‘Absolutely our best officer’: Valentine Fleming (1882-1917)

In the latest of our blogs on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of Valentine Fleming on 20 May 1917…

Major Valentine Fleming, Illustrated London News, 9 June 1917, p. 684., via wikimedia

On 25 May 1917, the obituary of Valentine Fleming, Conservative MP for South Oxfordshire since January 1910, appeared in The Times, following his death five days earlier on the Western Front. Its author – ‘W. S. C.’ – was none other than Winston Churchill, who had known Fleming not only as a fellow MP, but also as an officer in the same yeomanry regiment, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. A framed copy of this obituary was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s second son Ian, the creator of James Bond. He was just about to turn nine when his father died.

Born in Fife in 1882, Fleming had a ‘distinguished and creditable’ career at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he excelled at rowing and athletics. He graduated with a degree in History in 1905. His father, Robert, a wealthy financier, had purchased a country estate at Nettlebed, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire in 1903. Aided financially by his father, Fleming bought his own property in the county at Braziers Park, Ipsden, where he and his wife Evelyn lived after their marriage in 1906.

In January 1907 Fleming was chosen as the prospective Conservative candidate for South Oxfordshire (also known as the Henley division). The chairman of the meeting which adopted him noted his academic achievements, his commercial experience in the City and his involvement as an officer in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, which he had joined as a second lieutenant in 1904. He also considered it an important asset that Fleming had ‘a charming wife – who would be of great assistance to him in the campaign, considering the part women now took in politics’. Fleming worked assiduously to cultivate support in the constituency, attending thirty meetings in his first two months as candidate, and also became well-known in the hunting field.

At the January 1910 election, when he advocated the policies of tariff reform and colonial preference, Fleming won a convincing victory over his Liberal opponent. Giving thanks when the result was declared, he was particularly grateful to Oxfordshire’s under-sheriff for performing the duties of returning officer. As Fleming explained, ‘he has rescued me from the somewhat embarrassing position of being returned by my own father’: as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire that year, Robert Fleming should have acted as returning officer.

Fleming was re-elected at the December 1910 general election, but in April 1913 decided that he would not stand again when the next election took place. His father was taking partial retirement from the merchant bank of Robert Fleming and Co., which he had founded. Fleming therefore anticipated having to spend more time on business, especially as he would have to make periodic visits to the United States. Churchill’s obituary of him suggested that his decision stemmed also from his dislike of ‘the violence of faction and the fierce tumults which swayed our political life up to the very threshold of the Great War’.

When war broke out in 1914, Fleming, now a captain, enlisted for service with his regiment. Churchill recorded that Fleming had taken every opportunity to attend training courses as a yeomanry officer, with the result that ‘on mobilization there were few more competent civilian soldiers of his rank’. He fought at the battle of Ypres, was twice mentioned in dispatches and was promoted to the rank of major.

In the early hours of 20 May 1917, Fleming was one of five members of his squadron killed in a heavy German bombardment, while defending Gillemont Farm, near Epehy in northern France. A few weeks before his death he had sent a final postcard to his son, Ian, writing:

In the wood where we slept last night were wild boars. I killed a snake but not a poisonous one. A hedgehog came into Philip’s shelter one night. (J. Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming)

Philip (1889-1971) was Fleming’s younger brother, who served alongside him in the Oxfordshire Hussars. A talented rower, who had won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics, he survived the war.

Posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Valentine Fleming was buried at Templeux-le-Guerard British cemetery in northern France. Churchill remembered his ‘lovable and charming personality’, while a fellow officer wrote that

The loss to the regiment is indescribable. He was … absolutely our best officer, utterly fearless, full of resource, and perfectly magnificent with his men.


You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here.

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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Priscilla Baines, ‘House of Commons governance: a suitable case for treatment?’

In today’s blog Dr Paul Hunneyball reports back from our recent Parliament, Politics & People seminar – where former House of Commons Librarian (2000-2004) and our Honorary Research Fellow Priscilla Baines spoke about her work on the House of Commons commission…

For the first seminar of the summer term, we welcomed Priscilla Baines, a former House of Commons Librarian, and now an honorary research fellow of the History of Parliament Trust. Her title, ‘House of Commons governance: a suitable case for treatment?’, reflected in its wordplay the contradictions of her subject. The Commons, this country’s principal legislative body, has long struggled to find a satisfactory model for keeping its own house in order. Until recent decades, the management of facilities and services was conducted piecemeal, with no overall strategic direction, minimal financial coordination, and a marked absence of either transparency or accountability. The one body competent to produce annual reports, the House of Commons Offices Commission, first established in 1812, rarely met. Much of the machinery of the Commons was at least nominally controlled by the Speaker, but maintenance of the Palace of Westminster was conducted from Whitehall, by the Ministry of Works. Funding for any modernization of accommodation, a particularly urgent issue after the Blitz, depended on the cooperation of the government of the day, which might not be forthcoming.

Priscilla guided us with precision through a succession of reform attempts, from the first proposals by a select committee in 1953-4 for a centralized body to manage both buildings and staff, via the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978-9, to the overhaul of this body in 2015 following the report of the Straw committee. Early schemes to give MPs more power over their own environment were blocked by government, and the Lords and Commons finally secured control of their respective parts of the Palace only in 1965. However, the approach thereafter towards administrative reform was painfully slow, with the addition of new bodies much preferred to rationalization of management structures, and strong resistance to any changes which might encourage greater government interference. Even the Commons Commission as first devised was essentially an additional layer of bureaucracy which had to operate in conjunction with numerous other bodies, and it too proved reluctant to take strategic initiatives. The persistent inefficiencies engendered by this multiplicity of mandates prompted a series of further reforms during the 1990s, which saw a gradual streamlining of administration and decision-making. In 2001-2 the Commission produced its first ever strategic plan. Nevertheless, a further innovation of 2004, whereby the Commission doubled up as the committee responsible for MPs’ pay and allowances, proved something of an own-goal, the latter role becoming a major distraction during the controversy of 2009-10 over MPs’ expenses. Mounting dissatisfaction led to the most recent reforms of 2015, under which the Commission acquired a number of additional members, including an entirely new officer, the Director General of the House. It is also now obliged to set out a ‘strategic framework’ for delivery of services.

Priscilla’s presentation prompted a lively discussion. The issues raised included the impact of politics, finance and individual Speakers on these developments, the current challenge posed by the need for a thoroughgoing restoration of the Palace fabric, and the struggle to secure union recognition at Westminster, which Priscilla herself helped to bring about as recently as 1984.


Join us tonight for our latest seminar, when Charlotte Young (Royal Holloway University of London) will speak on ‘John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s‘. Full details available here.

Priscilla recently published on the History of Parliament’s founder: Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament, 1885-1918

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Hot takes and fake news: news management through the Votes of the House of Commons

In the era of live webcasts from the Chamber and committee rooms, rolling Hansard and near-instant transcripts of committee sessions, it is sometimes difficult to conceive of an era when the House of Commons fought jealously to keep reports of its proceedings out of the public domain. As the House marks 200 years since the first publication of the Votes and Proceedings, Martyn Atkins, Clerk of the Procedure Committee, explains how the Commons began to manage the reporting of its decisions…

The heightened tension and moral panic which gripped life at Westminster in the time of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis made participation in political life dangerous — especially for opponents of the Court party and those who wished to see James, Duke of York excluded from the succession on account of his supposed Catholicism. As an institution which had typically prohibited any reporting out of doors of its debates and decisions, unless sanctioned by order of the House, the House of Commons found itself highly susceptible to the conduits of ‘fake news’: the broadside, the unauthorised publication and the gossip in the coffee shops.

So it was in October 1680 that the House ordered the printing and sale, under the Speaker’s authority, of a daily report of its proceedings — the Vote. Though some Members advocating the first regular publication of an account of business in the House, sought to dress it up in high principle — the right of the electorate to know how their representatives were conducting themselves — most who were in favour of the scheme were more self-serving. Publication would counter the inaccurate and often dangerous gossip about business in the House which was being put about.

After a hiatus in the reign of James II, the House in the Convention Parliament of 1689 ordered, against rather stouter opposition, to revive the Vote. Printed privately under licence from the Speaker, it continued to be a commercial success until the 1780s, when the House’s opposition to reports of debates was finally relaxed and public demand for the reporting of decisions fell away. At that point the Vote was sustained through payments from the Exchequer.

In truth, by then the Vote had become a bloated enterprise, stuffed with dull verbatim recitations of petitions and preambles to private bills. Its subsidy guaranteed its continued production, but its value as a news source was diminishing, not least because the increase of business in the House led to significant delays in its production. It was not unusual for a Vote to appear over five days after the sitting day it recorded. Even in the eighteenth century this represented an unacceptable delay.

Speaker Charles Abbot, Drawing by S.J. Buck, (c) Palace of Westminster, WOA 2393

The innate conservatism of the Commons appeared to militate against any change in practice, and it took fifteen years for the reforming Speaker, Charles Abbot, to make an impact on this area of the House’s information management. Abbot was indebted to his erstwhile secretary, John Rickman, the driving force behind the Census Act of 1801, for a scheme which would revolutionise the publication of the House’s decisions.

By March 1817 it was privately clear to Abbot, chosen Speaker in 1802, that his time in the Chair was coming to a close, hastened by health issues of which erysipelas — a debilitating condition causing skin rashes — was but one (Erysipelas, or ‘St Anthony’s fire’, can develop from gout. It was not fatal to Abbot, but did carry off Queen Anne, Charles Lamb, John Stuart Mill and Queen Victoria’s John Brown). His diaries record that he had begun to haggle with the Exchequer over his likely pension. In a career where he had driven through change in the management of the House’s accounts and papers, creating the foundation for the House of Commons Library, it is apparent that he wished to achieve one further reform. For this he relied upon Rickman, who had by now left his personal service to join the House service as Second Clerk Assistant.

The degree of pitch-rolling preceding the Speaker’s announcement in the House on Wednesday 26 March 1817 must have been considerable:

Since the accession of his present majesty, until the period of the Union, the business of that House had increased threefold. From the Union to the present time that increase was fivefold. From this consideration he had directed his attention to ascertain whether or not the publication of the votes and of the journals might not be effected in some more compressed form, so as to have their delivery take place at a much earlier period than was possible under the present system, and at a reduced expense in the charge of printing… He was now satisfied that the printed votes under the new arrangement, could be delivered the morning after the decision, and that they might also contain the orders of the day, the notices, and the second readings of private bills. The consequence of the arrangement in the votes would give such an accession of assistance in the preparation of the printed journals [HC Deb 27 March 1817 vol 35 col 1273-74]

The Speaker suggested the proposal be considered by a select committee and be trialed for the remained of the session. To cries of ‘hear hear!’ the House agreed.

Charles Bathurst, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, made the Committee’s report to the House  the very next day and read the Committee’s resolution endorsing the method for preparing the V&P set out in the report:

Mr. Bathurst reported … that the committee having examined Mr. Ley and Mr. Rickman, the clerks assistant of the House, Mr. Whittam the clerk of the journals, and Mr. Bowyer Nichols, the printer of the votes, and compared the intended compressed form of the votes, with that at present in use, had come to the following resolution: “That it will be advisable that the votes and proceedings of the House should be prepared, printed, and distributed according to the method proposed and described in the papers thereunto annexed.”  [HC Deb 27 March 1817 vol 35 col 1275]

The resolution of the Committee was read and agreed to on Friday 28 March: the House thereby endorsed a new method for preparing and printing the record of its proceedings.

The squaring of the Exchequer and the forces of conservatism in the House was undoubtedly done by Rickman, who calculated that under the new arrangements the Vote could be published overnight, with radically reduced pagination, thus saving the Exchequer some £2000 annually.  A further innovation was proposed: the Votes and Proceedings should, for the better information of Members, have appended a list of the Orders of the Day, Notices of Motion and Private Bills set down for the next sitting day.

The last edition of the old Votes appeared on Monday 31 March 1817. The House then adjourned until Monday 14 April 1817. (Easter Sunday fell on 6 April.)

The House did not in fact produce the Votes and Proceedings on 14 April 1817. The House met to hear the Deputy Clerk (Jeremiah Dyson the younger) read a letter from Speaker Abbot, laid up in his house at Kidbrooke in Sussex pleading indisposition (from erysipelas, his diary records) and requesting that the House consider adjourning for a further week.

Dyson did not chair proceedings, but the Journal records that “according to the former practice in the absence of the Speaker” Members addressed themselves to him, and, at the House’s direction, he put the question that the House adjourn until 24 April.

On 24 April the Speaker resumed the Chair, with grateful thanks to the House for its indulgence, and a V&P for 14 and 24 April was printed, together with the expected Orders and Notices of Motion and Private Bills for Friday 25 April.

Under the old format, 44 sitting days were covered in 390 pages.  Under the new format, 58 sitting days were covered in 229 pages: selected petition texts were printed as a sessional appendix running to an additional 77 pages.

On 30 May Dyson’s reading aloud abilities were tested again, this time on a letter from Abbot announcing his retirement through ill-health.  At this point the Mace was brought in and placed beneath the table.  Dyson then, following the practice of the House when there was no Speaker in office, stood up and wordlessly pointed to Lord Castlereagh, Leader of the House, to give him the floor. Castlereagh made a short speech and moved the adjournment. The House subsequently chose Charles Manners-Sutton as its new Speaker, and Abbot was raised to the peerage as Baron Colchester.  As R G Thorne’s biography of Abbot records, he continued to grumble about the size of his pension.

Erskine May, writing in 1854, said he could not recall any change of any importance in Parliamentary practice before the Reform Act “with the exception of the daily distribution of the printed Votes and Proceedings, for which we are mainly indebted to the zeal of the late Mr Rickman.” The Votes and Proceedings continue to be produced to this day under a method which Rickman would doubtless recognise, but making the fullest use of modern information technology, a development he would surely have applauded.


You can see the latest version of Votes and Proceedings here.

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Election 2017: Interrupting by-elections

On the day that the Manchester Gorton by-election was due to take place, Dr Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project looks at by-elections that never were, and MPs returned at by-elections who almost immediately faced a general election contest…

Alongside the local government elections taking place across the country today, there should also have been a by-election to choose a successor to Sir Gerald Kaufman. However, with the 2017 general election little more than a month away, Manchester Gorton’s electors will now be going to the polls at the same time as the rest of Britain. When the question of cancelling the writ for this by-election was discussed in the Commons, the Leader of the House, David Lidington, cited a precedent from November 1923. This blog discusses that earlier cancelled by-election and other by-elections that were subsumed by the dissolution of Parliament. It also looks at by-elections held close to a general election, including one MP who faced two elections within the space of a week.

Labour candidate for Warwick and Leamington, Daisy Greville, by The Lafayette Studio, via Wikimedia Commons

In November 1923, following the appointment of their Conservative MP, Sir Ernest Pollock, as Master of the Rolls, the voters of Warwick and Leamington faced a by-election to fill the vacancy. Three candidates came forward. The most politically experienced was the Liberal, George Nicholls, who had sat as Labour MP for North Northamptonshire from 1906 until January 1910. He had since made several unsuccessful attempts to return to the Commons, both as a Labour candidate and, more recently, as a Liberal. His Conservative opponent was Anthony Eden, the future Prime Minister. Eden had just got married, and his wife Beatrice was greeted with bouquets and confetti as she toured the constituency’s villages during his by-election campaign. He was making his second attempt to win a parliamentary seat, having stood the previous year for Spennymoor, county Durham. The Labour candidate was Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick. A former mistress of Edward VII, she had long been engaged in politics, being elected as a poor law guardian in 1894, and in 1904 had joined the Social Democratic Federation. Her candidature generated a great deal of interest, not only as an aristocratic woman campaigning for the Labour party, but also because she and Eden were related: her son, Lord Brooke, was married to Eden’s sister.

All three candidates handed in their nomination papers on 13 November 1923. However, since the Conservative Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, informed the Commons on the same day of his decision to call a snap general election on the question of free trade, the returning officer, acting on advice from the Home Office, cancelled the by-election the following day. Instead of polling on 22 November, Warwick and Leamington’s electors voted with the rest of the country on 6 December. They returned Eden at the top of the poll, with Nicholls second and Lady Warwick a distant third. Eden represented the constituency throughout his Commons career.

In a curious case, discovered by Dr. Martin Spychal in his research for our House of Commons, 1832-68 project, a by-election which in fact never took place has been recorded in reference works such as Charles Dod’s Electoral facts (1853) and McCalmont’s Parliamentary Poll Book (first published in 1879). They both record the return of Sir Charles Knightley for Northamptonshire South in November 1834. The seat had become vacant on 10 November, when one of the constituency’s sitting MPs, Viscount Althorp, succeeded to the peerage as Earl Spencer on his father’s death. In fact, although Knightley canvassed the constituency in anticipation of the by-election, no writ had been issued before the new Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel took the decision to dissolve Parliament in December 1834. Knightley had to wait until the general election in January 1835, when he was elected unopposed.

The last by-election of the first Reformed Parliament actually took place on Christmas Eve 1834, just five days before the dissolution. Thomas Fitzgerald, one of the MPs for the double-member Irish county constituency of Louth, had died on 30 October 1834. Two candidates came forward for the ensuing by-election. Sir Patrick Bellew had previously sat for the county from 1831-2, and his brother Richard was County Louth’s other sitting MP. He was challenged by the Hon. Chichester Thomas Skeffington Foster. However, once it became evident that the dissolution of Parliament was imminent, Skeffington Foster announced on 22 December that he would not contest the by-election, holding his fire for the general election. Bellew was elected without opposition, and retained the seat alongside his brother at the general election the following month, when Skeffington Foster came third.

Daniel O’Donoghue by ‘Spy’ (Leslie Ward) published in Vanity Fair, 1880, via Wikimedia Commons

An Irish constituency also saw the last by-election contest before the 1857 general election. Like the 1834 Louth by-election, it took place just five days before the dissolution, but as Parliament was still sitting, the victor was able to take his seat, which had not been the case for Bellew. On 16 February 1857, one of the seats for Tipperary became vacant after James Sadleir was expelled from the Commons. Both he and his brother, John, MP for the borough of Sligo, had become embroiled in scandal after their fraudulent transactions led to the collapse of the Tipperary Joint-Stock Bank, which they had co-founded in 1838. John Sadleir committed suicide in February 1856, while James fled to the Continent a few months later to escape justice. At the by-election on 16 March 1857, Daniel O’Donoghue defeated Laurence Waldron. He was sworn in at Westminster on 21 March 1857, taking his seat ‘amidst considerable laughter’. This no doubt stemmed from the fact that, apart from a few questions to ministers, the only other business conducted by MPs that day was to hear the dissolution announced. O’Donoghue did, however, return to the Commons following his re-election at the general election the following month.

Although they took place so close to the dissolution, neither the Tipperary nor Louth contests hold the record for the latest by-election before a dissolution. That goes to the Ealing division of Middlesex, where Lord George Hamilton had to seek re-election in July 1895 following his appointment as Secretary of State for India by the new Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. Until 1926, ministers had to stand for re-election when they were appointed to office. Hamilton’s was the last of eight ministerial by-elections held in June and July 1895, and like his colleagues, he was not opposed. According to one press report, he was declared elected at noon on 8 July. At 3 p.m. that day, at a privy council held at Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria signed the proclamation for the dissolution of Parliament. Five days later, Hamilton was again returned for Ealing at the general election.

All the MPs mentioned so far were successful in winning a seat at a general election. This was not, however, the case for the last MP elected before the 1906 general election. On 6 December 1905, polling took place in the New Forest division of Hampshire to replace the Conservative MP John Scott-Montagu, who had succeeded to the peerage. Henry Francis Compton retained the seat for the Conservatives, seeing off a Liberal challenge from Richard Hobart, but as Parliament was not sitting, he could not be sworn in as an MP. Compton and Hobart stood again at the general election, when there was some local feeling that ‘rejecting Mr. Compton before he has been allowed to take his seat would be adding insult to injury’.  However, although this constituency had been held by the Conservatives since its creation in 1885 (including by Compton’s uncle), the Liberal landslide of 1906 saw him narrowly lose out to Hobart. Compton’s fate was shared by the Barkston Ash MP, Joseph Andrews, who had won a surprise by-election victory for the Liberals in this Yorkshire constituency in October 1905. This spurred the Conservatives to reinvigorate the local party organisation, and Barkston Ash reverted to its traditional Conservatism at the 1906 general election, ousting Andrews before his Commons career had even begun.


See our ongoing series for more posts inspired by the 2017 General Election – more to follow soon!

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Election 2017: Snap elections, memories of 1974

Last week Theresa May shocked the political establishment by calling a snap election. In the first in our 2017 election campaign series, we take a look back at the two elections of 1974 through the memories of our oral history project interviewees…

Modern political wisdom has urged caution on Prime Ministers considering calling early elections, in part thanks to memories of 1974. There were two elections in this unusual political year: the first itself a snap election in February by Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath in response to the energy crisis, three-day-week and industrial action from miners; the second by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a bid to gain a parliamentary majority after winning in February, but only with enough seats to govern as a minority.

Heath’s decision to call the February election was seen as a gamble at a time of crisis. The economy was crippled by high levels of inflation and the oil crisis that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, and the government’s attempts to control rising prices by capping wages were hampered by industrial action called by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). This led to a state of emergency and the government heavily restricting energy supplies, including industry operating on a ‘three day week’. Heath hoped that an election victory would give him a stronger hand when dealing with the NUM who were threatening further strikes rather than accepting the government’s pay deal. Heath famously went to the polls asking “who governs Britain?”

According to the former MPs interviewed for our oral history project, Heath’s decision was controversial to both parties. Sir David Madel told us that he was one of many at the party’s backbench 1922 Committee to argue against the election; whereas Laurence Reed instead remembered that the meeting’s overall mood was that Heath “couldn’t back down now”. For Labour, the issue was complicated due to their close ties to the Unions. Many MPs did not fully back the NUM: Alan Lee Williams felt his failure to do so cost him Labour votes in his constituency of Hornchurch; whereas David Stoddart argued that the calling the election was “silly” as the public had sympathy for the miners, and that it gave the unions “a sense of power which a) they didn’t deserve and b) they shouldn’t have”.

Conservative Sir Terrence Higgins argued that Heath in fact called the election too late, by the time he did so the electorate were “basically upset” with the state of the country. Our interviewees certainly remembered a miserable campaign, in bad weather, short broadcast hours and “in the dark” due to restrictions on lighting, such as in this clip from Labour’s Edmund Marshall:


Unfortunately for Heath, early in the campaign a Pay Board official report was published demonstrating that the miners were in fact right to argue that they had been paid less than others in similar sectors. Sir John Hannam remembers the impact this had on the campaign:


Although Heath won the popular vote his gamble had failed: Labour won more seats (if only enough for a minority government). This was a “surprise” to many Conservatives, and to Heath himself, whose last minute efforts to form a government with Jeremy Thorpe’s resurgent Liberal party were described as “half-hearted” by Patrick Jenkin. The minority government meant that everyone in Westminster expected another election quickly. Labour candidates who lost out in February continued to campaign. Frank White, who lost by 300 votes the first time round, let his agent continue to organise “not a campaign” but an active canvassing and door-knocking plan throughout 1974.

When the election came round as expected in October, one crucial factor in the primary battle between Conservatives and Labour was the appeal of minority parties. Labour’s Jim Sillars, who went on to join the SNP, remembered noticing increased support for the nationalists on the doorstep (the SNP went on to win 11 seats – a record for them at the time), and in England the crucial factor for many was the Liberals. They had increased their vote share in February, but fell back in October, causing unpredictability (and sleepless nights!) for a number of candidates, as remembered here by Janet Fookes:

Yet for Helene Hayman, first elected in October having lost out in February, the key was Wilson’s appeal to the electorate:


Wilson did indeed get his majority, but it was a small one of just three. Labour’s Ann Taylor, one of the new MPs elected in October, remarked in her interview that four new Labour MPs elected in the North West would often say “we are the majority”. The result led to a difficult parliament in 1974-9 with the Labour government just managing to stay in power, but saw the end of Edward Heath, who was removed as Conservative leader in 1975 – too late, in the opinion of many of our Conservative interviewees, who argued his leadership was extended by the expected second election and his “stubbornness”. Margaret Thatcher became the new Conservative leader, and ushered in quite a change in government in 1979.


For more on our oral history project, visit our website or you can listen to the recordings in the British Library. Watch this space for more election 2017 themed blogposts…

Posted in 20th century history, Election 2017, oral history, Politics, Post-1945 history, social history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Edward Hicks, ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People‘ seminar of lent term, Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) spoke on: ‘“The best regulated ambition I ever witnessed”: Spencer Perceval and the Importance of Character in the Parliaments of the Napoleonic Wars’. Here he reports back on his paper…

The death of Pitt the Younger in 1806 left a void in the political world of late Hanoverian Britain, the lack of a dominant personality who could lead the Commons, manage the finances, and the steer the ship of state through the trouble waters of the Napoleonic Wars. Four prime ministers followed in six years. Ultimately Lord Liverpool cemented Pitt’s friends and followers into a strong government that lasted until 1827. But Liverpool’s rise was facilitated by the assassination of Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer (1807-12) and Prime Minister (1809-12). Even with his short career Perceval still earned the praise of Romantic poet Robert Southey as ‘the best minister we have ever had’. My paper sought to explain Perceval’s success in the tumultuous years of 1807 to 1812. I drew on Paul Langford’s idea that politicians of the late Hanoverian era became less flashy, more sombre and aloof in their public image than had been the case with the corrupt and showy Robert Walpole or the morally dubious Earl of Sandwich in the eighteenth century. I began by arguing that contemporaries saw character as an important political asset, before contending that Perceval’s reputation for integrity, honesty, his well-regulated ambition, personal piety and amiability abetted him in the struggle for political power. This contrasted with George Canning’s struggles to overcome a reputation for excessive ambition and insincere views.

Canning declared that ‘my road must be through character to power’. Drawing on contemporary correspondence I noted how MPs and peers observed the growing importance of ‘the character which a Statesman bears in the relations of private life’, to judge amongst politicians repeatedly engaged in party disputes and changes of government. A politician’s character could come to aid of a weak speech in the Commons, or make a great oration seem unprincipled. The important characteristics for success were ideas of honesty and integrity, an idea of manliness that was probably especially pertinent during a global war, and a controlled ambition.

Perceval’s success rested on several important character traits. Firstly, contrary to Langford’s claim that aloofness was politically beneficial, I suggested that Perceval also gained through his perceived openness and friendly disposition. His plain dealing brought political rewards. George III, who appointed Perceval prime minister in October 1809, called him ‘the most straightforward man I have ever met’. Secondly, his reputation for piety, which caused him to support the abolition of the slave trade, and endeavour to strengthen the Established Churches in Britain and Ireland, meant, as the diarist Sylvester Douglas noted, Perceval’s ‘reputation stands high as a worthy, friendly, and generous man, of real piety and orthodoxy in religion.’ Thirdly, this was combined with a sincerity which palliated, even for political opponents, his staunchly anti-Catholic views. The opposition MP John Ward acknowledged that Perceval ‘was a man of the most perfect honour and disinterestedness’. Fourthly, despite being physically unimpressive – he was nicknamed ‘Little P’ – Perceval had a reputation for being hard-working and capable of withstanding constant parliamentary assaults. As his fellow Pittite Charles Long put it ‘He is as hard as Iron.’

These traits came to his aid during the Regency Crisis of 1810-11. With the new Regent expected to dismiss Perceval and bring in his Whig friend, Perceval’s decision to proceed with proposing restrictions on the Regent’s power seemed foolhardy yet also courageous. The MP and diarist Robert Plumer Ward recounted several parliamentarians disagreed with him but ‘devoted themselves to him on account of his manly firmness, his integrity, honour and courage’. Even political opponents apparently cheered him as he carried Parliament with him in passing his restricted Regency bill. Plumer Ward reckoned Perceval’s success was ‘all owing to his personal character’. Lord Liverpool, in a most revealing comparison written to the Duke of Wellington in Portugal, stated that Perceval’s ‘character is completely established in the House of Commons; he has acquired an authority there beyond any minister in my recollection, except Mr Pitt.’ Indeed such was Perceval’s standing that the Prince Regent ultimately decided, both in 1811 and 1812, to retain him as prime minister, helping entrench the Pittite dominance that would persist throughout George IV’s reign.

Perceval’s success contrasted with George Canning’s failure in this period. Charles Arbuthnot declared Perceval had ‘the best regulated ambition I ever witnessed’, and Wilberforce even claimed his political ‘eminence was not of his own seeking.’ Conversely Canning’s reputation was sullied by bouts of political chicanery, notably in 1809 when his attempt to remove Lord Castlereagh from office led to Canning and Castlereagh fighting a duel on Putney Heath. Lord Malmesbury claimed that Canning had ‘too much restless ambition, too much arrogance’. This meant that when Canning took a principled stance against the government’s plan for a restricted Regency in 1811, which broke with Pitt’s own approach in 1788-9, he was denounced as ‘playing a game’.

One man who was no admirer, but gives an important and amusing account as to why Perceval was so successful, was the Whig wit, cleric, and satirist Sydney Smith. He recounted in 1831 that Perceval was

The most mischievous little man that ever lived – just every thing that John Bill likes, – moral, and religious, with a wife and ten children, quiet and meek, with the heart of a lion – and always in the wrong, – always flattering some rascally prejudice, always oppressing and humbugging – and hang the fellow! – making oppression and humbug respectable by his decent character and his admirable demeanour, and his skill in debating.

Though he did not live to see the conclusion of the Napoleonic War or govern through the post-war upheaval that ensued, Perceval’s character did help ensure it was his fellow Pittites who ruled. It also gives a telling example of how the late Hanoverian period was already fashioning an image of the heroic, principled, and industrious statesman that the Victorians would later develop.

‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ returns in May for a new programme for the summer term. Full details available here.

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‘Time, that great discoverer of truth and falsehood’: the calendar change of 1752 and the dating of Easter

As Easter weekend – late this year – approaches, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the timing of Easter and the 18th century change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar…

On 25 February 1751 Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, introduced into the House of Lords a bill for amending the calendar after he had, as he put it, ‘consulted the best lawyers, and the most skilful astronomers, and… cooked up a bill for that purpose’.  At that point Britain still retained the Julian calendar, having avoided adoption of the revised calendar introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which was employed by the majority of western Europe. The situation was further complicated by the use of 25 March rather than 1 January in England as the beginning of the year. By 1752 dating in Britain was out of step with the continent by eleven days, an inconvenience which Chesterfield, a man who had acted as ambassador at the Hague twice and served as one of the secretaries of state dealing extensively with foreign affairs, was eager to do away with.  While the two systems were in operation, correspondents in Britain and much of Europe needed to give two dates to each letter or indicate which system was being used with the addition of O.S. (Old Style for the Julian) or N.S. (New Style for the Gregorian) after their heading. While much of Chesterfield’s focus was on the annoyance this caused in terms of diplomatic and commercial traffic, a further consequence of Britain’s separate dating system was that the country was also out of step in the calculation of Easter.

Easter, unlike Christmas, and to the intense confusion of some, is a moveable feast. Whereas 25 December was fairly early on adopted as the day of Christ’s birth in the western church, thanks to the different systems of dating in operation when Jesus was alive (and ongoing uncertainty regarding the years in which he was born and died) establishing the day when Easter should be celebrated can be worked out in a number of different ways. Rules for establishing the dating of Easter were laid down in late antiquity and subsequently reformed in the 16th century by Pope Gregory XIII as part of his general reformation of both civil and ecclesiastical calendars. However, as not everyone adopted the Pope’s reforms, not all churches observed the festival of Easter at the same time. The most obvious disparity lay between the western (Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) churches, but before Easter 1753 Britain, too, was distinct from the majority of western Europe thanks to its continued use of its own system of calculating Easter based on ‘golden rules’ laid down in the Book of Common Prayer. The vagaries of these were such that in some years Easter in Britain did coincide with Easter as celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church, but as often as not the two occurred at different times.

Reform of the calendar in England proved long in coming. Within a few years of the Gregorian calendar being introduced Elizabeth I indicated her support for England adopting the new system, but although a bill was presented to the House of Lords on 16 March 1584/5 it fell after its second reading, thwarted by the bishops. Another century was to pass before discussion of reform of the dating of Easter was again raised with any degree of seriousness. In 1699 Dr John Wallis, professor of Geometry at Oxford, responded to the latter by warning:

That there is, in our Ecclesiastical Computation of the Paschal Tables, somewhat of Disorder, is not to be deny’d. But I am very doubtful, that, if we go to alter that, it will be attended with greater Mischief, than the present Inconvenience. It is dangerous removing the Old Land-Marks. A Thing of Moment, when once settled… should not be rashly alter’d. [Wallis to Archbishop Tenison, 13 June 1699]

It was, thus, not until the middle of the eighteenth century that reform of the calendar finally arrived on the political agenda with any expectation of success. Even then, Chesterfield’s 1751 proposal had to contend with opposition from one of the chief ministers of the day, Thomas Pelham Holles, duke of Newcastle, who declared his reluctance to ‘stir matters that had long been quiet’. Chesterfield was himself far from a technical expert, as he was only too willing to confess. Writing to his son he admitted having been obliged in the course of proceedings, ‘to talk some astronomical jargon, of which I did not understand one word’, in which he seems to have been joined by the majority of his colleagues: ‘I could just as soon have talked Celtic or Sclavonian to them, as astronomy, and they would have understood me full as well.’ If Chesterfield’s grasp of the finer points of the issue were in doubt, however, the same could not be said of his associate in pressing the changes, George Parker, 2nd earl of Macclesfield, whose coruscating denunciation of the drawbacks of the older systems appear to have left the rest of the Lords unwilling to say one word against it: ‘how perfect soever this method was at first believed to be; time, that great discoverer of truth and falsehood, has shewn it to be very erroneous’ [Cobbett, Parliamentary History, xiv. 989]. Despite this, it seems to have been Chesterfield’s performance rather than Macclesfield’s that swayed the chamber. This, at least, was Chesterfield’s take on the matter as he was convinced that he had spoken so much more clearly than his more erudite ally:

This will ever be the case; every numerous assembly is mob, let the individuals who compose it be what they will, Mere reason and good sense is never to be talked to a mob; their passions, their sentiments, their senses, and their seeming interests, are alone to be applied to…

Whichever was the case, whether through Macclesfield’s scholarly delivery or Chesterfield’s oratory, the consequence was that the people of Britain went to bed on Wednesday 2 September 1752 and woke up ‘eleven days later’ on Thursday 14 September. In popular memory the confusion gave rise to riots with people demanding the return of their eleven days, though doubt has since been cast on the extent to which there was truly any popular disturbance over the adoption of the measure at all. At most it may have been confined to a few examples, principal among them the Oxfordshire election of 1754 when Macclesfield’s son, Thomas Parker, Viscount Parker, was opposed by some Tory supporters apparently bearing placards with the legend ‘Give us our Eleven Days’ – evidence for which is based largely on Hogarth’s famous series celebrating the poll.

William Hogarth’s ‘An Election Entertainment’ 1755 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The ’11 days’ banner is in the bottom right

If 1752 brought Britain at last into line with Europe and resulted in Easter 1753 being celebrated in Canterbury and Rome at the same time, disputes about the moveable nature of the feast have continued to cause dissension. In the 1920s the matter was raised in the League of Nations and in 1928 an act for settling the date of Easter passed both Houses of Parliament, but failed to be enforced. Subsequent efforts to have the 1928 Act adopted in 1948 (when Henry Wilson Harris, MP for Cambridge University, urged adopting the measure ‘to arrest the vagrant tendency of Easter’) 1970, 1984 and 1999 all met with similar lack of success. Perhaps the most optimistic aspiration of the planned harmonization was expressed by Lord Airedale when the question of activating the 1928 Act was debated in 1984. By locating Easter permanently to a date in April, he argued, one might avoid March, a month which was notorious for being ‘too fickle and can never make up its mind whether it is a lamb or a lion’ and be better assured of fine weather for what ‘is regarded by many people as the first outdoor holiday of the year’.


Further Reading

  • Cobbett, Parliamentary History, XIV
  • Hansard Online
  • Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, ed. David Roberts (Oxford 1992)
  • Malcolm Freiberg, ‘Going Gregorian, 1582-1752’, Catholic Historical Review, 86:1 (2000)
  • Robert Poole, ‘ “Give us our Eleven Days!”: Calendar Reform in 18th-century England’, Past and Present, 149 (November 1995)
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