The Origins of a Father of the House

This week as part of our Mothers and Fathers of the House series, Paul Seaward, British Academy/Wolfson research professor at the History of Parliament Trust, explores the origins of the parliamentary tradition of the Father of the House…

The origins of the idea of a ‘father of the House’ are, like so many parliamentary traditions, deeply obscure, which is scarcely surprising for a role which has until relatively recently had no formal function, or even, until relatively recently, a clear definition.

The ‘Member, present in the House and not being a Minister of the Crown, who has served for the longest period continuously as a Member of this House’ [Standing Orders of the House of Commons] is now responsible for presiding over the House whenever the election of a Speaker takes place; but this is a relatively recent innovation, borrowed in 1972 from continental, particularly French, practice, where the ‘doyen d’âge’ has had similar functions for many years. Since there wasn’t a need to define the position before 1972, it was always rather vague, which accounts for our lack of knowledge about exactly when it started to be used. Wikipedia provides a list of ‘fathers of the House’ going back to 1654, but the article gives no definition of what it means by the title, it is far from clear why many of those named appear, and the list is in many places rather dubious.  The House of Commons Library has a rather more secure briefing paper which gives a list of men (mothers of the House must be a separate subject) since 1901.

When did the term come into use? Benjamin Bathurst, born in 1692, first elected in 1713, and Member for Monmouth when he died in 1767, was said by a descendant in the 1850s to have been ‘father of the House’ at the same time as his brother, Earl Bathurst, was ‘father of the House of Lords’. This shouldn’t be dismissed, though it seems too good a story to be true. The first contemporary use I have been able to find is in the edition of Collins’ Peerage published in 1779, referring to Nicholas Herbert (1706-75), although he was not in his seventies, and had sat in the House only since 1740, a mere 35 years. Thomas Noel (?1705-88), who was called father of the House in a Gentleman’s Magazine obituary in 1788 was first elected sixty years before; but he, too, had a break in service, in his case for twelve years, and also attended rarely and spoke less. Our introductory survey for the 1790-1820 volumes has a list of those who were referred to as ‘father of the House’ after 1790, though it omits Welbore Ellis, made Baron Mendip in 1794,
who was called ‘father of the house’ in Chalmers’ Parliamentary Portraits of 1795. Born in 1713 and first elected in 1741, he was a more active politician than these others, though he spoke little if at all in his last few years in the Commons. When he died he was ‘almost the last of the respectable statesmen and politicians of the old school’, according to Lord Glenbervie, who added ‘I do not know of another alive who sat in Parliament with Sir Robert Walpole’.

It is very unlikely, in fact, that the term was being applied in any very systematic way at a time when information about the dates of birth or dates of service of individual Members of Parliament was not collected nor published. We should probably assume that the title was awarded by reputation and common consent, rather than by any more scientific method, and was probably given to an elderly Member who hung around the place and was universally recognised, rather than one who contributed significantly to proceedings.  In the nineteenth century attitudes towards the title, and towards the criteria by which it was attributed, were more serious. The controversy on the succession to the title on the death of Charles Pelham Villiers in 1898 (born 1802, first elected 1835) hinged on whether it belonged to the Member with the longest continuous service in the House, or to the Member with the longest continuous service in the same constituency (see the Letter to The Times by Justitia, Feb. 8, 1898). Sir John Mowbray’s succession was signalled by the Speaker’s greeting on the first day of the 1898 session – ‘I suppose I must greet you as father of the House in spite of what I read to the contrary’. (There can surely have been no question of an election to the position, as has been suggested, for this would have left considerably more evidence: a remark of Sir Benjamin Cohen to Mowbray – ‘You want to be Father of the House, but I shall vote against you, on one ground only – you look too young’ should be interpreted as merely jocular.)

We can track the term back no further than the last quarter of the eighteenth century; should we assume that the idea goes back before this? The term suggests the sort of value attributed to age that was common in pre-modern societies, and may reflect the way in which older men were assumed to be repositories of memory in any community, particularly about matters of customary ritual. During debates in the sixteenth and seventeenth century veteran or ‘ancient’ Members were from time to time looked to for information about ceremony or procedure, or about earlier debates. Sometimes a particular value was placed on their contributions. An example is a speech recorded in the anonymous journal of debates in 1571:

Hereupon one Mr Pistor, a gentleman betwixt the age of 50 and 60 years, desired to be heard, and with a grave and seemly countenance and a good natural eloquence showed how conscience enforced him to speak and rather to hazard his credit than to the offence of his conscience to be silent… do did he set it [his argument] forth with vehemency that there lacked no modesty and with such eloquence that it neither seemed studied or over much affected, gravely and learnedly through the whole, and no whit too long but with good liking.

Hartley, ed. Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, I, 221

But later usage suggests that fathers of the House were not expected to take much of an active part in proceedings, and were respected, and mildly patronised, because they were old, rather than because they knew a lot. That fact may tell us something about changing attitudes to the aged in eighteenth and nineteenth century England; though it probably reflects more about how little we know about the day to day customary practices of so idiosyncratic an institution before 1900.


For more blogs on Mothers and Fathers of the House see here. Look out for a separate blog on the Mother of the House, coming soon.

Paul is documenting his research over on his blog page: Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament

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