MPs in World War I: William Hoey Kearney Redmond (1861-1917)

In the latest of our blogs on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of the Irish nationalist Willie Redmond…

Major Willie Redmond (1861-1917), MP, Illustrated London News, 16 June 1917, via Wikimedia Commons

On 7 June 1917, William Hoey Kearney Redmond, the Irish Nationalist MP for East Clare, died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. Aged 56, he was the oldest MP to be killed in action. He was also the one with the longest parliamentary service, having first been returned to the Commons in 1883 as MP for the borough of Wexford. The younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, John Redmond, he was well known among Irish emigrant communities in America and Australia, where he had campaigned on behalf of the nationalist cause, and his biographer suggests that his death had a greater international impact than that of any other British soldier in the First World War.

Redmond, usually known as Willie, came from a family long connected with Wexford, although he was himself born in Liverpool. His great-uncle, John Edward Redmond (1806-65), was the first family member to represent the borough in Parliament, sitting from 1859 until his defeat at the 1865 general election. Redmond’s father, William Archer Redmond (1825-80), sat for Wexford as a member of Isaac Butt’s Home Rule party from 1872 until his death in 1880. In July 1883 Redmond became the third generation of his family to represent Wexford when he was elected in his absence at a by-election. At the time of his election he was in Australia, where he and his older brother John – who had been elected as MP for the borough of New Ross in 1881 – were campaigning and fund-raising for the Irish National League. Both men met their wives in Australia, where John married in September 1883. Redmond and his wife Eleanor Mary Dalton held their wedding in London in 1886. Their only son died in 1891.

Redmond only represented Wexford for two years before the borough lost its separate representation under the Third Reform Act. In 1885 he was elected instead for North Fermanagh, which he represented for seven years. His Parnellite sympathies meant that he had to find a different seat in 1892, as the majority of local party activists in North Fermanagh were anti-Parnellites. He was defeated at Cork City, but also stood for East Clare, where he was victorious. He saw off an anti-Parnellite challenge at the 1895 general election, and was returned unopposed in 1900, 1906 and at both elections in 1910. (He was also a reluctant and unsuccessful candidate for Cork City in December 1910.) He sat in the Commons alongside his brother John, who represented New Ross, 1881-5, North Wexford, 1885-91, and Waterford, 1891-1918.

While they shared their political sympathies, Redmond and his brother had very different personalities. A contemporary wrote in 1910 that ‘I have never seen two men more absolutely dissimilar’. John Redmond was ‘silent, reserved, calculating and consistent’, whereas Willie was ‘conversational, spontaneous and impulsive in policy’. Described by his biographer as ‘the enfant terrible of Irish politics’ in the 1880s and 1890s, Redmond was imprisoned three times – in 1882, 1888 and 1902 – for his activities in support of the Land League and the United Irish League.

Shortly after the First World War broke out, John Redmond encouraged those involved in the Irish Volunteers to enlist with the British army. Loyally supporting his brother’s stance, Redmond made a notable recruiting speech at Cork in November 1914. He cited his long-standing support for the Irish nationalist cause, including his imprisonment alongside Parnell in Kilmainham gaol, and declared that he was ‘personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are – in Flanders and France’. He concluded therefore that ‘old as I am, and grey as are my hairs, I will say, “Don’t go, but come with me”.’ As his biographer records, it was Redmond’s hope that

service in the war would unite Irish Protestants and Catholics against a common enemy in defence of the rights of other ‘small nations’ and contribute powerfully to a peaceful settlement in Ireland when the war ended (T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995), pg. 9).

Redmond was commissioned as a captain in the 6th battalion of the Royal Irish regiment in February 1915. He had previously served with the Wexford militia battalion from 1879 until 1882, when he had abandoned his idea of pursuing a military career. In December 1915 he arrived with his regiment at Le Havre, en route to the trenches in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time in staff jobs rather than fighting in the front line, although he was mentioned in dispatches late in 1916, by which time he had been promoted to the rank of major.

Major Redmond’s grave, Locre Hospice Cemetery, Belgium. By Osioni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Having been ‘absolutely miserable at the prospect of being left behind’, Redmond succeeded in persuading his superiors to give him permission to take part in the attack on 7 June 1917 on Messines Ridge. He was wounded in the arm and leg by shell fire shortly after leaving the trenches at around 3:30 a.m. and died of his wounds that evening at Dranoutre, near Locre. He was buried in the garden of the convent at Locre Hospice. Despite pressure from the Imperial War Graves Commission, his widow refused to allow his body to be moved to a larger war cemetery nearby. Alongside his British war medals, Redmond was posthumously awarded the Légion d’Honneur.


Further reading:

  • T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995)
  • W. H. K. Redmond, Trench pictures from France (1917)

You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here.

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‘Of the utmost weight for the safety and tranquillity of the kingdom’: the snap election of 1747

The latest in our General Election 2017 series and launching our new blog series on The Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, describes the Pelham ministry’s snap decision to call an election and catch the opposition off-balance…

On 17 June 1747 George II attended the House of Lords to grant his assent to some 59 new pieces of legislation. Having done so, he made a brief speech thanking both Houses for their service before leaving it to the Lord Chancellor (Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke) to prorogue the session. The next day, Parliament was dissolved. The decision to bring about an early termination was supposed to have been a secret, but as the duke of Richmond revealed to the duke of Newcastle earlier in the month, it was one everyone knew about: ‘I beg to know when the dissolution of the Parliament is no longer a secret, for every soul I meet with has it, & I look like a fool when I lye [sic], which I am not used to…’ [Richmond -Newcastle Correspondence, 246]. Like many peers in the period, Richmond was eager to play his part in the ensuing elections in a variety of constituencies where he was able to command interest.

Under the terms of the Septennial Act, the Parliament, elected in the summer of 1741, ought to have had another year to run, but the early dissolution had been resolved on, according to Dudley Ryder, ‘to disappoint the Prince [of Wales], who is beginning to intermeddle in most of the boroughs against the next Parliament in order to set up a violent opposition.’ The Westminster Journal of 6 June had a different take on it, suggesting that ‘the Reasons given for the sudden Dissolution of this Parliament, are of the utmost Weight for the Safety and Tranquillity of the kingdom, in order to prevent the pernicious intrigues of France at this critical juncture’.  Both were plausible reasons for the ministry to wish to go to the country early. Britain’s involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession had resulted in gains in America, but the country had been invaded by Jacobite forces backed by a resurgent France in 1745 and only days before the 1747 poll the army under the duke of Cumberland suffered a significant defeat at Lauffeldt. The beginning of peace negotiations the previous year had been widely criticized. A desire to strengthen the ministry’s hand in the pourparlers that would ultimately result in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) was undoubtedly a signal reason for wanting to get the election out of the way early.

As Ryder suggested, though, the ministry was also eager to counter the substantial effort being made by Frederick and his allies to build up an opposition movement founded on a coalition of dissident Whigs, Tories and the prince’s own household retainers. Newcastle and his brother, Henry Pelham (the prime minister) had every reason to be wary of Prince Frederick’s new alliance. It had been, after all, just such a grouping that had played a significant role in destabilizing and ultimately toppling Sir Robert Walpole early in 1742. In the early months of 1747 the prince had announced his intention of returning to opposition for as long as he remained Prince of Wales and on 4 June his movement released their non-partisan programme in the Carlton House Declaration. Heading the opposition, it should be stressed, was not something he expected to be confined to for much longer. George II was by now into his 60s and as the king’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all failed to make it past 70, there was every reason to expect Prince Frederick’s accession as king to be only a few years away. In the event, this was to be Frederick’s last general election at the head of the opposition, but only because it was to be him rather than his father who would die first.

By the early months of 1747 Frederick’s grouping had begun to make detailed preparations for the election they anticipated to be still 18 months away. Then, as now, the west country was considered a key battleground. There the prince expected to be able to draw on the resources of the duchy of Cornwall. In Scotland, it was hoped that Frederick’s ally, the duke of Argyll, would capitalize on gains made in 1741, and there were other areas of the country, including in the Pelhams’ own heartlands of Sussex, where the opposition aimed to mount a significant effort. In each of these the prince and his lieutenants had begun to lay the groundwork for the next election, but the ministry’s decision to bring the poll forward meant that few seats were adequately prepared for the contest.

The government commenced its campaign, quietly confident of success, but cautious about overstating their strength: ‘We despise the Opposition extreamly. I hope we are not mistaken’. [Richmond-Newcastle Correspondence, 247] The opposition, meanwhile, struggled to rally their unprepared forces. In the west Frederick was hobbled by the loss to the ministry’s ranks of Hugh Boscawen, 2nd Viscount Falmouth, who was able to bring to bear considerable electoral interest in a number of Cornish constituencies from his seat at Tregothnan. According to one of Frederick’s backers at Truro, one of the places where the Boscawens were particularly strong, ‘The majority of the electors here are so attached to the Tregothnan family… that the attempt you advise me to make in this place would I am persuaded, prove fruitless…’ [HMC Fortescue, i. 109] The sheer cost of attempting to ‘buy support’ (technically, of course, a crime even then) was also a problem for the prince’s grouping. The always outspoken Thomas Pitt, for whom the words ‘villain’ and ‘rascal’ were staples of his personal lexicon, expostulated on the state of affairs in Grampound:

I think we can carry it, but it must cost damnably dear. The villains had got a-head to that degree, and rise in their demands so extravagantly, that I have been very near damning them and kicking them to the devil at once. The dirty rascals dispise [sic] 20 guineas as much as a King’s Sergeant does a half guinea fee… [HMC Fortescue, i. 111]

Horace Walpole, who reported a rumour that Frederick had put aside £200,000 to fight the election, considered the money ill-spent, commenting cynically that ‘he had much better have saved it to buy the parliament after it is chosen’. [Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. C.B Lucas, 66]. He may have had a point. The election at Grampound resulted in a compromise with Thomas Hawkins securing one seat in the prince’s interest (with Pitt’s grudging support), while the other went to the ministry supporter, Lord George Bentinck. Elsewhere, the ministry demonstrated supremely assured management. At Seaford, where Newcastle held sway, the duke even sat at the returning officer’s desk to ensure that his preferred candidates were elected. Unsurprisingly, both seats went to his nominees and a subsequent petition complaining against Newcastle’s behaviour was thrown out in the Commons.

The overall result, albeit of an election that saw only 62 contests across the country, was a decisive victory for the government. Some 351 seats went to candidates in the ministry’s interest, with just 92 going to dissident Whigs and 115 to Tories. By the second week of July the opposition had descended into mutual recrimination and the launching of an investigation into how they had failed to carry the seats of which they had had such high hopes. The prince, meanwhile, whose personal grouping had been particularly badly mauled, attempted to play down the size of his defeat and to comfort his supporters. One seat at Grampound, he insisted, was more than he had hoped for; and as Francis Ayscough put it to the inconsolable Thomas Pitt:

Thank God, we have a master who values his friends and servants, not according to their success, but to their zeal and sincerity in his service; and, as no one can have shown more of this than you have done in the late troubles and fatigues you have undergone, so no one can be more in his favour and esteem. [HMC Fortescue, i. 121]


Further Reading:

  • The Correspondence of the dukes of Richmond and Newcastle 1724-1750, ed. T. McCann (Sussex Record Society lxxiii, 1984)
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989)
  • Reed Browning, The Duke of Newcastle (Yale, 1975)

Georgian lords 2

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‘Not another one!’: going to the polls in historical perspective

With UK electors heading off to the national polls for the third time in as many years and as part of our Election 2017 series, Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the Victorian Commons, looks for similar levels of electioneering activity in earlier periods…

By June the UK will have clocked up its fifth general election this century – an average of one every 3.4 years. Although this is slightly higher than the 19th century average (one every 3.8 years) and the 20th century (one every 4), it is remarkably similar in terms of each century’s first two decades: five elections had taken place by 1818 and five by 1918, an average of one every 3.6 years. Add in last year’s referendum, however, and modern voters will have experienced two general elections separated by a gap of just two years, and three national polls in a row. Both these scenarios are far more unusual.

Since 1800 there have only been five comparable occasions when a pair of general elections has followed this timing, starting with 1818 and 1820. Moreover, two of these five examples – 1818/20 and 1835/37 – were triggered not by political events, but by the death of a monarch, George III in 1820 and William IV in 1837. (This practice – the cause of three elections in the 19th century – stopped with the 1867 Reform Act.) A monarch also prompted the completely unexpected 1835 election. Upset at the Whig ministry’s plans to reform the Anglican Church in Ireland, William IV controversially dismissed his government in late 1834 and installed a minority Conservative administration, led by Sir Robert Peel, who immediately called an election. The new government’s bid to win a majority at the polls, however, failed, although it did kick-start the rise of the Conservatives after their rock-bottom performance in 1832. General elections held either side of a ‘gap-year’, for political reasons, are certainly unusual.

It is the holding of a national poll in three successive years, however, which really stands out. This has only happened twice since 1800, with the earliest example again taking place in the 1830s. The parallels between today and the trio of general elections held in 1830, 1831 and 1832 go further too, since the middle poll, held after the defeat of the Whig government’s reform bill, was effectively a ‘referendum’ about whether or not to reform the UK’s representative system. Even some of the 1831 slogans, about ‘restoring’ the constitution and championing  the ‘rights of the people’, have a familiar modern ring.

The third poll in this trio, held after the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, was mainly about public approval for the Whig ministry’s handling of the reform issue, which had sparked a major constitutional crisis. The whole question of reform had not only seriously divided the nation – prompting everything from family feuds to full-scale riots – but had also pitted the Commons against the Lords, before the unelected peers were forced to give way. Bolstered by nearly a third of a million extra voters and newly enfranchised industrial towns like Manchester, the Whig ministry led by Lord Grey won a famous landslide victory in 1832, which remains the largest in British political history. Within 18 months, however, Grey’s ministry had collapsed, torn apart by internal divisions.

While voters in 1910 and 1974 faced two general elections within the same year, the only other example of a national poll occurring in three successive years comes from the early 1920s, when the traditional parties and the growing Labour party vied for support from a newly expanded electorate, following the breakup of the wartime coalition. The Conservatives won the 1922 election, but Stanley Baldwin’s decision to seek an electoral mandate for major tariff reforms in 1923, giving trading ‘preference’ to the colonies, seriously backfired, allowing Labour to form its first government under Ramsey MacDonald, initially with tacit support from the Liberals. Conservative and Liberal opposition to Labour’s handling of relations with communist Russia, however, forced the ministry to resign after just 10 months in office, prompting the 1924 election. Aided by the Zinoviev Letter in the Daily Mail, an early example of ‘fake news’ alleging a communist conspiracy in Britain, the Conservatives were able to secure a major victory.

Both these examples of three consecutive national polls – from the 1830s and 1920s – have modern resonances, with the middle poll in both cases amounting to a form of referendum, whether on electoral reform or a new foreign trade policy. The outcome of the third election in each case, however, obviously turned out very differently. The first awarded the government of the day a landslide victory; the second brought about a dramatic shift in political opinion and a change of ministry. We will soon discover which model today’s trio of national polls – only the third since 1800 – will most closely resemble.


See our ongoing series for more posts inspired by the 2017 General Election – more to follow soon!

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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Charlotte Young, John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar, Charlotte Young (Royal Holloway University of London) spoke on ‘John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s’. Here she gives an overview of her paper…

John Bradshaw’s name is unfortunately and irrevocably associated with the words traitor, murderer, and rogue. His reputation was destroyed by the Royalist press due to his role as Lord President of the Trial of Charles I, which ended with Bradshaw uttering the sentence of execution upon the monarch. Contemporary accounts and modern historiography alike have condemned him as a disreputable non-entity who had made no contribution to the Commonwealth before the trial.

However, the reality is that John Bradshaw was heavily involved in Parliamentary affairs during the Civil War, and had made a significant contribution to the business of government. A part of his career which has been largely overlooked is his role as a legal adviser to the Committee of Lords and Commons for Sequestrations, based in Westminster. The Committee, initially comprised of 22 members of the House of Commons and 14 members of the House of Lords, was established in early 1643 to allow Parliament to confiscate the goods and estates of the King’s supporters, to prevent them supplying the monarch with financial or material assistance. Unsurprisingly, people began appealing against sequestration almost as soon as the first cases were enforced. Initially the committee decided what to do in each case themselves, but within a few weeks it became clear that they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Simply seizing property from delinquents didn’t take into account issues such as disputes over ownership, tenancy agreements, or provisions for jointure.

By June 1643 the Committee began referring cases to lawyers, asking them to untangle the evidence presented in appeals, and work out whose side they should agree with. Sequestration was legally dubious to say the least, so tapping into the pre-existing respected legal networks of London gave it a façade of legitimacy, and allowed appellants the chance to have their cases analysed by experienced lawyers. John Bradshaw began receiving cases regularly in October 1644. He was one of a team of legal advisers employed by the Committee during the war; others included Serjeant John Wilde, Henry Pelham, and William Ellis.

However, Bradshaw was undoubtedly the Committee’s favourite. He worked for them until 3rd January 1649, their last meeting before the execution of Charles I. In this period of just over 4 years, he was involved in well over 1,000 cases. The other legal advisers combined handled just 77. Bradshaw was paid just under £4 a week, and his responsibilities included reading through all the documentation relating to each appeal, producing a written report with a judgement for each case, and examining witnesses in person if necessary. On 7th July 1647 the House of Commons noted that he had ‘done very great Service to the Parliament’ through his work.

This project will be developed further over the next few years to build up a clearer picture of Bradshaw’s involvement with the Committee, but even in the early stages it is clear that this is not a man who was unknown in Westminster before the trial. This is not a man who had contributed nothing to the affairs of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately there is an approximate survival rating of 5-10% for the reports he produced, but those still held at the National Archives paint a picture of a thorough, just, and dedicated lawyer who was respected and trusted by both Parliament and the people during the 1640s.


Join us tonight for our latest seminar. Our own Dr Kathryn Rix ,of the Victorian Commons, will speak on ‘The professionalization of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910’. Full details available here.

Afterwards Kathryn will hold an informal launch for her new book, Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910. More on the book here.


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History of Parliament A level competition 2017

For those of you deep in exam season for GCSEs, AS and A Levels at the moment, very good luck to you all, especially in your history papers.

Once they are all over and everything has calmed down, those of you thinking about studying history at university may well be interested in taking part in our A level competition (something to add to your application forms!) The winner will receive prizes of book tokens, and will be invited to Westminster with members of their family and teachers for the presentation of their prizes.

As in previous years, the prize will be awarded for the best essay on a subject of the candidate’s own choice related to the parliamentary or political history of Britain and Ireland. You may, if your essay covers the period before 1832, want to look at and use the material on our website (but it is not required that they should do so).

The closing date for this competition is 29 September 2017, and full rules and details of entry can be found here on our website.

Those of you who have followed our competitions previously will notice that we are not launching a competition for 11-14 year-olds at Key Stage 3 this year. We are currently reviewing our competition and resources, and so are taking a break in 2017. We still have our online resources on the Reformation and Political Reform, and if you would like to offer your opinion on our schools materials as a teacher, student or parent, we would love to hear from you – please do get in touch.

We haven’t, though, forgotten about last year’s KS3 competition: the winner has been chosen but unfortunately the General Election campaign has interrupted her prize day! More on that shortly…


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‘Absolutely our best officer’: Valentine Fleming (1882-1917)

In the latest of our blogs on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of Valentine Fleming on 20 May 1917…

Major Valentine Fleming, Illustrated London News, 9 June 1917, p. 684., via wikimedia

On 25 May 1917, the obituary of Valentine Fleming, Conservative MP for South Oxfordshire since January 1910, appeared in The Times, following his death five days earlier on the Western Front. Its author – ‘W. S. C.’ – was none other than Winston Churchill, who had known Fleming not only as a fellow MP, but also as an officer in the same yeomanry regiment, the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars. A framed copy of this obituary was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s second son Ian, the creator of James Bond. He was just about to turn nine when his father died.

Born in Fife in 1882, Fleming had a ‘distinguished and creditable’ career at Eton and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he excelled at rowing and athletics. He graduated with a degree in History in 1905. His father, Robert, a wealthy financier, had purchased a country estate at Nettlebed, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire in 1903. Aided financially by his father, Fleming bought his own property in the county at Braziers Park, Ipsden, where he and his wife Evelyn lived after their marriage in 1906.

In January 1907 Fleming was chosen as the prospective Conservative candidate for South Oxfordshire (also known as the Henley division). The chairman of the meeting which adopted him noted his academic achievements, his commercial experience in the City and his involvement as an officer in the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, which he had joined as a second lieutenant in 1904. He also considered it an important asset that Fleming had ‘a charming wife – who would be of great assistance to him in the campaign, considering the part women now took in politics’. Fleming worked assiduously to cultivate support in the constituency, attending thirty meetings in his first two months as candidate, and also became well-known in the hunting field.

At the January 1910 election, when he advocated the policies of tariff reform and colonial preference, Fleming won a convincing victory over his Liberal opponent. Giving thanks when the result was declared, he was particularly grateful to Oxfordshire’s under-sheriff for performing the duties of returning officer. As Fleming explained, ‘he has rescued me from the somewhat embarrassing position of being returned by my own father’: as High Sheriff of Oxfordshire that year, Robert Fleming should have acted as returning officer.

Fleming was re-elected at the December 1910 general election, but in April 1913 decided that he would not stand again when the next election took place. His father was taking partial retirement from the merchant bank of Robert Fleming and Co., which he had founded. Fleming therefore anticipated having to spend more time on business, especially as he would have to make periodic visits to the United States. Churchill’s obituary of him suggested that his decision stemmed also from his dislike of ‘the violence of faction and the fierce tumults which swayed our political life up to the very threshold of the Great War’.

When war broke out in 1914, Fleming, now a captain, enlisted for service with his regiment. Churchill recorded that Fleming had taken every opportunity to attend training courses as a yeomanry officer, with the result that ‘on mobilization there were few more competent civilian soldiers of his rank’. He fought at the battle of Ypres, was twice mentioned in dispatches and was promoted to the rank of major.

In the early hours of 20 May 1917, Fleming was one of five members of his squadron killed in a heavy German bombardment, while defending Gillemont Farm, near Epehy in northern France. A few weeks before his death he had sent a final postcard to his son, Ian, writing:

In the wood where we slept last night were wild boars. I killed a snake but not a poisonous one. A hedgehog came into Philip’s shelter one night. (J. Pearson, The life of Ian Fleming)

Philip (1889-1971) was Fleming’s younger brother, who served alongside him in the Oxfordshire Hussars. A talented rower, who had won a gold medal at the 1912 Olympics, he survived the war.

Posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Valentine Fleming was buried at Templeux-le-Guerard British cemetery in northern France. Churchill remembered his ‘lovable and charming personality’, while a fellow officer wrote that

The loss to the regiment is indescribable. He was … absolutely our best officer, utterly fearless, full of resource, and perfectly magnificent with his men.


You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here.

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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Priscilla Baines, ‘House of Commons governance: a suitable case for treatment?’

In today’s blog Dr Paul Hunneyball reports back from our recent Parliament, Politics & People seminar – where former House of Commons Librarian (2000-2004) and our Honorary Research Fellow Priscilla Baines spoke about her work on the House of Commons commission…

For the first seminar of the summer term, we welcomed Priscilla Baines, a former House of Commons Librarian, and now an honorary research fellow of the History of Parliament Trust. Her title, ‘House of Commons governance: a suitable case for treatment?’, reflected in its wordplay the contradictions of her subject. The Commons, this country’s principal legislative body, has long struggled to find a satisfactory model for keeping its own house in order. Until recent decades, the management of facilities and services was conducted piecemeal, with no overall strategic direction, minimal financial coordination, and a marked absence of either transparency or accountability. The one body competent to produce annual reports, the House of Commons Offices Commission, first established in 1812, rarely met. Much of the machinery of the Commons was at least nominally controlled by the Speaker, but maintenance of the Palace of Westminster was conducted from Whitehall, by the Ministry of Works. Funding for any modernization of accommodation, a particularly urgent issue after the Blitz, depended on the cooperation of the government of the day, which might not be forthcoming.

Priscilla guided us with precision through a succession of reform attempts, from the first proposals by a select committee in 1953-4 for a centralized body to manage both buildings and staff, via the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978-9, to the overhaul of this body in 2015 following the report of the Straw committee. Early schemes to give MPs more power over their own environment were blocked by government, and the Lords and Commons finally secured control of their respective parts of the Palace only in 1965. However, the approach thereafter towards administrative reform was painfully slow, with the addition of new bodies much preferred to rationalization of management structures, and strong resistance to any changes which might encourage greater government interference. Even the Commons Commission as first devised was essentially an additional layer of bureaucracy which had to operate in conjunction with numerous other bodies, and it too proved reluctant to take strategic initiatives. The persistent inefficiencies engendered by this multiplicity of mandates prompted a series of further reforms during the 1990s, which saw a gradual streamlining of administration and decision-making. In 2001-2 the Commission produced its first ever strategic plan. Nevertheless, a further innovation of 2004, whereby the Commission doubled up as the committee responsible for MPs’ pay and allowances, proved something of an own-goal, the latter role becoming a major distraction during the controversy of 2009-10 over MPs’ expenses. Mounting dissatisfaction led to the most recent reforms of 2015, under which the Commission acquired a number of additional members, including an entirely new officer, the Director General of the House. It is also now obliged to set out a ‘strategic framework’ for delivery of services.

Priscilla’s presentation prompted a lively discussion. The issues raised included the impact of politics, finance and individual Speakers on these developments, the current challenge posed by the need for a thoroughgoing restoration of the Palace fabric, and the struggle to secure union recognition at Westminster, which Priscilla herself helped to bring about as recently as 1984.


Join us tonight for our latest seminar, when Charlotte Young (Royal Holloway University of London) will speak on ‘John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s‘. Full details available here.

Priscilla recently published on the History of Parliament’s founder: Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament, 1885-1918

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