‘So much dignity and efficiency’: John Evelyn Denison, Speaker of the House of Commons, 1857-72

The new year calls for a new blog series, so throughout 2022 we’re taking a closer look at some of the figures who held the post of ‘Speaker’. Today we hear from Dr Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of our Commons 1832-1868 project, who explores the career of J. E. Denison, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1857-72.

On 8 April 1857 John Evelyn Denison was in the library at his Nottinghamshire residence, Ossington Hall, when he received a letter from the prime minister.

My dear Denison,

We wish to be allowed to propose you for the Speakership of the House of Commons. Will you agree?

Yours sincerely,

Palmerston

Lord Palmerston to J. E. Denison, 7 Apr. 1857

This brief epistle marked the beginning of Denison’s fifteen-year tenure of the Speaker’s chair: just over three weeks later, on 30 April, the Commons chose him as Speaker, with no opposing candidate. Denison later recorded that he had hesitated about accepting the invitation to take on this role, which

took me by surprise. I had made no application to Lord Palmerston; I had not canvassed a single vote. Though I had attended of late years to several branches of the private business, and had taken more part in the public business of the House, I had never made the duties of the Chair my special study.

J. E. Denison, Notes from my journal when Speaker of the House of Commons (1900), 1.

However, Denison’s remarks downplayed the significance of his previous parliamentary experience. He had spent more than three decades in the Commons before becoming Speaker. His father John Denison (?1758-1820) had inherited a fortune and sizeable landed estates from his uncle Robert, a Leeds woollen merchant with whom he had been in business. This had facilitated John’s parliamentary career as MP for Wootton Bassett, 1796-1802, Colchester, 1802-6, and Minehead, 1807-12. After inheriting his father’s estates in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire in 1820, Denison followed in his footsteps as an MP.

J.E. Denison in 1832 by Frederick C. Lewis, after J. Slater, via NPG

Denison, who was known to his family as Evelyn rather than John, was first returned to the Commons in 1823 aged just 23, when he won a by-election at Newcastle-under-Lyme. He then represented Hastings, 1826-30, and although he failed to win a seat at the 1830 general election, in 1831 he was elected for both Liverpool and Nottinghamshire, but opted to sit for the latter. When that county was divided into two constituencies in 1832, he was elected for the southern division, where he lived at Ossington. After losing local support, he stood down at the 1837 election, but in 1841 he found a new berth at Malton, a pocket borough under the control of Earl Fitzwilliam. In 1857 he changed constituencies yet again, stepping into the shoes of his brother-in-law as MP for Nottinghamshire North, the seat he would represent throughout his time as Speaker.

For Lord Harry Vane, who proposed Denison as Speaker in April 1857, the variety of constituencies he had represented was an important recommendation, since it put him ‘in a peculiarly favourable position for understanding the wants both of town and country constituencies’. Despite having aristocratic connections by marriage – his father-in-law was the 4th Duke of Portland – Denison’s wide-ranging parliamentary experience meant that he was considered by The Times to be ‘a thorough representative of the Commons of England’, who also had the advantage of being ‘a tall, handsome man, with a good voice and manner’. Having been consulted by Palmerston as to the merits of potential candidates for the Speakership, the editor of The Times, John Delane, had endorsed Denison.

As well as knowledge of different constituencies, Denison’s three decades in the Commons had given him considerable expertise in the conduct of parliamentary business, both inside and outside the chamber. Vane noted that he had ‘made himself master of all the details of Parliamentary law and usages’ and had ‘a very intimate knowledge of the mode of conducting the private business of this House’, while Thomas Thornley, who seconded Denison’s nomination, reckoned that he had been ‘a member of more Select Committees than almost any other Member of the House’.

In the Parliament which preceded his selection as Speaker, Denison had sat on select committees which considered improving the dispatch of public business, the standing orders, the format and language of legislation and the amalgamation of railway and canal bills (which made up a large part of the private legislation dealt with by the Commons). He was also a member of inquiries into a range of other subjects, including the ordnance survey of Scotland, the registration of land, friendly societies, the ecclesiastical commission and the crown forests. He joined two other MPs to pass a measure for the education of poor children in 1855, sometimes referred to as Evelyn Denison’s Act (18 & 19 Vict., c. 34).

A year before he became Speaker, Denison gave some insights into the principles which guided his parliamentary conduct, observing that his ‘habits of mind were not in favour of violent measures or extreme opinions’, preferring ‘a reasonable compromise upon a matter of difficulty’. The moderate nature of his political views was reflected in the fluidity of his party allegiance, particularly in the early stages of his career, when he gradually drifted from the Tories to the Whigs. His lengthy service on the Commons back benches gave him a clear indication of some of the issues he would face in the chair. Although he contributed to debate more frequently as his parliamentary career progressed, he insisted that he would never speak ‘merely for the sake of speaking’, being ‘a zealous economist’ of the time of the Commons, unlike some fellow MPs.

J. E. Denison in his Speaker’s robes in 1863, by J & C Watkins, via NPG

After fifteen years in the Speaker’s chair, Denison retired on health grounds in February 1872, and went to the Lords as Viscount Ossington, but died the following year. He was not so well-regarded as his predecessor, Charles Shaw Lefevre, being seen as ‘less firm and forceful’ and with ‘less vitality to spare’. The Liberal backbencher Sir John Trelawny recorded a debate on parliamentary reform in 1860 when Denison ‘rather feebly’ tried to restore order, only to have some members mimic him. He contrasted Denison’s ‘waning authority’ with Shaw Lefevre, who ‘would have quelled the mutiny by a few words mingling urbanity with awe’.

A Commons debate chaired by J. E. Denison in 1860, by Thomas Barlow, after John Phillip, via NPG

Trelawny’s opinion of Denison was not improved by his decision to use his casting vote as Speaker against the third reading of Trelawny’s bill to abolish church rates, on which the Ayes and Noes tied, 19 June 1861, although he admitted that the general consensus was that Denison ‘took the proper course’. Despite his qualms that Denison was ‘rather fussy sometimes’ and ‘interferes too much or too little’, Trelawny recognised that ‘many members are very provoking’, and gave Denison some credit as ‘a good man – & a fair Speaker’. The Times, which had championed him in 1857, was rather more positive, declaring when he retired that he had filled the chair ‘with so much dignity and efficiency’.

K.R.

Further reading

J. E. Denison, Notes from my journal when Speaker of the House of Commons (1900)

T. A. Jenkins (ed.), The parliamentary diaries of Sir John Trelawny, 1858-1865 (1990)

G. F. R. Barker, revised by H. C. G. Matthew, ‘Denison, (John) Evelyn, Viscount Ossington’, Oxf. DNB [www.oxforddnb.com]

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