Duchesses in the Gallery: women watching the eighteenth-century House of Commons

This month’s installment of our ‘Women and Parliament’ blog series comes from the HPT’s Dr Paul Seaward, who is currently holder of a British Academy / Wolfson Foundation Research Professorship for his project, Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament. You can read more about the project, which involves looking at Parliament’s past in a very different way, here . In this blog, Paul explores the presence and privilege of aristocratic women in the House of Commons in the eighteenth century… 

The routine exclusion of women from the House of Commons after 1778 – eventually tempered by the concession of a cramped and very stuffy space in the roof, above the ventilator, from which they could watch proceedings – is still imperfectly understood, although Elaine Chalus’s work on Elite Women in British Politics 1754-90 cast much light on the events which led to it. For one thing, it was clearly not the case that women were necessarily routinely permitted to attend before 1778. Appearances of women in the Commons gallery were exceptional, though far from unheard of, and seem normally to have happened only by special agreement of the Speaker. John Perceval, Viscount Perceval, later the Earl of Egmont, referred in his diary to taking his wife and daughter to the House in 1732 when it was debating the collapse of the Charitable Corporation: because ‘so many ladies [were] said to be undone’ by the failure, the Speaker had decided ‘to indulge ladies to be present in the gallery, and witnesses of the justice the parliament are doing on those vile persons’. From the beginning of George III’s reign references to the presence of women become less infrequent, though accounts usually imply, or state, that the women were of rank. John Campbell, in a bantering letter to his wife in 1763, clearly still found their presence worthy of remark:

we had a very full House both of Members and strangers, and Two Ladies in the Gallery. I am sure either young, or old [men?] should have been greatly out of countenance to have been one or only two then in an Assembly of 400 Ladies, but these two Ladies had greatness of mind superior to such foolish bashfulness. They were people of fashion I heard their names but being ne’re the wiser forgot them.

In February 1764 Horace Walpole noted the presence of a number of ‘patriotesses’ in the  hearing of evidence and debate on John Wilkes’s complaint of a breach of privilege, a dramatic confrontation between ministers and the opposition. Most of them were closely related to prominent opposition politicians. Lady Mary Coke attended the House in 1768 on several occasions (despite her initial reluctance) in order to support Sir James Lowther’s election petition, in company with Sir James’s wife ‘and a great number of other ladies’, including the Duchesses of Northumberland and Marlborough. On a subsequent occasion on which the House voted on the petition, Coke reported the additional presence of the Duchesses of Portland and Ancaster and Lady Rockingham. Remarkably, Coke noticed the presence of ‘Betty, the fruit woman’, sitting behind the Duchess of Portland, who ‘whisper’d with’ the counsel for Lowther’s opponent. (Betty’s presence might not be the evidence of inclusiveness as at first appears: it was presumably the same woman whom Lady Caroline Petersham carted off to Vauxhall with a party in 1757 to serve soft fruit and be patronised.)

Such aristocratic women behaved with the confidence and arrogance of their class. They often attended in force (no doubt taking on board Campbell’s remark about how brave it was for a mere couple of women to appear in a room among hundreds of men). There were said to be ‘near 60’ women in the gallery for the debate in 1778 which resulted in the change of policy: the clerk of the House, John Hatsell, remembered that ‘the whole gallery and the seats under the front gallery were filled with ladies’. They could make themselves at home: during Lady Mary Coke’s first visit in 1768, at a suitable point in the proceedings,

L[ad]y Mary Lowther proposed to all the company that belonged to her to leave the House & go into one of the committee rooms, where a dinner was prepared. We accordingly went, & found a service of all kinds of cold meats, which we were so hungry that we set down to, tho’ Lady Mary told us a hot dinner was coming, & immediately two courses were served, & a fine dessert follow’d, which we did not stay to eat, but return’d to the House, where the witnesses were examining.

These grandees were usually treated with considerable deference. This, for self-important legislators who expected deference themselves, was often the problem. There was trouble in the House of Lords in 1739, when a group of aristocratic women led by the Duchess of Queensberry (there were, it was said, at least 13 of them) had caused a scene by forcing their way into its newly erected gallery. It was an incident which may have contributed to the peers’ decision a couple of years later to take the gallery down again. The row in 1778 over the Commons was provoked in some way by the fact that these grand women were in some ways treated as privileged visitors. While male visitors were expected to leave the gallery when a Member demanded that ‘strangers’ be required to withdraw, or when a division took place, women were often allowed to remain. In February 1778, however, it was insisted that they be removed as well, a requirement that may have been provoked by opposition desire to spite the Speaker (his wife was one of those who was in the gallery) rather than by any desire to remove women as such. But the outraged reaction of the women, who caused a considerable commotion in the gallery bringing proceedings to a halt and echoing what had happened in the Lords in 1739, probably caused a hardening of attitudes among the men below, or at least among successive Speakers.

When Lady Holland was invited to attend the debates and votes on Sir James Lowther’s election petition in 1768, she recognised that it was now ‘the fashion’ to do so. The reaction ten years later was as much against the growing entanglement of the worlds of politics and high society from the 1760s onwards as it was against female interest in parliament as such. Yet there was certainly a strongly gendered element to it, for as women – or at least female grandees – started to treat parliament as part of their regular sphere in a way that Lady Holland had been reluctant to do, they brought to it very different attitudes: making use of the protection afforded by their status and sex, they came in force and challenged its conventions. After the 1778 incident, though ‘ladies, many of the highest rank’ had made ‘several very powerful efforts to be again admitted’, successive Speakers refused, according to Hatsell, because what was deemed their curiosity or desire for amusement resulted in the exclusion of ‘many young men, and of merchants and others, whose commercial interests render their attendance necessary to them, and of real use and importance to the publick.’ While this may have been true, no doubt the parliamentary authorities decided that preventing their attendance was altogether easier than dealing with embarrassing incidents involving such confident and well-connected women.



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