 1264. In taking this oath these reformers promised faithfully that ‘from this hour [we] will hold together, both us and all those who hold themselves with us in all rightful quarrels. And to save our liberties and customs and maintain them against all those who would wrongfully wish to do us violence’. Moreover, this document also confirms that subsequently every man in London over the age of twelve made a similar pledge on the gospels that he would ‘maintain the same oath’. In a repeat of the events of May 1215 which led up to the sealing of Magna Carta, the Londoners and the reformers had allied themselves together by a solemn oath; this time, however, in defence of their cherished liberties.

How seriously the men of London were to keep to the terms of this oath was soon to be tested. On 14 May 1264 many hundreds of Londoners lined up with their baronial allies on the battlefield at Lewes in Sussex. Against them, outnumbering them, and with superior weaponry were the royalist forces. Despite this inferiority it was the Montfortians who won the day with a victory so complete that not only did they capture the king, they also took his eldest son, Prince Edward; Henry’s brother Richard, king of Germany and earl of Cornwall; and Richard’s son, Henry of Almain. Montfort now took control at the centre and it was in an attempt to secure the peace and legitimise his regime that he called his famous parliament six months later. According to one contemporary chronicler, however, the victory at Lewes had been bought with the blood of the men of London. Oath-bound to the Montfortian regime, and having proven their worth on the field of battle, Montfort made sure that the Londoners were rewarded for their unfaltering support.


Ian is currently working on a new edition of Arnold fitz Thedmar’s chronicle; he also teaches Latin and history at Morley College London.

You can read  all the posts so far in our ‘Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’ series here. The series is in preparation for our, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ conference, which will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament is also marking the 2015 anniversaries with a series of events: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes an exhibition in Westminster Hall, The Beginnings of that Freedome’, which we were delighted to work with them on the accompanying text. 

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Publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons

Today, on the anniversary of its opening 391 years ago, the History of Parliament is proud to announce the initial release of material from its on-going project on the 1624 Parliament. Hosted by British History Online, Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons provides free online access to the first in a progressive release of the Commons’ debates during the final Parliament of the reign of James I, beginning with those of February 1624. Covering eleven days and at just over 90,000 words in length, readers will, for the first time, be able to consult the full range of Commons’ proceedings during the opening month of what remains one of the most controversial and puzzling of the early Stuart Parliaments.

Situated between the earlier, often rumbustious assemblies of James and the even more turbulent ones of Charles I that followed it, the 1624 Parliament is something of an anomaly. Dubbed the ‘Happy Parliament’, it fits rather awkwardly into the accepted scholarly framework, which views the period between 1604 and 1629 as one of steady and marked deterioration in relations between the king and the Commons. The Parliament is notable for James I’s invitation to it to discuss whether or not war should be declared against Spain and also for its significant burst of legislative activity. But a full understanding of the assembly has been hampered to date by the lack, uniquely among the early Stuart Parliaments, of a complete edition of its proceedings

Work on such an edition actually began in America almost a century ago, under the guidance of the great parliamentary historian Wallace Notestein. Further research was undertaken in the US between the late 1960s and 1980s by Robert Ruigh and Mark Kennedy, and the project was subsequently taken over by the Yale Center for Parliamentary History. When the Center closed in 2007, the 1624 materials were transferred to the History of Parliament, and in 2012 we began our work on them, generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Friends of the Yale Center for Parliamentary History.

Since 2012, we have checked and edited all the materials inherited from Yale and transcribed a number of additional key sources. This has been a major undertaking, with the full text of the Commons’ proceedings likely to be in the region of 770,000 words. There are some seventeen diary and journal accounts of Commons’ business, with a number written by well-known figures such as John Pym and Edward Nicholas. Some of these accounts are neat, fair hand copies, written up at some point after the events they describe, while others take the form of rough scribbled notes, perhaps recorded on the diarist’s lap in the Commons’ chamber itself and thus at times exceedingly difficult to decipher.

The publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624 will in itself fill a considerable hole in early modern parliamentary history. But used in tandem with the articles already published online from our volumes on The House of Commons, 1604-29 and those forthcoming on The House of Lords, 1603-60, it also offers the prospect of a connected set of electronic resources which will enable scholars to dig more deeply and more easily than ever before into the vexed political world of the early modern Stuarts.


To mark the beginning of the publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons, from today until 29 May – the final day of the Parliament – we will be tweeting extracts from the various diaries and journals on each day that the Commons sat. So please do follow us – we’ll be using the hashtag #1624Parl – to find out more about the workings and rituals of Parliament, the words and opinions of its members, and for a sometimes more irreverent look at early modern political culture.

We’ll also be publishing more blogposts for each release of new Proceedings in Parliament 1624 material – so watch this space for more!


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Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Richard Aldous (University of Winchester), ‘Electoral politics in an age of uncertainty: the case of ‘Winchester Man’ 1830-1880’

Reporting back from the first ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the year… Our seminar returned for 2015 last week when Dr Richard Aldous, from the University of Winchester, spoke on ‘Electoral politics in an age of uncertainty: the case of ‘Winchester man’, 1830-1880.’ Dr Aldous’s work explores the nineteenth century electorate through electoral registers, poll books and by then tracing the lives of registered voters in censuses and local newspaper materials. The resulting paper was a detailed insight in to the typical Winchester voter – ‘Winchester Man’ – in a period which saw three major reforms to the electoral system in the 1832 and 1867 Reform Acts, as well as the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. Aldous argued that his work in Winchester questioned the amount of impact that party agents had on the nineteenth century political process, despite their claims to be able to control elections through their work in the voter registration process. He suggested that perhaps historians should seek to explain why there remained so many contested elections in the nineteenth century. If the agents were as successful as they claimed, fewer electoral contests might be expected. Winchester itself was an interesting case study as one of the small boroughs that played a major role in deciding the outcome of elections. As for much of the period the Tories/Conservatives won the majority of county seats and the Whigs/Liberals were able to control the ‘Celtic fringe’ and large borough seats, the nineteenth century ‘small boroughs’ were the target seats the Conservative party needed to win to form governments. Aldous then shared his description of ‘Winchester man’ – normally an Anglican, professional, craftsman or trader. He would join the electoral register at what Aldous termed the peak of his ‘economic status’, around the age of 40, and remain wealthy enough to remain on the register for another 11-13 years. Years on the electoral register were not always continuous, depending as firmly as it did on economic circumstances. There was therefore a high turnover in Winchester’s electorate, with an average of 7% of new electors at each poll. As a marginal constituency, this number could swing the election. In combination with the fact that only a third of the electors were born in Winchester, with a further third born outside the county altogether, Aldous questioned how party agents could claim to predict the election outcome, on the basis of their understanding of ‘social networks (as posited by Jeremy C. Mitchell), given this uncertain voting bloc. In discussion afterwards, the seminar debated what motivated ‘Winchester man’ to vote the way he did, as well as the prevalence of the ‘split vote’ in the period for candidates of both of the major parties. EP Our seminar remains in the 19th century next week as Martin Spychal will speak on ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met': Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act.’ Full details are available here. Hope to see you there! Our younger readers can also find out more about 19th Century reform in our new schools section on ‘Political Reform’.

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From the Grassroots exhibition launched

We were delighted to formally open our ‘From the Grassroots’ exhibition last week at the Forum, University of Exeter. ‘From the Grassroots’ has, with the generous support of the HLF, been collecting memories of political activism in Devon since 1945. Here our project coordinator, Dr Kayleigh Milden, shares her thoughts on the exhibition…

Creating the exhibition from scratch has been a wonderful experience. Standing back and viewing the exhibition is really rewarding, and to me, it’s the fruition of all the elements that make-up the project as a whole: the generosity of our participants in sharing their time and memories with us, the great teamwork of our volunteers and colleagues, as well as the support of our partners.

FTGlaunch2It took a lot of searching through oral history recordings to decide what themes we wanted to focus on, but four topics did emerge very powerfully. Naturally, memories of ‘elections and electioneering’ featured highly in interviews, and we wanted to capture how the process of political campaigning has changed over the decades after the Second World War. Although we didn’t have the scope to include every election since 1945, we also wanted to highlight the history behind some of the key parliamentary contests that have featured in interviews, and more precisely, how such elections have become part of the political identity of Devon’s communities.

The other themes that we chose to explore were ‘family and politics,’ ‘youth activism,’ and Devon’s political ‘movers and shakers’. We have recorded many wonderful stories relating to how a person’s family have inspired their politics and we wanted to capture this in the exhibition, along with the experiences of other participants who, on the other hand, found that education or work had been more significant on their political outlook than family had. The role of parties’ youth organisations and student politics was spark that motivated many of our participants into political activity in their early years. The project’s timeline takes-in the 1960s, which internationally was a decade that witnessed heightened political protest and a desire for political change which, as the exhibition shows, did not pass-by Devon. Finally, we could not ignore the influence of some of the ‘big names’ in the modern history of Devon politics, for example Michael Foot, David Owen, and Jeremy Thorpe. Although we provided a brief overview of these politicians’ lives, as we are primarily concerned with ‘grassroots’ politics, the real focus of this part of the exhibition is to explore how their ‘legacy’ lives on in the oral tradition within the activist level of Devon politics.

Launch guests: Diana Moore, Ben Bradshaw MP, Dr Kayleigh Milden, Dom Morris, Dr Paul Seaward, Lord Mayor Percy Prowse, Hilary Bracegirdle (HLF) and Anna Somner

Launch guests: Diana Moore, Ben Bradshaw MP, Dr Kayleigh Milden, Dom Morris, Dr Paul Seaward, Lord Mayor Percy Prowse, Hilary Bracegirdle (HLF) and Anna Somner

The transcripts of these stories which are displayed across the exhibition panels, are complemented by audio clips of more oral history excerpts, which play in the background. Not only does this give us the opportunity to include more of the memories we have collated, but also adds another invaluable dimension to the exhibition – the voice. An integral part of this project, and in the oral history movement as a whole, is the importance of tone, emotion, rhythm and accent that is conveyed through the actual recording; this has a unique quality that is not always replicable in the written form. I certainly feel that the audio element adds to the overall atmosphere of the exhibition and, hopefully, brings it home to visitors that the exhibition is fundamentally about the oral histories. In addition to the interviews, the exhibition would not be the same, of course, without the stunning images (mostly supplied by Plymouth Arts & Heritage Service). These images connect beautifully to the four themes, and along with the great graphic design work by 51Studio, really give the exhibition an instant visual impact.


Ben Bradshaw MP, Dom Morris and Diana Moore at our launch

We were delighted to have some very distinguished guests at the launch party last Friday at the Forum, Exeter University. The Lord Mayor of Exeter, Councillor Percy Prowse, opened proceedings, before we heard from three of Exeter’s parliamentary candidates for this May’s election: the sitting Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, the Conservative candidate, Dom Morris, and the Green Party’s Diana Moore. All three spoke about the importance of political heritage, volunteering and local engagement within the political process and how these have been reflected in From the Grassroots. Finally, we heard from Hilary Bracegirdle, representing HLF South West, before one of our project volunteers – Anna Somner – officially opened the exhibition.

The process of creating any exhibition entails a lot of editing and revising until the finished product, and is challenging and stressful at times; creating the From the Grassroots exhibition has been no exception! That said, it is undoubtedly one of my favourite parts of the project. Looking back over the last fourteen months, for me, the exhibition is the cornerstone of the project’s outcomes and embodies everyone’s hard work and dedication right from the start of the project to these final few months. I hope the exhibition will give visitors an insight into my home county’s rich political history and platforms the contribution of those people at the grassroots who have made an invaluable contribution to Devon politics.


FTG volunteer Anna Somner officially opening the exhibition

FTG volunteer Anna Somner officially opening the exhibition

You can catch the exhibition (for free!) at the Forum, Exeter University, until the Friday 6th February, and then at Plymouth Central Library between 9th and 28th of February, and Barnstaple Library between 16th and 27th March. We do hope those of you who see it will enjoy it – do let us know what you think!

You can hear Dr David Thackeray (Exeter University), discussing the FTG exhibition yesterday on BBC Radio Devon here from 1.51.00 to 1.56.30.

You can find out more about ‘From the Grassroots’ on the project website.

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Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament and Magna Carta

750 years ago today Simon de Montfort’s famous 1265 Parliament opened in Westminster Hall. This is one of two anniversaries this year, along with the sealing of Magna Carta, that have enormous significance in English and British constitutional and legal history. They provide the inspiration for our conference this summer, ‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’. Starting today we’ll be publishing a series of blogposts in the run up to our conference exploring these events and their legacies.

Our series begins with a post by Dr Sophie Ambler, a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia on the Magna Carta Project, a landmark investigation of Magna Carta 1215 to mark the 800th anniversary of the Charter’s issue. Dr Ambler here discusses the importance of Magna Carta in the Montfort Parliament…

2015 sees several big anniversaries, among which the 750th year since Simon de Montfort’s 1265 Parliament deserves to rank highly. The assembly is seen as a landmark in the development of parliament, for it included two knights elected in every county as well as two representatives from the major towns and four from each of the Cinque Ports (and probably four from London), foreshadowing the later ‘county and borough’ franchise that was to determine representation in the House of Commons through to 1832 and beyond. This was not the first time that either knights or townsmen had come to parliament (indeed knights had been attending for centuries) but 1265 was different for an important reason: it was the first time such men were summoned when there was no tax being mooted that required their consent. They were there purely to have their say on how the kingdom should be governed. For this reason, the Parliament was momentous.

Why were knights and townsmen summoned when their presence wasn’t strictly necessary? Because Simon de Montfort understood better than any previous politician the value of their support. The position of Montfort’s government was precarious. He’d won a great victory at the Battle of Lewes in May 1264, taking King Henry III captive and setting up a council of bishops, barons and knights to rule in the king’s name. This revived the programme, first set out following a court coup in 1258, that promised to reform central and local government and improve the lot of England’s people. But, in a world where monarchy was the only thinkable form of government, Montfort’s regime lacked legitimacy. He needed to reach out to a wider public, the knights and townsmen who ran local affairs on behalf of the crown and whose support would underpin his regime in the localities. Montfort would give these men what they had long wanted: a voice in parliament. Such a vast gathering would also allow him to advertise his regime – the representatives would carry home news that the new government was inclusive and just.

A bishop issues a sentence of excommunication, BL Royal 6 E VI f. 216v

A bishop issues a sentence of excommunication, BL Royal 6 E VI f. 216v

The Parliament was one of the longest of Henry’s reign, lasting from 20 January until 11 March. It culminated in a grand ceremony in Westminster Hall, where the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of attendees had gathered. Whilst the king stood in silence, letters were read out proclaiming that Henry had placed himself under the council. Then nine bishops pronounced a sentence of excommunication (the Church’s equivalent of outlawry) against anyone who violated Magna Carta and the Montfortian provisions for the kingdom’s governance. The sentence was enacted through a dramatic ritual: dressed in full liturgical garments, the bishops held lighted candles, which they turned over onto the floor to seal their pronouncement. This was a powerful visual statement of the burden placed upon everyone to preserve the Parliament’s acts.

The anniversary of Montfort’s Parliament thus links with another big commemoration: the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta’s original issue in 1215. Indeed, it is thanks to the Magna Carta Project (a major investigation of the Charter funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) that the text of ‘Simon de Montfort’s Magna Carta’ has come to light. This is a confirmation of the 1225 (definitive) version of the Charter, nominally granted by Henry III but naming in its witness list Montfort and his chief supporters (you can read the text, as well as a fuller account of the parliament, on the Magna Carta Project website). But why confirm Magna Carta, which had nothing to say about either conciliar rule or the new improvements to government that were central to the reform programme? Magna Carta was a valued symbol of lawful rule in the eyes of the knights and townsmen whose support Montfort strove to win. The new regime, which set a council above the king, was shockingly radical. Aligning it with Magna Carta gave it the flavour of something already ancient and established. It also sent a message about how the council would govern: by the principles of the Charter, which placed the ruling power under the law.

The parliament saw Montfort’s regime at its height, but it was not to last. Within five months of their most triumphant display of power, seven of those Montfortians named in the witness list to the 1265 Magna Carta were to be captured, while five more – including Montfort himself – were to be butchered at the Battle of Evesham. But elements of the 1265 parliament endured. One, of course, was the attendance of elected knights and townsmen. But another was the strategy (pursued by Edward Coke in the 1620s, and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s) of cleaving to Magna Carta as if it represented some ‘Ancient Constitution’ above and beyond the authority of any particular king. These were 1265’s two major legacies to parliamentary history.


Dr Ambler is a Research Associate at the University of East Anglia on the Magna Carta Project, a landmark investigation of Magna Carta 1215 to mark the 800th anniversary, in 2015, of the Charter’s issue.

‘Making Constitutions, Building Parliaments’ will take place in London 30 June-3 July 2015. Programme details will be announced shortly. You can see all the latest news on the conference website.

UK Parliament is also marking the 2015 anniversaries with a series of events: ‘Parliament in the Making’. This includes an exhibition in Westminster Hall launched today: ‘The Beginnings of that Freedome‘, and we were delighted to work with them on the accompanying text. The exhibition charts 18 movements and moments that shaped British parliamentary heritage. You can find out more here.

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MPs’ memories of candidate selection

Today’s blogpost is from one of our Oral History Project interviewers, Emme Ledgerwood, who has used our archive to explore the experience of candidate selection…

The vast majority of MPs arrive at Westminster on a party ticket, and one of the most critical junctures on that road remains getting selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for a political party.

Candidate selection is governed only by internal party rules, and in their position as gatekeepers to political power, parties wield enormous influence in the democratic process. The final choice falls to the local party organisations, providing grassroots members with a rare opportunity to take an active role in party decision-making, and often it is these small groups of activists, rather than the electorate, that decide who becomes an MP. For those fortunate enough to win the nomination in a safe seat, it is at this moment—rather than on polling day—that their parliamentary careers begin.

The MPs interviewed so far, most of whom represented Labour or the Conservatives, were selected well before the days of open primaries or all-women shortlists, but the process remains essentially the same. The party rules differed, for example Conservatives needed to be on a national approved candidates list first, but in both parties the local party often had the final say. Both Conservative and Labour central executives have the power to veto a decision, but it is rarely used to avoid causing internal conflict or provoking the accusation that they are not respecting the more popular democratic will. (see P. Norris and J. Lovenduski, Political Recruitment: Gender, Race, and Class in the British Parliament (Cambridge, 1995))

Some interviewees relate how they did not actively seek nomination but were noticed at a party conference or by a local activist and encouraged to apply. For example, Labour MP Bryan Magee remembered that after meeting some local activists, they felt he ‘might be the sort of chap they were looking for, and proposed me in their constituency.’ Ann Taylor (Labour) remembers that she was first suggested by the election agent’s wife who felt they should have a female candidate.

There is little mention by the interviewees of any formal recruitment drives by the parties, except for Emma Nicholson’s key role in attracting more Conservative women candidates in the 1980s, as she remembers in the audio clip below:

Candidate selection within parties represents one of the major barriers to the equal political representation of women. During her selection process, conservative Elizabeth Peacock remembers a sitting MP ‘looked down his nose at me and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry, we really can’t allow people like you to become our candidates these days.’ Other female Conservative aspirants encountered the same resistance, as you can hear in these audioclips from Emma Nicholson, Janet Fookes and Philip Goodhart (who ran against a certain Margaret Thatcher):

Diversity was less appealing to a committee than ‘the right sort’, whether that be the local, trade union member for the Labour party or a well-educated, professional male for the Conservatives. The Liberal leader David Steel remembered that in 1965 it was easy to tell the parties apart because of the ‘noticeable gap’ between two sorts of people.

Many aspirants shaped their futures by taking matters into their own hands to kickstart their selection, as you can hear below from Conservative MPs Edward du Cann and Elizabeth Peacock:

However once past the nomination stage, it seems that the local association or constituency party, as a way of exercising its independence, was more prepared to dispense with convention to support someone who appeared an unlikely contender, as remembered in this audioclip from Emma Nicholson, who did not expect to be compared with a ‘prize cow’!

Character ― especially one that displayed honesty ― seems to be a key reason why someone was chosen as a candidate, as Conservative MP Marion Roe remembered:

And remember the hall was full. They hadn’t selected anybody since 1945. So, you know, they, it was a new experience for this constituency to select. … And she said ‘I felt we could trust you. You’ve got the guts to tell us the truth and we could have confidence in you and that’s why I supported you’.

Or a local connection could be the deciding factor. Donald Anderson, Labour MP for Monmouth and Swansea East recalled: ‘There was still a strong Welsh ethos and it was important to come from Wales, to understand Wales, to be selected in Wales.’ Conservative James Ramsden said he felt ‘lucky’ to get the safe Conservative seat of Harrogate: ‘They could have had a cabinet minister or somebody who was temporarily without a seat but in fact they wanted, they were looking for, somebody local.’

Of course, the ability (or failure) to win an audience over was always important in persuading a committee they were up to the job. Conservative MP Fred Silvester gave an honest judgement on his performance: ‘It wasn’t just that the safe Tory seats tended to be rural and my background was urban, which is obviously a factor, but I just don’t think I was very good at it.’

A picture emerges of men and women who needed to be able speakers, proactive, financially secure, determined and honest if they were to be chosen by a selection committee. On top of that, the women demonstrated immense perseverance, all qualities they would later need during an MP’s working life.


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