Welcome to the History of Parliament blog!

Here we share posts about our current research projects, wider parliamentary history, highlights from our events, seminars and conferences, and future publications.

The History of Parliament’s core work lies in researching and writing series of volumes depicting Parliamentary life and proceedings throughout the past 700 years. These academically rigorous works contain detailed biographies of parliamentarians, studies of constituencies and introductory surveys. The Sections currently underway are: Commons 1422-1504, Commons 1640-1660, Commons 1832-1868, Lords 1604-29 and Lords 1715-1790. Follow the links for further information about the History of Parliament and our latest research.

All current published Commons volumes can be found in the research section at historyofparliament.org

Currently four of our Sections post independently as well as  part of the main blog: the Victorian Commons is managed by the Commons 1832-68, the Georgian Lords is managed by the Lords 1715-1790, and James I to Restoration is managed by the Lords 1604-1629 and the Commons 1640-1660.

Find us on Twitter at @HistParl




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The 1842 Chartist Petition – why over 3 million signatures translated into less than 50 votes

Today’s blog about the Charist Petition of 1842 is part of our focus on wider electoral and political reform throughout this significant anniversary year in women’s political history – for more blogs in the series see here. The following blog has been written by year 10 work experience student, Layla Barwell from Dartford Grammar School for Girls. Layla spent the week with the public engagement team working on several projects including researching and writing this blog with guidance from Dr Kathryn Rix of the Commons 1832-1868 Section and The Victorian Commons blog… 

The 1842 Chartist petition was one of the most impressive petitions in British history. The 1840s was a time before easy communication and organisation of events – there was no social media, television or radio, so it is remarkable that Feargus O’Connor still managed to obtain 3,315,752 signatures for his appeal, on a 6 mile-long, 300kg roll of paper. In fact, the 1842 Chartist petition is the second biggest petition ever in Britain, in absolute number of signatures, and the biggest in terms of percentage of the population who signed, with around a third of British men and women over 21 signing it (the 1848 Chartist petition professed to be bigger than its predecessor, but Parliament found that there were far fewer signatures than O’Connor claimed).

The Chartists’ campaign had undeniable flaws: the exact aims of Chartism, besides the Six Points, were not always clear. O’Connor and his fellow Chartist leader, William Lovett, certainly had different views on what the Chartist manifesto should be, and the Chartists’ link to the riots which accompanied the General Strike of 1842 also negatively affected the chance of their demands being accepted by the government. Yet it may still be surprising to some that the House of Commons rejected a motion to hear from the Chartist petitioners at the bar of the House, by 287 votes to 49, despite the huge number of signatures it had. Why did the Commons ignore the people of Britain, despite the magnitude of the petition? And how truly useful were petitions for those who wanted change in the 19th century, and indeed to this day?

One of the main obstacles to the Chartists obtaining their goals was the MPs’ personal, vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many MPs would have disagreed with the Chartists’ aims, for if the People’s Charter was passed into law, then this could lead to further reform that unfavourably affected their wealth. The power and influence of the established elite would be severely diminished if the six points of the Charter were implemented. The Commons was made up almost entirely of the established elite – almost half of MPs could trace their descent from a titled family, within two generations, and the majority were wealthy landowners. The Charter’s third and fourth points – removal of the property qualification for MPs and the introduction of the payment of MPs – would lead to the possibility of working class Members of Parliament, and therefore competition for the existing members of the Commons. The Charter’s fifth point – ‘Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors’ – threatened the position of MPs who sat for small ‘pocket’ boroughs, under the control of rich patrons.

For the majority of the MPs debating the Charter in the Commons in May 1842, it was simply too soon to change the electoral system yet again. Only four general elections had taken place since the major overhaul of the political system under the 1832 Reform Act. That reform had created a franchise firmly based upon the ownership or occupation of property, with the aim being to limit the electorate to ‘respectable’ voters. This was a far cry from the universal male suffrage demanded by the Chartists.

Many Members of Parliament would have been against the Charter because they felt as if the working classes were ‘not ready’ to be given the vote – perhaps due to feelings of paternalism. They may have been concerned that the working classes were too uneducated to make an informed vote, given that in 1842 only just over 20% of the adult population had been enrolled in primary education as children. MPs would therefore have feared that members of the working class would make decisions that would have a negative effect on Britain’s economy. This was the viewpoint of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who said in the debate regarding the Charter on 3rd May 1842 that,

‘he could not conceive a course more likely to be disastrous than to excite hopes which were certain to be disappointed, and to hold out expectations which those who consented to the inquiry were aware would be fallacious… I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists… it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation’.

Lord John Russell seemed to hold similar sentiments, saying that the Charter would ‘throw the working classes into a still worse condition than that in which they are at present placed’. The People’s Charter, if successful, would certainly have led to more MPs in the Commons with radical political agendas, such as Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, who presented the 1842 petition to the Commons.

In addition, Chartism influenced many of the strikes in the 1830s and the 1840s, so the Government feared that, if they accepted Chartism, it would set a bad precedent: that strikes and riots were an effective way to get the Government to change policy. As far back as 1831, the Queen Square riots in Bristol had caused £300,000 of damage and dozens of people are believed to have been killed in arson attacks by the rioters. These took place in protest at the House of Lords’ rejection of the Whig ministry’s reform bill (which was eventually passed in 1832). The November 1839 Chartist rising at Newport involved thousands of Chartist supporters. In 1842 itself, the General Strike – which took place after the Commons rejected the Charter – was clearly linked to Chartism, and had a very negative impact on British commerce. Supporting Chartism would have seemingly condoned these violent actions.

Feargus o'connor

Feargus Edward O’Connor (c) NPG

With very few Members of Parliament willing to voice their message, the Chartists were always doomed to fail. One Chartist supporter remarked that no-one ‘who signed the petition ever thought for one moment that the legislature would grant the Charter. The people expected nothing at the hands of the government’; Feargus O’Connor himself said that ‘a million of petitions would not dislodge a single troop of dragoons’. However, with no other ‘peaceful and constitutional method’ for them to protest and after three petitions, the Chartist movement began to fade after 1848.

In theory, petitions should be more effective today. For one thing, it is far easier to collect signatures given changes in technology (although there are still paper petitions). For another, modern politicians should be more open to persuasion, because the vast majority of those who sign petitions are eligible to vote. Moreover, there is now a direct mechanism for petitions to influence government policy. Since 2006 any petition that asks for a change to the law will receive a response from the government if it has 10,000 signatures; any petition with 100,000 signatures is considered for debate within Parliament. But of the top 10 most signed petitions, only one has been successful (‘Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugees’).

MPs still seem to ignore petitions, unless they align with their own personal viewpoints or those of their party leader. Therefore, it may be argued that petitions themselves are an ineffective way of bringing about reform. Unlike the Chartists, who turned to petitioning because they did not have the vote, all adults now have the opportunity to vote in a democratic election for the candidate that fits their views the best. If a Chartist-like movement does re-emerge in modern society then perhaps it will be joined predominantly by children and young people who are denied the vote but have easy access to social media, for example, in a campaign for the voting age to be lowered to 16.


Further reading:

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‘The last remedy God has left him’: medicine in the 18th century

Today’s blog from Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-1790 Section is in keeping with our theme, health, medicine and Parliament. This theme is particularly significant this month as last week in the UK we celebrated 70 years of the National Health Service. Robin considers medication and wellness practices in the eighteenth century…

In the summer of 1726, the Princess of Wales wrote to her confidante, Mrs Clayton, passing on the news of the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury: ‘the poor duchess’, she complained, ‘is soon destroy’d, it is the glorious work of Sir J[ohn] Shadwell’. Shadwell, son of the playwright, poet laureate and historiographer royal, Thomas Shadwell, was a celebrated royal physician, who had first been appointed to the royal household as an extra physician to the person in 1709. Three years later, he was promoted physician to the person. The duchess had relied on Shadwell’s services for some time. In the summer of 1718 she had believed herself to be dying and had nominated Shadwell her executor (it was reported that he stood to gain £800 from her demise). On this occasion she rallied. Now he was summoned in response to the duchess complaining of stomach pains and prescribed something to ease the symptoms. When that failed to have the desired effect, he took the decision to add a large dose of laudanum on top of the initial remedy, ‘which laid her asleep for this world’ [RA, GEO/ADD/28/062].

Such an error in prescribing in an age when, in spite of growing professionalism and the rich rewards available to elite physicians, medicine enjoyed a rather mixed reputation may not come as much of a surprise. It is a reminder, though, of a distressingly frequent theme in the lives (and deaths) of many of the characters covered by the History – substantial numbers of whom died prematurely whether through their own misadventure or the mistaken ministrations of their doctors.

Of course, sometimes the remedies worked – or at least did no obvious harm. In December 1737 Bishop Hough of Worcester reported how a ‘violent pain in his right arm’ had been cured thanks to a dose of laudanum. For some, a psychological stimulus seems to have done the trick. In April 1705 he duchess of Beaufort insisted to Charles, Lord Bruce that the pleasure of his letter had ‘proved a better medicine than any’ her resident physician was able to prescribe her current malady. By contrast, in the summer of 1700 Sidney Godolphin, Lord Godolphin, insisted that the sheer terror of taking the medicine sent him by Bishop of Moore of Norwich had ‘frighted away the rheume from my eyes’ without recourse to testing the potion.

If all else failed, many sought relief in the waters of Bath, Tunbridge Wells or spa towns overseas. In 1720 the apparently fast declining Lord St John (presumably William, Lord St John of Bletso) was readied for a journey to Bath, his doctor insisting that ‘It is the last remedy God has left him’ (he did not survive). Bishop Reynolds informed Archbishop Wake that if he got no relief ‘by the warm weather and Fuller’s medicine’ his friends intended to despatch him to Bath too.

The proliferation of newspapers in the century perhaps inevitably spawned a large number of people, genuine and not so genuine, seeking to sell a variety of patent remedies through the classified advertisements sections. In 1775 Elizabeth Rogers, a bookseller, announced that as well as books she was able to sell ‘Ward’s medicine by appointment’ and among other things also stocked ‘Herring’s Norfolk antidote for the bite of a mad dog and other mad animals’.

With such a large number of drugs, lotions and potions easily available, some appear to have opted to self-medicate rather than trust to the dubious talents of their physician. In some cases the results were tragic. In 1739 William Craven, 3rd Lord Craven, was reported to have ‘unhappily precipitated his death by eagerly taking too great a quantum of a medicine, which had in due proportions afforded him great relief; and which carried him off in about four hours time.’ [London Daily Post & General Advertiser, 20 Aug. 1739]. At about the same time as Craven’s unhappy accidental overdose, Sir John Shadwell once again appeared in the papers. Shadwell had been living in Italy for some time and was now called in to assist Lord Charles Fitzroy, a younger son of the 2nd duke of Grafton. Once again, the result was unhappy and Fitzroy did not recover.

Shadwell was in many regards a successful physician and it would be unjust to imply that any other medical man of the time would have fared any better. Rather, his career points to several features of medicine in the period: the reliance on opiates such as laudanum; the tendency to trust to measures that would ‘quieten the humours’ and the vast confidence in foreign travel and spa waters in treating the sick. Shadwell also demonstrates the curious imbalance in the attitude to medicine. Medical men might be trusted as executors of complicated estates and feted as fashionable celebrities in their own right. The social and financial rewards were also potentially great. This is indicated by the fact that while only a handful of physicians made it into Parliament in the period (for example John Freind, Charles Cotes and Charles Oliphant) many more MPs had physicians for fathers (the best known example being Henry Addington, whose father was physician to William Pitt the Elder). Nevertheless, theirs remained a somewhat mysterious profession, and beyond the respectability of the Royal College of Physicians, the world of medicine was easily infiltrated by bootleggers and by others intent on preying on the credulous.

Following the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury, the newspapers published the key provisions of her will, clearly altered since the draft of 1718, revealing among other things that Shadwell was no longer an executor and that his bequest had been reduced to £200. On the death of George I the following year he was not continued in post as a royal physician. Shadwell died at Bath, appropriately enough, in January 1747 and was buried in the abbey.


Further Reading:

  • Extracts from the letter of the Princess of Wales to Mrs Clayton are courtesy of the digitized papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor (http://gpp.royalcollection.org.uk), (c) HM Queen Elizabeth II
  • W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter, eds., William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World (1985)
  • For more on early modern medicine see Dr Jennifer Evans and Dr Sara Read’s blog, Early Modern Medicine: https://earlymodernmedicine.com/


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Voice and Vote: behind the scenes

This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.


Nancy Astor’s suit

The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The exhibition contains works of art and objects ranging from the bolt clippers used to remove suffragettes who chained themselves to statues in Parliament to the suit worn by Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat. It also reconstructs some of the spaces where women have taken part in parliamentary life over the past two centuries – as spectators in the 19th century, and as MPs and peers in the 20th century and beyond.

The ventilator: Dr. Philip Salmon


Amy Galvin-Elliott of the University of Warwick listening to speeches in the reconstructed ventilator

The ventilator contraption in the attic above the old House of Commons has become a potent symbol of the way women were politically marginalised in the early 19th century. In operation until 1834, when the old Commons was completely destroyed by fire, women used the holes it contained for drawing out foul air to peer down into the chamber below. Diary entries reveal the tactics used to gain access to the attic, usually with the contrivance of the doorkeepers, and the extent to which women were often able to hear proceedings with remarkable clarity.

Based on the findings of a workshop in Parliament that we and other project partners – including academic colleagues from the University of Warwick and the University of York – attended last year, and the discovery of new evidence showing how the ventilator looked, the exhibition recreates the experience of listening to debates in this symbolic female space. The historic speeches you can hear were carefully selected for their special contemporary interest to women. They include William Wilberforce speaking against the slave trade, an angry exchange about the Tory government’s connivance in helping the king defame and try to divorce Queen Caroline, and a passionate call by Thomas Fowell Buxton for a ban on the ‘barbarous’ practice of sati (burning widows) in India.

As well as researching how the MPs sounded as speakers and where they sat, it was necessary to try and gauge the number of MPs present and the atmosphere in the chamber, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Some debates were also extremely long and were rewritten in a way that retained their linguistic authenticity. The speech made by the Radical MP Henry Hunt when presenting the earliest known petition for women’s votes, during a debate on the ‘Great’ reform bill, was modified in this way, along with the eloquent appeal made by the leading Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell for an immediate end to colonial slavery. Pointing out that 1.5 million people had signed petitions against the government’s phased approach, O’Connell berated those who claimed they had been ‘mostly signed by silly girls and old maids’, protesting that they were ‘not only guilty of bad taste but also of insulting the entire female population’.

The cage: Dr. Kathryn Rix


The ladies’ gallery in the Voice and Vote exhibition

The ‘cage’ was the nickname given by women to the Ladies’ Gallery in the new House of Commons designed by Charles Barry. Its metal grilles obstructed women’s view of proceedings and its stuffy atmosphere led the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to describe it as ‘a grand place for getting headaches’. Visitors to the exhibition can listen to extracts from five debates, recorded by actors for this reconstruction. My contribution was to select these debates, compiling scripts using Hansard, as well as providing background information on the MPs involved and the atmosphere in the chamber during each debate.

I wanted to provide a broad chronological spread of speeches, from the beginnings of parliamentary discussion of women’s suffrage in the 1860s to the debates leading up to the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The earliest debate comes from 20 May 1867, when John Stuart Mill attempted to include women’s suffrage in the Second Reform Act. The response from Edward Karslake reflected the overwhelming consensus in opposition to Mill. The second extract, with Russell Gurney moving the second reading of the 1870 married women’s property bill, provides a reminder that the suffrage campaign was one aspect of a wider movement for women’s rights. The third debate marked another failed attempt to enfranchise women, when William Woodall tried in 1884 to add a female suffrage clause to the Third Reform Act. His opponents included the Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone.

Another Liberal prime minister, H. H. Asquith, features in the fourth extract, on the 1912 Conciliation Bill, a compromise measure to enfranchise a limited number of women. The second reading was moved by James Agg-Gardner, a Conservative backbencher who remembered this speech as ‘a formidable prospect, especially for one who had but rarely addressed the Commons’. I also chose a less well-known figure for the final debate, from 22 May 1917. Sir Joseph Walton, long-serving Liberal MP for Barnsley, endorsed women’s suffrage and looked ahead to the post-war situation, when he hoped for equal political rights and equal pay for men and women.

The chamber: Dr. Emma Peplow

The Voice and Vote exhibition ends with women’s experiences in Parliament in the 20th century up to the present day. Although the first woman took her seat in Parliament in 1919 (Nancy Astor – although she was not the first elected), until 1997 women were still a very small minority of MPs and Parliament remained an overwhelmingly male environment.

Former women MPs have shared their memories of being one of this minority with us in our oral history project interviews (see our blogs on women in Parliament in the 1970s/80s and the 1990s). Together with the exhibition’s curators, we chose a number of extracts from our oral history archive that reveal women’s experiences both in getting elected to the Commons and within the chamber once they were at Westminster.

Many of our interviewees faced sexism when putting themselves forward to be candidates, as selection panels traditionally considered MPs to be male. In this clip Labour’s Hilary Armstrong remembers the support she did get from a local women’s committee at one (ultimately unsuccessful for Armstrong) selection meeting during the 1980s:

Having made it to Parliament, for many the experience was quite a shock. In this clip Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat) who caused an upset with her by-election win in 1993, describes how she explained to Liberal Democrat party members what Parliament was like:

Despite many (although not all) sharing experiences of sexism with our oral history project, they – and the exhibition – also reflect these women’s real achievements once they were at Westminster and able to both influence and introduce legislation. In her interview the Conservative MP Marion Roe discusses her private member’s bill to ban what was then called ‘female circumcision’, which we now know as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM:

You can listen to all the extracts from our oral history project at the end of the exhibition, sitting on the benches, next to the final wall which includes the names of all women MPs to date – a fitting place to hear about their experiences.

For details of how to book a free exhibition ticket, see here.



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The soldiers’ ‘real friend’: John, Earl Ligonier: Huguenot refugee and British commander-in-chief

In this latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the Lords 1715-90 section, examines the career and lasting influence of one of the pre-eminent British generals of the middle years of the 18th century.

Ligonier may seem, initially, a strange subject for a site devoted to the 18th-century peerage. He was a British peer for only the last seven years of his life, from 1763, when he was already well into his 80s, and he sat in the House of Lords on just 17 occasions. These British titles were extinguished at his death in 1770, and an Irish title granted in 1762 became extinct in 1782 upon the death of his nephew.

Nevertheless, the many titles he received late in life – two Irish and two British –were a belated recognition of his contributions to the British Army. Ligonier’s career is instructive because it encapsulates in a single person Britain’s long history of military engagement with France in the 18th century.

Born into a French Protestant family in 1680, Jean-Louis Ligonier fled in 1698 from the ongoing persecution of the ‘Huguenots’ in France. Ending up eventually in England, he was naturalized by an Act of Parliament in February 1702 and immediately enlisted as a volunteer to fight in Flanders against the forces of his former homeland. He fought in many of the major engagements of the War of the Spanish Succession: Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), the siege of Tournai (1709) and Malplaquet (1709). He emerged miraculously unscathed from the last of these, though his clothes were in tatters through the 20 bullets he reportedly received to his person. By the war’s end in 1713 he had been promoted to adjutant-general of the Allied armed forces in the Iberian Peninsula, and lieutenant-governor of Minorca.

When Britain went to war again against France in the War of the Austrian Succession, Ligonier was given his first field command position, as major-general. He was present as a commander at the victory at Dettingen in 1743 and the defeat at Fontenoy in 1745. Assigned to defend the English Midlands during the Jacobite uprising, he did not participate at Culloden. He returned to the continent and, now as commander-in-chief, oversaw the retreat of the British Army and its allies from Rocoux. He was captured at Lauffeldt on 2 July 1747 and in his captivity was treated with esteem by Louis XV himself, who sent him back to the British camp with the preliminary proposals for peace. In February 1748, on the eve of the treaty negotiations, Ligonier was selected to replace his deceased colleague, Field Marshal George Wade, in the House of Commons as Member for the borough of Bath. The electoral patron for the borough, its postmaster Ralph Allen, obviously had a penchant for choosing military leaders to represent this fashionable spa town.

Ligonier moved from the battlefield to the council room for the Seven Years’ War, when, as commander-in-chief and master general of the ordnance, he acted as overall strategist and chief of staff of the British war effort. In the same period he was raised to the peerage, first as Viscount Ligonier of Enniskillen in the Irish peerage (1757), then as Viscount Ligonier of Clonmel, also in the Irish peerage (1762). He was created Baron Ligonier of Ripley on 27 April 1763, only a few weeks after the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War. The peace was announced formally to the members of Parliament at the opening of the new session, 15 November, when Ligonier was first introduced to the House of Lords as a British peer. After he had resigned his military offices, he was, on 10 September 1766, promoted Earl Ligonier.

Unlike the dukes of Marlborough and Wellington, who bookend his career, Ligonier does not have a great epoch-making victory such as Blenheim or Waterloo to his credit. When he was in Flanders in the 1740s he was more often involved in trying to avert a complete rout of his forces by the superior French forces. The victories of the Seven Years’ War were won on the field by his subordinates, many of them hand-picked by him, such as Jeffrey, Lord Amherst, James Wolfe and John Forbes.

It could be argued, however, that he was as influential in the shaping of the modern British Army as either Marlborough or Wellington. He had the skills of both a soldier and a politician, devising strategy and persuading others to implement it. He also remodelled the structure of the British Army, developing new types of fighting forces such as light infantry and cavalry, and horse artillery.

As we mark the contributions of members of the British armed forces, we should turn our attention to Ligonier’s impact on the individual soldiers. Ligonier was known as a humane commander who took great care to attend to the health and comfort of those under his charge. As a colonel he paid out of his own pocket for a second doctor to attend to the needs of his own regiments. When a commander-in-chief, he frequently battled with the Treasury to provide additional medical staff for the army, to have the rye in his soldiers’ bread replaced with wheat, and to have adequate blankets supplied to them during the long winter months.

Tributes flooded in when Earl Ligonier died in 1770 at the age of 90. Horace Walpole deemed him to have ‘had all the gallant gaiety of his nation, and was universally beloved and respected’. A more formal notice judged that:

Through all the rage of contending parties, changes of measures and administration his character was never once mentioned with disrespect nor one of his actions arraigned. The glorious successes which attended our arms in all parts of the world may justly in great measure be ascribed to his Lordship, his co-operation with the great men at the head of affairs and his just regard to real merit in all his appointments and recommendations.

But perhaps the most valuable comment on his career was the obituary notice that lamented that ‘in him the soldier has lost a real friend: one who in public and private life did honour to humanity’. [Whitworth, 393, 394, 399]



Further reading:

Rex Whitworth, Field Marshal Lord Ligonier: A Story of the British Army, 1702-1770 (1958)

Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (1993)

Richard Middleton, The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years’ War, 1757-62 (1985)


Georgian lords 2


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Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women – a guidebook

Dr Paul Seaward is one of the editors of the “Voice & Vote guidebook” to accompany the UK Parliament Vote 100 project‘s landmark exhibition in Westminster Hall. In today’s blog he explains the contents of the book, who contributed to it and where you can get one…

Last week we were delighted to celebrate with the curators of the wonderful Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall, Mari Takayanagi and Melanie Unwin, the publishers, St James’s House, the contributors, and the many sponsors, the publication of the beautifully illustrated book that goes with the exhibition. We are delighted with Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women, which charts the story of women’s involvement in politics from the seventeenth century right up to today. We are enormously grateful to Stephen Mitchell and his team at St James’s House for producing such an attractive looking volume; and most of all to a great team of contributors – Paula Bartley, Elaine Chalus, Krista Cowman, Emma Crewe, Amy Galvin-Elliott, Oonagh Gay, Elizabeth Hallam-Smith, Helen McCarthy, Simon Morgan, Emma Peplow, Louise Raw, Sarah Richardson, Kathryn Rix, Jane Robinson, Anne Stott, Duncan Sutherland and Jacqui Turner, as well as Mari and Melanie, who found time to work on the book as well as the enormous job of researching, commissioning and setting up the exhibition itself.

The book is arranged, like the exhibition, around the spaces with which women have been particularly associated in Parliament over the years. The first section opens with the Ventilator, the extraordinary construction in the attic above the House of Commons, designed to take away the heat from the chamber, but which women – banned from watching proceedings from the main public gallery – used in order to get a glimpse of the heads of the leading politicians on the floor below. The second two sections cover the ‘Cage’ – the stifling special gallery constructed in the new House of Commons built by Sir Charles Barry in the mid-nineteenth century, where women were allowed to view debates, but only with difficulty through a brass grille, designed to keep them out of sight and mind. The third is built around ‘The Tomb’, the gloomy common room offered to the first women MPs. And the last section covers the ‘Chamber’, and marks how women finally arrived in both Houses in decent numbers – though in still far from equal numbers to men.

The text charts, of course, the struggles of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to obtain the vote – the frustrating business of successive petitions and private members’ bills, of suffragists and suffragettes and of promises made and promises broken. But it also shows how women were highly active in the political arena well before this: as very visible canvassers in elections; as campaigners in causes, including the abolition of slavery; and as political hostesses and influencers. It charts the work of women in Parliament once they were, finally, able to both vote and to stand for election, highlighting remarkable MPs such as Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams, and many others. It describes the other battle to secure seats in the House of Lords for women too, only finally achieved in 1963. The illustrations include most of the items in the exhibition, as well as many contemporary photographs and other material.

This is our second collaboration with St James’s House. Our first was on a book covering The Story of Parliament published in 2015 to coincide with the anniversaries of Magna Carta in 1215 and the Simon de Montfort Parliament of 1265, and we very much look forward to working with them again on further publications.

Not only a fine souvenir of the exhibition, our new book is also, we modestly think, an excellent introduction to its subject. You can obtain it from the Parliament Shop online or, if you can get there, by buying it at the exhibition itself – click here for more information about the free exhibition which is now open in Westminster Hall until 6 October 2018.

Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women edited by Mari Takayanagi, Melanie Unwin, and Paul Seaward [Price: £15] ISBN 978-1-906670-70-2


Posted in 'The Story of Parliament', 18th Century history, 19th Century history, 20th century history, Electoral Reform, Women and Parliament | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Currant affairs? Taxation without representation in early Stuart England

With tariffs on imported goods currently in the news, Dr. Simon Healy of the Lords 1604-29 Section provides some food for thought on Parliament and customs duties in the seventeenth century…

Dried grapes were a luxury product in medieval England, but in the sixteenth century they became more readily available. By 1600 around 1,000 tons of dried fruit were imported annually.

What does this have to do with taxation? Before 1640, customs were the most lucrative of the crown’s revenues. The first duties were voted by Parliament in 1275, as a contribution towards the cost of the navy, and it was eventually resolved that customs required parliamentary approval. By the fifteenth century they were voted to the monarch for life at the beginning of his reign.

Yet who set the tariffs? Legislation placed a 5% duty on most goods (as per modern WTO rules), but the valuation was provided by the merchant himself, under oath; even in an age which regarded perjury as a sin, this allowed room for creative accounting. In 1536 customs officials issued a ‘Book of Rates’, giving fixed valuations for the most widely traded goods. However, the galloping inflation of the 1540s devalued the customs yields, and in 1558 Mary Tudor – desperate for cash after the fall of Calais to the French – doubled most customs rates.

Under Elizabeth I, these fixed tariffs were quietly devalued by persistent inflation of around 2% a year. While the government was reluctant to provoke a political backlash by increasing rates, in 1596 a test case about a new duty on alum imports was heard in the Exchequer court. This failed to produce a definitive ruling, but may have provoked Parliament into a lengthy debate about tariffs during the passage of James I’s Tunnage and Poundage Act in 1604.

Dried fruit entered the political lists in 1605, when the lord treasurer, Thomas Sackville, earl of Dorset imposed a duty of 5s 6d/cwt on currants (a tariff of around 18%). The 50 or so merchants who imported currants were in a weak position, because they needed the crown’s support in disputes with their suppliers, the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, so they paid under protest. However, in the autumn of 1605 the London merchant John Bate refused to co-operate, provoking a test case.

The House of Commons took up Bate’s cause in 1606, passing a bill requiring parliamentary approval for any ‘tax, imposition or charge’ upon trade. King James insisted the new tariff was ‘warranted by law’, but invited negotiation by conceding that this issue was ‘fit to be redressed’. No agreement was reached, and after the end of the parliamentary session, the case was heard in the Exchequer court. Sir Francis Bacon (for the crown) made an uncompromising case for customs being determined by the king’s ‘absolute power’, and the verdict delivered by Chief Baron Fleming in November, just before Parliament reassembled, was definitive: tariffs on imports and exports were justified by reason of state, of which the crown, not Parliament, was the arbiter.

Many politicians (especially lawyers) were furious about this ruling, particularly after ‘new impositions’ were placed on a wide range of goods in 1608. Two years later, when the crown needed Parliament to pass an ambitious programme of fiscal reforms, MPs insisted on debating the principle of impositions. The king would probably have been willing to concede parliamentary approval for future duties if Parliament endorsed the existing tariffs, but when the Commons concluded that impositions were illegal, he inevitably rejected their conclusions. MPs repeated the same debate in 1614, prompting James to terminate the session. When Parliament met again, in 1621, it was quietly agreed to lay the issue aside until after James’s death.

Hollar London panorama (detail)

Detail from Hollar’s Thames panorama, showing the Pool of London and Custom House in the mid-seventeenth century (photo: Paul Hunneyball)

The dispute over currants had been defused in 1610, when the original imposition was reduced by 2s 2d/cwt (40%), but the additional tariff was reinstated in 1619. The Levant Company merchants paid, albeit under protest, but in the mid-1620s the wholesale price of currants doubled, squeezing profit margins. At this time, MPs planned to resolve the wider dispute over tariffs by issuing a new Book of Rates, but in 1628 the drafting committee gloomily reported this would be ‘a work of great labour’. During the same parliamentary session, Charles rescinded the extra currant imposition of 1619 as an inducement for MPs to vote him money, but once the subsidy bill had passed, he reinstated the additional duty, which provoked a handful of Levant Company merchants to refuse to pay.

The dispute spiralled out of control after Parliament was prorogued: on 13 August 1628 the Privy Council ordered that the refusal of any duty on currants would result in the seizure of the merchant’s entire cargo, not just an amount sufficient to cover the duty owed. Thereafter, about 15 Levant Company merchants refused to pay any duty on currants, and had their goods impounded by customs officials. By New Year 1629, with 1,300 tons of currants rotting in ships and warehouses, merchants reclaimed their goods, offering violence to customs officials who attempted to stop them. The Privy Council quickly suspended the order of 13 August, thereafter detaining goods only for non-payment of the 2s 2d/cwt duty, and referred the wider question of impositions to the forthcoming parliamentary session.

The crown’s attempt to table a new customs bill at the start of the 1629 parliamentary session was ignored by the Commons, while the complaints of the currant merchants were given priority. Despite attempts to patch up a compromise, a group of MPs locked horns with the king, who acknowledged that the customs officials had acted ‘by his own direct order and command’. As Charles ordered an end to the parliamentary session, Sir John Eliot provocatively claimed that some privy councillors were inciting the king to rule without Parliament. He was arrested, and a general customs strike seemed likely, but few merchants could afford a lengthy hiatus in their cash flow, and after some months of confrontation, the crown came to a settlement with the merchants in the wealthiest cartels. This allowed Charles to rule without recourse to Parliament for the next decade, during which time two of the most recalcitrant currant merchants languished in prison, for their continued refusal to pay their customs bills.


Posted in 16th Century history, 17th Century history, Early modern history, economic history, James I to Restoration | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Irish MPs and the Crimean War 1853-1856

This week at the History of Parliament we are sharing the military history of Parliament through parliamentarians and their military careers in honour of Armed Forces Day this weekend (30 June). Today’s blog from Dr Stephen Ball of the Commons 1832-1868 Section outlines the contributions of former and serving nineteenth century MPs in the Crimean War…

The Crimean War, which was fought between Russia and Britain and its allies between 1853 and 1856, saw a significant number of former, sitting and future MPs take an important part. The commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, had sat in the Commons for Truro in the 1820s, and one of his successors, Colonel William John Codrington, secured a seat at Greenwich in 1857. Other senior officers, such as the commander of the Light Brigade, Lord Cardigan, had once sat in the Commons, as did his successor, Lord George Paget, who represented Anglesey from 1847-57. The commander of the 2nd infantry division in the Crimea was the stalwart Sir George De Lacy Evans, an old campaigner and Russophobe, who after becoming immersed in radical politics in the 1820s was twice elected for Rye, and subsequently sat for Westminster for nearly 30 years.

In the British army’s first major engagement at the river Alma, 20 Sept. 1854, the Hon. Hugh Annesley, a younger son of the earl of Annesley and an ensign in the Scots Fusilier Guards, was severely wounded in an attack on a Russian stronghold. One of the nine Irish Conservative MPs returned between 1852 and 1868 who participated in the conflict, Annesley was shot through his left cheek, losing 23 teeth and ‘a good bit’ of his tongue. Undaunted, he cheerfully informed his mother the following day that the ‘summary dentist’ had still left him with ‘four grinders’, and that in spite of his injuries he would be able ‘to speak as plainly as ever, or at most only with a becoming lisp’. After receiving rudimentary medical treatment, he was transferred to the hospital ship London, on which his younger brother, Robert John Annesley, lay dying of cholera. Invalided home, Annesley soon recovered from his wounds, for which he was paid £100 in compensation (or £4 4s. 2d. per tooth). He left a valuable account of the attack on the Alma, and was elected for County Cavan in 1857. He succeeded his brother as 5th earl of Annesley in 1874.

Captain Edward William Pakenham, a nephew of the earl of Longford and MP for County Antrim since 1852, was also ‘in the thick of the fire’ at the Alma and experienced a lucky escape when one of his epaulettes was torn off by grapeshot. He was, however, mortally wounded while leading a battalion of the Grenadier Guards at the battle of Inkerman, 5 Nov. 1854, and died in his tent that night murmuring ‘how he had been basely stabbed after his fall’. One of Pakenham’s regimental colleagues, Sir Charles Russell, who later sat for Berkshire, won a Victoria Cross in the same battle, as did the future MP for Northumberland North, Lord Henry Percy. Pakenham was one of 104 officers and men of the Grenadiers killed that day, and he was buried on Cathcart’s Hill overlooking Sebastopol. His vacant seat was taken by his brother, Captain Thomas Henry Pakenham, who had been dangerously wounded at the battle of the Alma, and was one of 400 British officers and men to receive a medal for military valour from the king of Sardinia.

Altogether two former and four sitting MPs, two of whom caught cholera, died in the Crimean campaign, Edward Pakenham being just one of three killed in action at Inkerman. The Hon. Thomas Vesey Dawson, a son of Lord Cremorne who had represented counties Louth and Monaghan, fell while leading a battalion of the Coldstream Guards, and Lieutenant-Colonel James Hunter Blair of the Scots Fusilier Guards was also mortally wounded. The young MP for Ayrshire had been a personal favourite of the Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli, who lamented in a letter to Sarah Brydges Williams that his friend had been ‘shot in the tenderest part & died in awful torments’. A regimental colleague of Blair’s, Lord Adolphus Vane-Tempest, a younger son of the Irish landed magnate, Lord Londonderry, and MP for Durham North, also fought at Inkerman and Sebastopol. However, the rigours of two Crimean winters seriously undermined his health and he suffered a mental breakdown in 1857. Although he retained his seat in the Commons he never fully recovered and died in 1864.

Sitting MPs like Blair and Vane-Tempest were not obliged to go to war and could have taken advantage of their place in the Commons to avoid service in the Crimea. Indeed, the Hon. William Stuart Knox, MP for Dungannon and a major in the 21st Foot, only managed to tear himself away from Westminster a few weeks before the war ended. Others, such as Colonel James Pierce Maxwell, MP for County Cavan, served for the greater part of the campaign. Having embarked for the east in March 1854, after first taking care to pair with a fellow MP in the same circumstances as himself, he saw action at the Alma and Balaclava before being wounded in the trenches at Sebastopol, 26 Oct. 1854. He came to grief when his breakfast was interrupted by a 36-pound cannon ball, which ‘hopped’ over the part of the parapet where he was sitting and grazed the top of his head. Maxwell subsequently explained in a letter to his brother that had his head been raised an ‘eighth of an inch more’ it ‘must have been taken off’. After lying for six days ‘in a miserable cold tent’, his face and head having swollen ‘fearfully’, he was evacuated home. Decorated for his war service, Maxwell remained in the Commons until 1865 and succeeded his brother as 9th Baron Farnham in 1884.

One future MP who fared rather better at Sebastopol was Lord Dunkellin. Taken prisoner in front of the trenches before daylight, 22 Oct. 1855, he was removed to St. Petersburg and exchanged for a Russian officer, his father, Lord Clanricarde, being well known to the Czar from having served for several years as British ambassador at the imperial court. Returned for Galway in 1859, Dunkellin played an instrumental part in bringing the Liberal ministry down in 1866 but, already plagued by ill health, he died the following year.

While MPs were well represented in the army, their service in the Royal Navy should not be overlooked. Admiral Houston Stewart, a former MP for Greenwich, was second in command of the fleet in the Baltic during the conflict, and in 1855 he took part in the capture of Kinburn, an action in which the Hon. Walter Cecil Talbot, a son of the earl of Shrewsbury and later MP for County Waterford, also participated.


Recommended reading:

  • Spilsbury, The Thin Red Line. An Eyewitness History of the Crimean War (2006).
  • Figes, Crimea. The Last Crusade (2010).
  • Murphy, Ireland and the Crimean War (2002).

Read more from Stephen and his colleagues from the 1832-1868 Section on the Victorian Commons blog and on Twitter.

Posted in 19th Century history, military history | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment