Did you know that the twelfth of August was an important date in the Victorian and Edwardian political – and social – calendar? In today’s blog our director Dr Paul Seaward continues our look into the summer holidays of parliamentarians and the hobby with particular influence over Westminster’s summer timetable…
No date was more firmly fixed in the diaries of Victorian and Edwardian politicians than the twelfth of August, the date set by statute in 1773 for the opening of grouse shooting in both England and Scotland (13 George III c. 54 and c. 55), and thus the beginning of the shooting season. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ became an obsession among the political classes and the people who watched them.
As parliament dragged on into high summer politicians chafed at the bit to get away to the grouse moors of Northern England and Scotland. There was a strong assumption that parliament would not, indeed, could not, sit after 12 August. When the Walsall MP, Sir Charles Forster, proposed in mid-July 1859 that in order to avoid parliament sitting in the ‘pestilential atmosphere of the overgrown sewer’ that was the Thames in the 1850s during the summer months it should instead assemble for despatch of business before Christmas another, James Clay responded that ‘it was well known that there was a certain termination to the labours of the Session, and that was when the grouse-shooting commenced’. In fact, parliament quite often sat after the twelfth. At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was extremely unusual to sit beyond late July, but that ceased to be true during the reform crisis of the early 1830s, when sitting well into August became pretty common. The commons sat beyond 12 August in 1843, 1846, 1848, 1853 (in 1855 it rose on the twelfth), 1857, 1859 (contrary to Clay’s prognosis), and 1860. The Globe on 13 August 1860 noted that ‘the great annual migration to the north has taken place, and as we write the deadly tube is dealing destruction to the grouse. Parliament still sits, full of work… with an abundant, if not a healthful, amount of work before it for months to come.’
After a patch in the mid-1860s when it managed to rise by the end of July, from the late years of the decade onwards it was struggling to finish its business even by the middle of August. In the twentieth century governments were forced to give up and accept the inevitable introduction of a short autumn ‘spillover’ period, as detailed in this earlier blog. Nevertheless, even if the deadline was frequently missed, the expectation that parliamentarians would be released to enjoy the beginning of the shooting season before, presumably, someone else had killed all the birds, was a powerful element of parliamentary timetabling. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe of 1882 the Queen of the Fairies condemns the politicians who have upset her to be completely ruled by Strephon, the shepherd who turns out to be Iolanthe’s son, and tells them that ‘You shall sit, if he sees reason, / Through the grouse and salmon season’.
The big growth in game shooting (not only of grouse of course, but also partridge and pheasant shooting, which do not and did not start until September and October respectively) took place in the first decades of the nineteenth century. It was driven by improvements in the technology of firearms and the development of a more systematic approach to the sport, with beaters driving the birds towards the guns by means of which they were massacred in horrific numbers. There were peaks of growth of the sport in the 1820s and, especially, from the 1850s. Game shooting took off in Scotland in the 1830s, becoming an essential and very lucrative part part of the tourist industry. When parliament continued to sit throughout August in 1909 it was claimed that the impact on the Perthshire economy was significant, with many of its moors unlet or let at a reduced rent because ‘a large number of members who come north for shooting are detained with their parliamentary duties’.
Why did it become such an obsession? Partly, no doubt, because Victorian politicians enjoyed exercising their passion for slaughter and honing their reputations as marksmen. But one key to the importance of the grouse shoot was its status as the elite sport par excellence: the phenomenal investment in land and labour required to maintain a grouse-shooting estate rendered it the preserve of the very wealthiest aristocrat or plutocrat, or, indeed, of the monarchy, and therefore an activity in which one aspired to hob-nob with the rich and powerful. The other was that it was necessarily a large-scale group sport – not, like salmon fishing or deer stalking, a solitary one – and therefore an activity in which one would want to engage with congenial companions. And therefore politicians with estates would want to invite their friends to continue the same conversations they had been having at Westminster in the more congenial, and more healthy (though perhaps more midge-infested) open air of the Yorkshire or Highlands grouse moors. For shooting was part of the masculine sociability of nineteenth century politics, a competitive sport which nevertheless allowed time for political conversation, and could be combined with lengthy and leisurely house parties on the estate. The participation of women in the latter offered other opportunities: Strephon in Iolanthe parodies such events when he asks his intended fairy, Phyllis, why she thinks a whole troop of Liberal Peers had come down ‘to shoot over your grass-plot last autumn’: ‘it couldn’t have been the sparrows’.
It’s fiction, of course, but it’s Anthony Trollope who provides the obvious example; or examples, for there are several grouse-shooting parties in the Palliser novels. The best of them is in Phineas Finn (1867-9), where Finn’s status as an up-and-coming young member is signalled by his invitation to a grouse-shooting party at the Scottish estate of his political colleague and rival for the affections of Lady Laura Standish, Robert Kennedy. Kennedy invites Finn (‘I don’t know whether you shoot, but there are grouse and deer’) to Loughlinter for 16th August, where he finds four cabinet ministers and the influential Glencora Palliser, as well as the subject of his, and Kennedy’s affections. At the end of the week he finds himself ‘on terms of friendly intercourse with all the political magnates assembled in the house’, having ‘killed a stag in company with’ the chancellor of the exchequer, played chess with the foreign secretary, been given the views on sheep of the lord privy seal, and formed a close political association with the president of the board of trade. And then on the last day of the house party there is the grouse shoot, where he kills more of the poor things than a lord of the admiralty before making his excuses and leaving early to ask Laura Standish to marry him. In the last he is unsuccessful; but in every other respect the shooting party has been a marvellous opportunity to advance his political career.
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