1951 and the Birth of the History of Parliament

This week the History of Parliament celebrates the 70th anniversary of one of many important dates in its history. To mark the occasion our director Dr Paul Seaward looks back to the beginnings of our project as we know it today.

The History of Parliament has lots of birthdays, for its genesis as a project was a complicated and long-drawn out process. But one of the most significant dates in its history was 20 February 1951, seventy years ago: for it was then that Hugh Gaitskell, as chancellor of the exchequer, announced that the Trust set up more than a decade before by Josiah (‘Josh’) Wedgwood to continue the project that he had conceived well over a decade before that, would finally receive an annual grant-in-aid from the Treasury — £17,000 a year for twenty years.

Josiah Clement Wedgwood, 1915

It was a remarkable coup for the Trust, for Wedgwood had struggled hard to persuade the government in the late 1920s and 1930s to contribute to his brainchild and had got warm words, but little concrete help. His attempt to undertake the project without any more official support than an agreement to publish the result produced two volumes on the fifteenth century that were an extraordinary testament to his industry and determination, but were torn apart by reviewers for their many misconceptions and mistakes. The full story of how support was secured in 1951 is still untold and largely unresearched, for interest has tended to focus (as in a tremendous article by David Hayton, the biographer of Sir Lewis Namier) on the struggles that ensued among the academics, most notably Namier, whose great work of constitutional scepticism, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, published in 1929, had jolted the beliefs of many historians about British politics in the eighteenth century; and the Elizabethan historian Sir John Neale, who had made his name before the war with a biography of Elizabeth I, and whose Elizabethan House of Commons, published in 1948, created a much fuller picture of late sixteenth century parliaments than had ever been achieved before.

The Treasury grant was perhaps owed as much to Sir Frank Stenton as to anyone else. Stenton, the great historian of Anglo-Saxon England, was an effective academic politician, his persuasive skills fully deployed at the University of Reading, where he was responsible for securing money from the Treasury for a considerable expansion of the University’s estate. He was the only academic member of the Trust in 1951, who included the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Scottish conservative Sir Charles MacAndrew; the conservative MP Earl Winterton, who was Treasurer; Clement Davies, the leader of the Liberal party; and the former clerks of both Houses, Lord Badeley and Lord Campion. Stenton had been working on a scheme that might attract Treasury support since 1948, talking to prominent historians, among them Neale and Namier, who were well known not only to be thoroughly hostile to one another, but had rather different approaches to how the new project should be conceived. Namier was excited by the possibility of a complete prosopography of the governing elite, and had inherited Wedgwood’s fascination with the way his predecessors as members of parliament had been embedded within English and British society. Neale was, as Hayton has written, more interested in ‘the role of parliament in the governance of the realm, and especially on the rise of the commons under the Tudors and Stuarts’.

Stenton was left by the Trustees to work out most of the details of the newly invigorated project. In May 1951 he set up and chaired an Editorial Board, with Namier and Neale and the medievalists Goronwy Edwards and Theodore Plucknett. This Board set up the basic shape of the project that we know now, focusing on biographies of members of parliament, and put in train arrangements for the first set of projects: Romney Sedgwick was to edit a project covering 1715-54; Arthur Aspinall another which dealt with 1790-1832; S.T. Bindoff was to edit an early Tudor project; the American scholar, Basil Henning, would do one covering the Restoration period, 1660-90; J.S. Roskell was earmarked for a set of volumes on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Neale himself undertook the Elizabethan period; Namier the later eighteenth century, 1754-90. Namier was perhaps the most energetic advocate for the History, publicising it at the June 1951 Anglo-American conference of historians, throwing himself into recruiting research assistants, and collecting huge quantities of notes and transcripts from manuscript sources right across the country.

The History, of course, has taken a lot longer than the twenty years envisaged back in 1951, largely because of the growing ambitions, especially on the part of Namier, for what it should contain. The slow pace resulted in many crises, including an early attempt by Harold Macmillan to suppress the project. But it seems unlikely that the sheer achievement of the project as it now stands was remotely envisaged then: 25,000 biographies, nearly 3000 constituency articles, conservatively estimated at over 31 million words, let alone the introductory surveys and other publications, and not counting our forthcoming and crucial volumes on the Civil War and Interregnum. Much of it is now available online on our website, https://historyofparliamentonline.org, and we are working to make the more recently-published volumes available as well (a task which will require considerable reconstruction of an already very big site – so please bear with us a bit longer!). I think Hugh Gaitskell would have been impressed.

P.S

Further reading

D.W. Hayton, ‘Sir Lewis Namier, Sir John Neale and the Shaping of The History of Parliament’, Parliamentary History, 32 (2013).

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