A History of Parliamentary Cucumbers

Our friends at Hansard at Huddersfield provide a great tool for tracking the popularity of certain words in parliamentary debate. It is unsurprising that the use of ‘deal’ and ‘Brexit’ have been common over the last few years, but, as Dr Patrick Little from our Commons 1640-1660 project explores below, there is one word absent from the chamber… cucumbers.

Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is frequently quoted in Parliament. His devotees come from all political persuasions and from both Houses, from Lord Hailsham to Tony Banks. But, according to Hansard, one of his most famous sayings, expressing his attitude towards futile endeavour, has never been quoted at Westminster:

It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.

James Boswell, Journal of the Tour of the Hebrides (1785), entry for 5 Oct. 1773.
Doctor Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds, c.1772.
Tate via ArtUK

It seems a shame that this pithy quotation has not been deployed in debate in recent times, even during the discussion of the ‘Cucumbers Order’ in the Commons in 1946 or when the business of the ‘Tomatoes and Cucumbers Marketing Board’ was considered in 1950 and 1962. But it does have a parliamentary pedigree.

As Dr Johnson indicated, his condemnation of cucumbers was not original. It seems that the vegetable was universally despised in the late seventeenth century, too. Thomas White, bishop of Peterborough, when writing to his fellow Member of the House of Lords, Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham, in 1689, dismissed the oath he was expected to take to signify his allegiance to the newly-arrived William and Mary in similar terms:

I regard it like a plate of cucumbers dressed with oil and vinegar and yet fit for nothing but to throw out of the window

Memoirs of Thomas, earl of Ailesbury (Roxburghe Club, 2 vols., 1890), i. 234

Although the vinaigrette was slightly different, and defenestration was now the approved method of disposal, this is clearly the same saying. And White was true to his aphorism, refusing what he believed to be an empty oath and as a result being deprived of his see in 1690, as a Non-Juror.

The pointlessness of cucumbers was not confined to the Lords, however. On 4 December 1656, when the Scottish Union Bill was discussed in the House of Commons during the second of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate Parliaments, the debate, which centred on the rights and privileges of the burghs, became increasingly arcane. In despair, Colonel Philip Jones, MP for Glamorgan,

compared this to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window

J.T. Rutt, Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. (4 vols., 1828), i. 18

It seems unlikely that Colonel Jones coined this calumny of the cucumber either, but its origins cannot be traced back further. The future of the saying is also in doubt, not least in parliamentary circles; but Dr Johnson, who satirised the eighteenth century Parliament in his ‘Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia’ (published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in the early 1740s), would surely approve if this much maligned vegetable made a reappearance at Westminster.

P.L.

Further Reading:

B.B. Hoover, Samuel Johnson’s Parliamentary Reporting: Debates in the Senate of Lilliput (University of California Press, 1953)

P. Little, ‘The Scottish Union Bill of 1656-7’ Parliamentary History 36 (2017).

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