Wikidata, British Politicians and the History of Parliament Trust

Today’s post is a guest blog from Andrew Gray of University College London. Andrew explains his Wikidata project which now links to all of the published History of Parliament biographies to the database; he also shares some of the more notable – and perhaps unexpected – anecdotes from his research… 

Over the past couple of years, I have been working on a project to build a single index of Members of Parliament available through the Wikidata service. While there are a number of digital databases that index MPs, they don’t always overlap, and there is a potential research benefit from having them all indexed in a single place – it means that analysis doesn’t have to be constrained by time boundaries or by what particular data is/isn’t available from a given source, and that we can pull in the other information we already have indexed in Wikidata to enrich it (family relationships, links to other databases, etc). At the moment, it covers c.28,400 individuals, including every person in the published History of Parliament volumes and extending to the present day; every person since the 1922 general election has full data on their terms of office and the reason for ending them.

Presenting the data in this structured form has meant that we can run unexpectedly detailed queries against it – for example, the number of MPs who died in office in each year (below), or those who have sat for the most distinct constituencies (currently Walter Long, seven). Meanwhile, marrying it up to the existing information in Wikidata gives completely new perspectives – because we have some ancestry information, we can use it to identify that there are two chains where an MP had a child who was an MP, who was an MP, and so on for ten generations in unbroken succession. Some more examples of these are listed here.

wikidata graph

One of the major sources for the index is, of course, the History of Parliament – there is no other digital source for pre-1832 Members on any comprehensive scale. Since late 2014, I’ve been working to map History of Parliament entries to Wikidata items; this was a long and gruelling process, but we finally completed it in April 2018, after processing 21,427 individual entries representing 17,954 people.

While this was of course a lot of work, it was also an unexpected pleasure. Because so many of the entries were for people who already existed in our database, I had to read – or at least skim – thousands of entries to confirm the details in the matching. And, of course, four centuries of history gives a lot of room to swing between the sublime and the ridiculous; there was no end of strange and memorable stories that emerged. In the survey for the 1820-32 volume, the editor noted that “there was no shortage of eccentrics and buffoons in the House in this period…”, and they were entirely correct. What follows is a few of the more memorable (and perhaps less significant) highlights from earlier years.

Many had unusual backgrounds before arriving in parliament. A few were intellectuals; leaving aside the obvious Newtons and Chaucers, Henry Billingsley (1538-1606) translated Euclid into English, while Richard Lee (1548-1608) gave the Bodleian Library some of its earliest Russian books. By comparison, William Monson (1567-1643) enjoyed being sent to Balliol so little that he ran away to sea, where he became a privateer captain by the age of twenty (and in a swift reversal of fortune became a galley-prisoner a few years later). Many of his sixteenth-century contemporaries were privateers, but one who stood out was William Herle (died 1589), whose “privateering activities” were fitted in alongside a career as a diplomat, spy, and a stool-pigeon in the Marshalsea prison. He was made an MP in part to pay him off and let him escape his creditors, his employer’s previous approach – a letter of introduction to any wealthy widow he might care to court – having been unsuccessful. Piratical behaviour was not just at sea, either; Robert Turberville (1354-1420) diverted himself on the way back from Parliament in 1388 to rob and ransack a village near Oxford.

Some reached Parliament after a dramatic change in their political careers. John Stubbe (1543-1590) was elected in 1589 by Great Yarmouth despite having previously had his hand amputated for libelling the Queen. Two centuries later, John Barker Church (1748-1818) made his wealth selling supplies to the Americans and French during the Revolutionary War, married into a New York dynasty, then retired to England and purchased a pocket borough. (As was apparently de rigeur in contemporary America, he also duelled Aaron Burr; they both survived.) His contemporary Henry Cruger (1739-1827), an American-born loyalist, went the other way; he retired to New York after the revolution, where he was elected to the state Senate, possibly the only MP to hold political office in the USA. Others simply declined into obscurity; Edward Harvey (1658-1736) retired a bitter Jacobite, who “expressed his anti-Hanoverian feelings by shooting pheasants which strayed into his property from Richmond Park”.

And, inevitably, we find men with personal lives which were remarkable even by the standards of modern backbenchers. A remarkable collection of these is in the 1820-32 volume in Section VI of the survey, under “The Scandalous and Unfortunate”. In earlier years, William Monson (1600-1672), according to contemporary pamphleteers, was frequently tied to the bedpost and whipped by his third wife and her maidservants. (His History of Parliament entry suggests that his subsequent imprisonment for debt may have been a relief). Monson’s first marriage, incidentally, had been to his employer, a widowed Countess, in circumstances that cry out for a novel. William Okeden (1662-1718) left thousands to his children but grudgingly gave his mistress exactly fifty pounds and full use of his lime-kiln. (It is not recorded what she thought of this.); conversely Richard Evans (died 1672) left all his wealth “to a Scotch girl, his tucker-in”, at the expense of his daughters. Some simply decided the problem of working out family duties was too complicated, which may explain Robert Sacheverell (1669-1714), who dropped dead while fleeing drunk to London – at which point three different and hitherto unknown wives appeared to claim the estate. They were all perhaps luckier than William Keyt (1688-1741), who was taunted by his mistress into extending his house (“what is a kite without wings?”); after she left him, he died drunk inside it when it burned down.

In a more violent age, many had dramatic deaths. Matthew Browne (1563-1603) and John Townshend (1568-1603) managed the feat of both killing each other in a duel. They were not the only MPs to kill fellow members; Sir William Estcourt (1654-1684) was killed in a brawl at a Fleet Street tavern by Henry St. John (1652-1742) and Thomas Webb (1664-1731). Many MPs died in duels, but few as quixotically as Sharington Talbot (1656-85), who survived the Battle of Sedgemoor, then on the same day duelled another officer over whose troops had fought better, and lost. Lastly, there was Thomas Hawkins (1724-1766), who died a perhaps unsung hero to modernity; he vaccinated himself against smallpox to encourage his neighbours to do likewise. They survived, he didn’t.

These are only a small sample; men who stuck in my mind or whom I made a note of at the time. The “Members” section of the surveys in each volume, where they exist, is also worth investigating; in addition to the serious discussion of background and biographies, they are often stuffed full of these small highlights.


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