Time and the Commons

Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, explores the development of the late night culture at the House of Commons…

'The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours', John Doyle, 18 July 1831 © The Trustees of the British Museum
The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours’, John Doyle, 18 July 1831 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The above John Doyle print of July 1831, ‘The House wot keeps bad hours’, shows the House of Commons in session with the clock showing seven o’clock in the morning. Members are crowded on the benches, asleep or half asleep; the clerk, barely conscious, is supporting his head with one hand. They are all being harangued, angrily, by the ultra Tory Sir Charles Wetherell, who with a group of allies had to the mounting irritation of the government majority, been conducting a rearguard action against the Reform bill by moving successive motions to adjourn the House.

The title might have been used at any time since then, for the Commons’ reputation for sitting longer and later than any other in the world has remained unchallenged. In the 1850s the journalist George Augustus Sala described a debate in the House of Commons at 2am, commenting

at the first blush, there seems no earthly reason why the legislative business of the nation should not be got over during the day, or, at the outside, before the night were spent. The French Deputies, Conventionalists, or Representatives in the national Assembly, in their stormiest and most prolonged debates, seldom heard the chimes at midnight; and, ardent parliamentarians as are the Americans, it is only towards the immediate close of the session that Congress keeps for two or three days and nights a sort of Saturnalia of untimely sittings [Twice around the clock p. 358]

It was not just a matter of long days. The House of Commons also became known as the legislative chamber that sat for a greater part of each year than just about any other in the world.

Why did the House of Commons become so addicted to late sittings? The story of the House’s use of time from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth is one of a continuous drift towards sitting later and later in the day. In the sixteenth century the House would normally meet at 8am and sit until 11, dealing at first with private business for an hour or so before moving on to the public business by around 9. Dinner, the main meal of the day, would take place around 11 or later, and the afternoon would be reserved for the meetings of Committees. The drift to a later time of sitting is first evident in the mid-seventeenth century, and becomes more marked over the next fifty years. From the early eighteenth century the great majority of debates began in the early afternoon, between midday and 2pm. By the end of the century the normal beginning of public business had become as late as 5pm. With the House beginning so late, it was bound to rise very late as well. Sittings after midnight became increasingly common.

This may have been due to the pressure on ministerial time, and underlying this point must be the growth of the House’s business. The increase in the range and quantity of matters dealt with by the House of Commons in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century included colonial affairs, especially after the effective nationalisation of the East India Company in the 1780s, and Irish business after Union in 1800. There were plenty of procedural reasons to explain the extended sittings of the House. The House’s procedures were, it has been said, those of an opposition, which made it easy to put obstacles in the way of the House coming to a decision on anything. The most obvious of these was the capacity of Members to move the adjournment of the House, as Charles Wetherell was doing in 1831.

But the House of Commons’ peculiar sitting hours is also symptomatic of more fundamental institutional roles and cultures, and their relationship to the national social and cultural landscape. Parliament created a strange sort of artificial community composed of a rich mixture of cultures from across a kingdom. It was natural that there should have been different pressures on the use of time when at Westminster: country gentlemen were anxious to use their time in London for personal business of various kinds, including the an intense period of shopping and socialising that would eventually become the London season; lawyers, merchants and manufacturers would carry on their practice or businesses at the same time; government officials and senior politicians were more anxious to extract decisions from the House of Commons. But by the early eighteenth century the gentry elite – from which an increasing amount of the Members of the House were drawn – had become very late risers during their stays in London, with social events continuing well into the night. In the 1730s the Speaker blamed the late start of the House on officers of state coming late to the House, but he said that members accepted it ‘as suiting their late hours of pleasures, exercise, or other private avocations’. More than a century later the journalist Sala suggested that

We are altogether a sitting-up late people. The continental theatres are all closed by eleven. We dismiss our audiences sometimes at midnight, oftener at half-past, or a quarter to one in the morning. Our fashionable balls commence when those of other nations are terminating. We may not dine so late, but then we sup heavily, hours afterwards. Night life in London does not commence till the “small hours”, yet in dissipated Paris, you may count the cafes and supper rooms on your fingers whose portals are open at one o’clock in the morning.

Sala drew a contrast between the salaried French senator who ‘drives down to the Luxembourg in his brougham, about three in the afternoon, dozes for a couple of hours on a well-stuffed bench, goes home to dine, drink coffee, play tric-trac, read the Gazette de France, or receive a select circle of pensioned fogies like himself’, with the English Member of Parliament, who ‘receives nothing a year’, and works hard responding to constituents, studying for debates and attending meetings.

Add that the English Member of Parliament has to be, over and above all this, a man of business or pleasure: with a wife and family very often, with a turn for literature, or art, or science, or natural history. He is a merchant or banker, and must drudge in his counting-house, like the meanest of his clerks, … he is a celebrity of the fashionable world: he must pay his morning visits, ride in the Park, show himself at the ‘Corner’, lounge through his clubs, drop in the opera at night, and pervading it like a nightmare, there is the real business of his life – the House.



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