Schoolgirls’ visits to the Houses of Parliament, 1880-1918

Ahead of Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Helen Sunderland, a PhD candidate at Corpus Christi, Cambridge. She will be responding to your questions about her research on Twitter between 2pm and 3pm on 28 April 2020. The virtual seminar will be hosted by the History of Parliament Twitter account @histparl. To submit questions for Helen please contact @histparl on Twitter or via website@histparl.ac.uk.

School trips became an established feature of school life around the turn of the twentieth century. Eager to harness this new educational trend to teach their pupils about politics, some teachers organised visits to the Houses of Parliament. Schoolgirls’ trips to the Palace of Westminster were part of a broader effort to train the first generation of future women voters for citizenship. As my PhD argues, this also included mock elections, debating societies, and civics lessons.

These trips add an important youth perspective to our understanding of the complex gendering of Parliament in the decades before women’s suffrage. We know that women and adolescent girls could be granted temporary access to observe parliamentary debates or as MPs’ guests. Although less visible, women’s labour – as housekeepers, domestic staff, kitchen staff, and secretaries – had long contributed to the running of Parliament. The presence of elementary and secondary schoolgirls in the Palace of Westminster, from a wide range of class and educational backgrounds, further challenges the assumption that Parliament was an exclusively adult, male, and elite space in this period.

The labour of women such as Mrs Elizabeth Gully, the wife of Speaker, William Gully, and her private secretary had long contributed to the running of Parliament, A. Wright and P. Smith, Parliament Past and Present (1906)

I’ve found references to girls’ Parliament visits in a handful of London elementary school log books. However, girls’ high school magazines have left a richer record. These allow us to glimpse what adolescent girls thought about Parliament, sometimes in their own words.

Girls from Wimbledon High School visited Parliament in 1890. Two residential trips were organised from Manchester High School for Girls in 1900 and 1911 – middle-class pupils could afford to travel a considerable distance for the privilege. Central Foundation Girls’ School in East London arranged three visits between 1904 and 1906. The girls’ division of the London Pupil Teachers’ Association also arranged regular trips for its teenage trainee teachers between 1898 and 1907.

Schoolgirls’ visits are likely to have drawn inspiration from contemporary parliamentary guidebooks such as A. Wright and P. Smith, Parliament Past and Present (1906)

Schoolgirls’ visits reflect the increasing prominence of Parliament in the late-nineteenth-century political imaginary. They also demonstrate the centrality of constitutional politics to school civics education between 1880 and 1918.

During their excursions, girls were expected to gain first-hand knowledge of Parliament’s history and functions. Their tours were designed to cultivate respect for the constitution, for Parliament as a monument to the superiority of British political institutions, and for the tireless service of its members. Experiencing Parliament in person – its sights, sounds, and space – was thought to be the best way to develop girls’ emotional connection to Parliament as an institution.

Detailed tour itineraries published in school magazines allow us to follow teenage schoolgirls inside Parliament. The young visitors marvelled at the magnificence of the building. Their comments on Parliament’s art and architecture, statues of famous parliamentarians, and the Commons and Lords chambers read almost like a learnt repertoire of parliamentary relics. As a result, tours appeared surprisingly similar across different schools. It’s possible they drew inspiration from parliamentary guidebooks which proliferated in the period.

Parliament’s ultimate masculine sanctuary, the Commons smoking room (1897) © Parliamentary Archives: GB-061

Other aspects of schoolgirls’ tours are more surprising. With the help of their MP tour guides, girls explored private areas of Parliament not normally open to the public. They even accessed the smoking room: Parliament’s ultimate masculine sanctuary.

Schoolgirls were fascinated by Parliament behind-the-scenes, finding tangible links with national political life in unexpected places. Ordinary rooms took on new significance because of their connections to famous parliamentary figures. Girls spied the labels of leading politicians in Parliament’s cloakroom with delight. A logbook from Central Foundation Girls’ School recorded how at a visit in Autumn 1906 schoolgirls took great pleasure in seeing ‘the kitchens, where the Parliamentary pies, puddings and joints are baked, boiled and roasted’.

The grill kitchen of the Palace of Westminster, c.1908 CC Wikimedia Commons

Schoolgirls’ visits to Parliament highlight a neglected aspect of MPs’ roles at Westminster. Members who hosted working-class pupils were praised for their exceptional hospitality. Hosting a local girls’ high school could be a more calculated manoeuvre. This was an opportunity for MPs to craft their self-image as active and engaged local politicians. By being shown around the most important political site in the country by an MP – sometimes their constituency representative – schoolgirls were encouraged to see them as their direct channel to national political life.

Party politics always occupied an uneasy place in girls’ civics education. As a result, schoolgirls’ tours focused on parliamentary procedure over political issues. Interpreting the chambers as confrontational spaces for scrutiny and debate was problematic. Instead, schoolgirls were encouraged to view Parliament first and foremost as a law-making body, at precisely the moment its legislative function grew ever more significant.

For those unable to travel to Westminster in person, school lectures and school magazine articles offered virtual tours of Parliament. Most schoolgirls visited when Parliament was not sitting, but virtual tours provided an indirect means to ‘observe’ parliamentary debates.

Lecturers and writers mirrored the satirical style of parliamentary reporting. Caricaturing MPs, they showed schoolgirls a less deferential picture of the House of Commons. Women’s suffrage was strikingly absent from schoolgirls’ physical Parliament visits. However, within their own institutional spaces, virtual Parliament tour guides gave schoolgirls a more critical perspective on the limits of female political participation. The restrictive atmosphere of the Ladies’ Gallery was a recurring theme.

‘The Ladies’ Gallery in the Lower House’, G. F. Steffen, Fra det moderne England (1894) © British Library

Schoolgirls’ imaginations brought these virtual Parliament tours to life. Imaginary play was also key to how they interacted with Parliament in person. The 1890 Wimbledon High School visit is a great example. The girls were not content with merely witnessing where male MPs congregated, sat, debated, and voted in the House of Commons. Instead, they took a more hands-on approach.

According to the Wimbledon High School Magazine the schoolgirls ‘tried the seats, and invaded the railed-off parts with impunity’. On leaving the chamber, they ‘imagined that [they] were voting “Aye” on a motion, and [they] all marched down the Division Lobby, and through the Barrier’. Within Parliament itself, these schoolgirls imagined themselves as elected and voting members of the House of Commons. Through imaginary play, girls subverted the more conventional narratives of the Parliament tour. Their imagined actions suggest that they saw the building as a living constitutional space, to which they were tangibly connected and could actively contribute.

Helen Sunderland

Helen will responding to your questions about this blog and her wider research on Twitter between 2pm and 3pm on 28 April 2020. Discussion will take place via the History of Parliament Twitter account @histparl. To submit questions for Helen please contact @histparl on Twitter or via website@histparl.ac.uk.

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