‘A blank in the History of the country’: The ‘Unreported Parliament’ 1768-74

Today Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-1790 section continues with our Named Parliaments blog theme…

Throughout the early part of the 18th century Parliament periodically enforced its jealously guarded right of secrecy by prosecuting printers for publishing details of debates and occasionally turning out ‘strangers’ from the galleries. The response was, though, inconsistent and there were periods during which publishers were able to produce more or less full details of the proceedings in each chamber. An early exponent of the art was the Huguenot publisher Abel Boyer, though he found himself frequently at odds with both Houses and was occasionally imprisoned for his efforts. In March 1711, for example, the Lords took issue with him publishing parliamentary material in his Political State of Great Britain and ordered Black Rod to take him into custody.

From the 1740s onwards there was a significant crackdown resulting in far less reporting of parliamentary business for the ensuing quarter century. All this came to an end as a result of the Wilkes affair. At the opening of the new Parliament of 1768, which was soon overtaken by the controverted Middlesex election as well as the beginnings of the crisis over America, efforts were made to ensure strict enforcement of the rules for preventing printing of debates. Wilkes was at the centre of efforts to challenge Parliament’s determination that its deliberations should remain in camera. He encouraged various city of London printers to publish debates and goaded Parliament into reacting. The so-called ‘Printers’ Case’ ultimately overturned Parliament’s efforts to enforce secrecy and opened the way to detailed reporting of debates and eventually an official report: Hansard.

Before this triumph, though, the Parliament of 1768 to 1774 was supposedly closed to reporting and as a consequence came to be dubbed ‘The Unreported Parliament’. Nevertheless, extensive reporting did take place, and by a Member of the Commons. The man in question was the Anglo-Irish MP for Lostwithiel, Sir Henry Cavendish, who was a relative of the dukes of Devonshire. From the outset, Cavendish intended his transcriptions to be published but, having originally conceived it as a rather limited enterprise, he quickly expanded the range of his coverage:

My original design was to take down the heads only of the several speeches; but finding, by practice, even my inferior skill adequate to something rather more extensive, in the subsequent sessions of this Parliament the Debates will be found more at large; except in the case of a few members, whose rapid delivery outran my ability to keep up with them.

Cavendish admitted that his transcriptions contained many omissions, sometimes because of personal issues (presumably poor health or absences) but also because of the at times rowdy nature of the House, with interruptions preventing some speeches being heard in their entirety. He also made slips, such as attributing speeches by Stephen Fox to his more famous brother Charles James Fox.  However, his reporting did preserve over 250 speeches by Edmund Burke, as well as contributions by Fox, Lord North and many other notable parliamentarians.

Cavendish’s account detailed the way in which the effort to maintain secrecy of debates was raised at the very beginning of the new session with the question of the House being observed by strangers brought up hot on the heels of the king’s speech of 13 May 1768. In one short exchange, Lord Barrington asserted that:

It has always been my opinion, that strangers should not be allowed to come into the House to hear our debates.

Barrington was answered by Henry Seymour who insisted that he thought ‘strangers are entitled to hear our debates’ and George Grenville who argued ‘I ever wished to have what is done here well known’. The discussion was then brought to an abrupt close.

Early efforts to keep strangers at bay may have been successful, but two years later, on 5 Mar. 1770, during the debates on the partial repeal of the 1767 American Revenue Act, Sir Charles Whitworth called the House’s attention to the presence of strangers in the galleries and called for them to be cleared, which according to Cavendish ‘occasioned, for some time, no small disturbance’. It was then towards the close of the Parliament that the Printers’ Case came to predominate, which ultimately overturned the Commons’ strenuous efforts to prevent journalists sitting in the galleries and records being leaked to the newspapers.

Cavendish’s motivation for recording the ‘Unreported Parliament’ was undoubtedly linked to his attitude to the administration, which he opposed warmly. He rejected the arguments for overturning Wilkes’s election for Middlesex, dismissing the notion that the Commons could ‘make a minority a majority’ and continuing:

I do from my soul abhor, detest, and abjure, as unconstitutional and illegal that damnable doctrine and position that a resolution of the House of Commons can make, alter, suspend, abrogate or annihilate the law of the land.

Horace Walpole thought Cavendish ‘hot-headed and odd’ and after 1774 Cavendish retired from Westminster. He spent the remainder of his political career in the Irish Parliament, where he perhaps felt more at home, and where he again compiled a detailed record of debates.


Further Reading:

Sir Henry Cavendish’s Debates of the House of Commons, ed. J. Wright (2 vols, 1841-3)

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