Life Peerages Act 1958: First Women Life Peers

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the announcement of the first life peers after the passing of the Life Peerages Act, 1958. This Act also allowed women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time so this blog is July’s installment of the Women and Parliament series. We are delighted to hear from guest blogger Dr Duncan Sutherland, a historian who has worked on women in Parliament for several years. Today he considers the experiences and contributions of the first four women life peers…

Life Peerages Act 1958

When the government announced the creation of life peers in 1958 to help revitalise the moribund Second Chamber, there was particular interest in who the first women appointed would be. Among those suggested but not chosen were Nancy Astor, former Suffragist Marjory Corbett Ashby and the elderly former Conservative Party activist Caroline Bridgeman. Three women passed over in 1958 would receive peerages in the 1960s: Clementine Churchill, MP Frances Davidson and Violet Bonham-Carter. Churchill was suggested by lawyer Edward Iwi, who had agitated for women’s admission to the Lords in the 1940s and also – curiously – proposed a life peerage for Princess Margaret.

The four women among the first fourteen life peers were described as ‘making history without unduly disturbing it’ and three were following husbands or fathers into Parliament (Oakley, A Critical Woman, p. 21). They were Stella Isaacs (1894-1971), the dowager Lady Reading who became Baroness Swanborough; Katharine Elliot (1903-1994), who had recently stood in the by-election to succeed her late husband Walter Elliot; Irene Curzon (1896-1966), daughter of anti-Suffragist Lord Curzon and already the second Baroness Ravensdale; and sociologist and magistrate Barbara Wootton (1897-1988).

Ravensdale had inherited her father’s barony in 1925 and was told by anti-feminist Lord Chancellor Birkenhead that he would be delighted to meet her anywhere but in the Lords. But by 1958, from all known accounts, women peers met with a warmer welcome than early women MPs had received. Baroness Elliott described the peers as extremely kind and felt at home, having known a number of members for many years. This would also have been true for Baronesses Swanborough and Ravensdale.

Wootton detected occasional condescension, such as over-effusive praise for her speeches. But she’d been nowhere else that women were treated more equally and said they had no cause for complaint, especially in terms of eventual front bench representation. She herself became deputy speaker in 1965, five years before any woman MP attained this position. The only recorded sour note came from Lord Glasgow, who had opposed women’s entry. When a colleague stated that Ravensdale was doing a good job, he replied ‘When I see that long neck…I wish I had my chopper and I would go ‘chop, chop, chop’.”(Longford, Intent, pp.138-9)

After waiting thirty-three years to enter Parliament, and having campaigned for women peers’ rights, Crossbencher Baroness Ravensdale was anxious for women to make an auspicious debut. She felt they had to be dignified, cautious and wise and only speak on issues they knew well. Unfortunately in January 1959 she was indisposed and missed the debate on admitting her fellow hereditary women peers. Ravensdale spoke infrequently but drew upon her forty years of East End voluntary work, taking a special interest in youth services.

Her memorable speech on the 1960 Street Offences Act caused a stir by describing girls in seedy clubs charging ‘a “fiver” (your Lordships will forgive my being so sordid and vulgar) for a long spell and £1 for a quick bash’ (Hansard HOL, 1 June 1960). The Daily Mirror praised her ‘guts’ in both touring East End vice dens and speaking so bluntly, though most newspapers could not bring themselves to print her speech’s most vivid passage (Daily Mirror, 3 June 1960).

It had been said of her fellow Crossbencher Baroness Swanborough, the outstanding founding chairman of the Women’s Voluntary Service, that were she a man she’d have become prime minister. However as a parliamentarian she was not a frequent contributor. Thirteen months after the life peers took their seats (Swanborough was the first woman to do so), Leader of the House Lord Home mentioned her as one of those who had been less active.

Eventually Swanborough spoke on civil defence, penal matters (especially Prison After-care), and refugees and immigration, which she dealt with as chairman of the Home Office’s Commonwealth immigration advisory council. She was involved with social services and helped pass a private member’s bill enabling local authorities to provide ‘Meals on Wheels’ for pensioners. In debates on Lords reform she was anxious to ensure that a truly independent, non-party element continued in any reformed House. She also took an unusual concern in the well-being of the House’s staff.

Baronesses Wootton and Elliot had the most active parliamentary careers of the four but gave differing replies to questions about women’s role. Wootton later criticised the appointment of so many politicians’ widows in the 1960s and 1970s, stating it had ceased to be a distinction to become a peer, especially for women. Katharine Elliot, a senior Conservative Party official, former county councillor and UN delegate, asserted that such women took their own line. While her own long life with a brilliant politician had been an invaluable education, she didn’t always agree with him. Had she not married an MP she would have stood for Parliament much earlier but they did not both wish to sit in the Commons.

Elliot enjoyed the Upper House and took advantage of the independence peers were afforded, often frustrating the Whips. She believed women had added a lot, saying any discussions were better in mixed rather than single-sex groups. Elliot became the first woman peer to move the Loyal Address, initiated debates on the global refugee problem (an issue of special interest since her time at the UN) and helped enact two private members’ bills. One of these, facilitating greater openness on public bodies, had originated with first-term MP Margaret Thatcher, making it the first act sponsored in both Houses by women. Elliot brought practical common sense to the Lords and by the 1970s felt it was more progressive in some areas than the Commons.

Barbara Wootton disliked assessing women’s contributions distinctly from men’s but felt so long as the House existed, it should not be entirely Tory, Christian and male. It was on these grounds that she accepted membership of an institution whose abolition she had long urged. Recommended by Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, she was described as the cleverest left-wing person he and his advisers knew. Parliamentary colleagues also recognised her brilliant mind and some spoke of wishing she had been their teacher.

Yet she was ambivalent about the institution. On accepting the appointment, Wootton later said, she had not realised how futile much of the Lords’ work was. She felt the chamber would be unnecessary if MPs revised legislation properly and suggested that its work could be done with an extra stage in the Commons. However she had a great impact on matters like crime, drugs and penal policy with which she had long dealt as a magistrate (starting even before she became able to vote in 1928). One notable achievement was shepherding the abolition of capital punishment through the House in 1965.

For all the fears about women’s impact evoked over forty years of resistance, even opponents of women’s admission acknowledged that they fitted in and helped renew the House. These pioneering women, especially Elliot and Wootton, set a standard for many women’s contributions in the sixty years since.


Further reading

  • Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (2011)
  • Mari Takayanagi, Melanie Unwin and Paul Seaward (Eds.), Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women (2018)

Duncan also contributed to the ‘Voice and Vote: Women’s place in Parliament’ exhibition (free tickets and information available here) and the guidebook, Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women (2018) – available here.

Posted in 20th century history, Post-1945 history, Women and Parliament | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Matters far beyond their reach or capacity’: Parliament and foreign policy in 1621

As Parliament continues to debate Brexit, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1604-29 section examines how the House of Commons first won the right to influence policy towards Europe…

The scenario might seem familiar: a government deeply divided over the future direction of Britain’s relations with the rest of Europe; and an anxious Parliament, eager to have its say, but sucked into confrontation with the government over the extent of its right to influence foreign policy. But this is not 2018 and the struggle to determine the meaning of Brexit. Instead, we need to turn the clock back nearly 400 years to 1621, and the penultimate Parliament of James I. Back then, the battle-lines were drawn somewhat differently, since the king was actually trying to decide the best way to intervene on the Continent. Three years earlier, the Thirty Years’ War had broken out after Protestant Bohemia rose in revolt against the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, and chose the Elector Palatine, James’s son-in-law, as its new king. James personally favoured a diplomatic solution to this crisis. For some years, there had been talk of a possible marriage between the king’s heir, Prince Charles, and a Spanish princess. The Habsburg kings of Spain were cousins to the Emperor, and James reasoned that if he formed an alliance with Madrid, this would give him greater leverage to broker a settlement between the warring parties in central Europe. However, this policy of rapprochement was deeply unpopular at home where, three decades after the Armada, Spain was still widely regarded as England’s principal enemy.

In 1620, Spain entered the war on the Catholic side, attacking the Palatinate, and forcing James into a limited military campaign to bolster the Protestant cause. This in turn obliged the king to summon Parliament in 1621, since he needed extra taxes to pay for the mercenary army he was employing in Germany. Nevertheless, James still hoped that his intervention would encourage the Habsburgs back to the negotiating table, and was keen to keep open the option of a Spanish alliance. The Privy Council, the seventeenth-century equivalent of the cabinet, was split over whether to support this balancing act, or to come down decisively on the Protestant side. In Parliament, however, and especially the House of Commons, there was a clear majority opposed to any deal with Spain. Even so, James was in a strong position, since at that time foreign policy was seen as part of the royal prerogative, those elements of government where the monarch’s wishes were decisive, and his subjects’ opinions carried no weight. Indeed, before the Parliament opened, James issued a proclamation warning people not to discuss foreign affairs.

Although Parliament broke with tradition, and granted taxes early in the session, the amount approved was too small to address the rapidly deteriorating situation in Germany. Accordingly, the king requested a further supply in the autumn of 1621. The Commons had in principle agreed to provide more money if James’s search for a diplomatic solution failed, but even so a double grant in a single parliamentary session broke with normal practice. Moreover, the burden of new taxes was usually offset by the redress of domestic grievances, but little progress had been made on that front, and MPs were nervous about how well a further grant would play in the country. In late November, despite the ban on discussion of foreign policy, some Members began openly questioning James’s military tactics, and proposing that a more effective approach would be a new war with Spain. Once this idea was broached, it quickly attracted support in the House. A naval campaign against Spain was much more likely to be popular with the voters, and a change of strategy would help to justify further taxes. However, there was no parliamentary mechanism for offering the king unsolicited advice on foreign affairs. Since the Commons was increasingly reluctant to agree a tax grant without James first listening to its views, an impasse was reached.

Then, on 29 November, Sir George Goring unexpectedly informed the House that the king had written to Philip IV of Spain, urging him to help bring about a truce in the Palatinate. Goring proposed a petition to James, urging him to declare war on Spain if his overtures were rejected. The MPs correctly deduced that Goring wasn’t using his own initiative, but was surreptitiously communicating advice from the royal favourite, George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham.


George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, by Dumonstier

What they failed to realise was that Buckingham’s strategy for ending the impasse had not been cleared with either the king or the Privy Council. When the councillors sitting in the Commons failed to react, bewildered by this turn of events, Members mistakenly read their silence as tacit approval, and quickly pressed ahead with the drafting of just such a petition. However, when news reached the king, he responded furiously to this clear breach of his prerogative authority over foreign policy, and refused to receive the petition, warning Members that they were debating ‘matters far beyond their reach or capacity’. The Commons, both embarrassed and aggrieved that they had fallen into this apparent trap, sought to justify their actions by asserting that they were, in fact, entitled to express their opinions on foreign affairs. Within days, this misunderstanding degenerated into a dispute between king and Members over freedom of speech and parliamentary privilege, culminating in the famous Protestation of the Commons, and the abrupt end of the session.

Ironically, when Parliament next met, in 1624, Buckingham and Prince Charles were dead set on war with Spain, and the Commons was openly encouraged to express its support as a means of pressurizing a now enfeebled James into agreeing. Almost without comment, the ban on Members intervening in foreign affairs was effectively abandoned. Even though the executive arm of government still today retains ultimate control over foreign policy, Parliament is entitled to have its say, and ministers are obliged to listen, whether or not they agree.


Further reading:

  • Robert Zaller, The Parliament of 1621 (Berkeley, CA, 1971)
  • Conrad Russell, Parliament and English Politics 1621-1629 (Oxford, 1979)
  • Richard Cust, ‘Prince Charles and the Second Session of the 1621 Parliament’ (English Historical Review, vol. cxxii, 2007), 427-41
  • A biography of George Villiers will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-29
Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, James I to Restoration | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 1842 Chartist Petition – why over 3 million signatures translated into less than 50 votes

Today’s blog about the Chartist Petition of 1842 is part of our focus on wider electoral and political reform throughout this significant anniversary year in women’s political history – for more blogs in the series see here. The following blog has been written by year 10 work experience student, Layla Barwell from Dartford Grammar School for Girls. Layla spent the week with the public engagement team working on several projects including researching and writing this blog with guidance from Dr Kathryn Rix of the Commons 1832-1868 Section and The Victorian Commons blog… 

The 1842 Chartist petition was one of the most impressive petitions in British history. The 1840s was a time before easy communication and organisation of events – there was no social media, television or radio, so it is remarkable that Feargus O’Connor still managed to obtain 3,315,752 signatures for his appeal, on a 6 mile-long, 300kg roll of paper. In fact, the 1842 Chartist petition is the second biggest petition ever in Britain, in absolute number of signatures, and the biggest in terms of percentage of the population who signed, with around a third of British men and women over 21 signing it (the 1848 Chartist petition professed to be bigger than its predecessor, but Parliament found that there were far fewer signatures than O’Connor claimed).

The Chartists’ campaign had undeniable flaws: the exact aims of Chartism, besides the Six Points, were not always clear. O’Connor and his fellow Chartist leader, William Lovett, certainly had different views on what the Chartist manifesto should be, and the Chartists’ link to the riots which accompanied the General Strike of 1842 also negatively affected the chance of their demands being accepted by the government. Yet it may still be surprising to some that the House of Commons rejected a motion to hear from the Chartist petitioners at the bar of the House, by 287 votes to 49, despite the huge number of signatures it had. Why did the Commons ignore the people of Britain, despite the magnitude of the petition? And how truly useful were petitions for those who wanted change in the 19th century, and indeed to this day?

One of the main obstacles to the Chartists obtaining their goals was the MPs’ personal, vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Many MPs would have disagreed with the Chartists’ aims, for if the People’s Charter was passed into law, then this could lead to further reform that unfavourably affected their wealth. The power and influence of the established elite would be severely diminished if the six points of the Charter were implemented. The Commons was made up almost entirely of the established elite – almost half of MPs could trace their descent from a titled family, within two generations, and the majority were wealthy landowners. The Charter’s third and fourth points – removal of the property qualification for MPs and the introduction of the payment of MPs – would lead to the possibility of working class Members of Parliament, and therefore competition for the existing members of the Commons. The Charter’s fifth point – ‘Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors’ – threatened the position of MPs who sat for small ‘pocket’ boroughs, under the control of rich patrons.

For the majority of the MPs debating the Charter in the Commons in May 1842, it was simply too soon to change the electoral system yet again. Only four general elections had taken place since the major overhaul of the political system under the 1832 Reform Act. That reform had created a franchise firmly based upon the ownership or occupation of property, with the aim being to limit the electorate to ‘respectable’ voters. This was a far cry from the universal male suffrage demanded by the Chartists.

Many Members of Parliament would have been against the Charter because they felt as if the working classes were ‘not ready’ to be given the vote – perhaps due to feelings of paternalism. They may have been concerned that the working classes were too uneducated to make an informed vote, given that in 1842 only just over 20% of the adult population had been enrolled in primary education as children. MPs would therefore have feared that members of the working class would make decisions that would have a negative effect on Britain’s economy. This was the viewpoint of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who said in the debate regarding the Charter on 3rd May 1842 that,

‘he could not conceive a course more likely to be disastrous than to excite hopes which were certain to be disappointed, and to hold out expectations which those who consented to the inquiry were aware would be fallacious… I believe that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government exists… it is utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilisation’.

Lord John Russell seemed to hold similar sentiments, saying that the Charter would ‘throw the working classes into a still worse condition than that in which they are at present placed’. The People’s Charter, if successful, would certainly have led to more MPs in the Commons with radical political agendas, such as Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, who presented the 1842 petition to the Commons.

In addition, Chartism influenced many of the strikes in the 1830s and the 1840s, so the Government feared that, if they accepted Chartism, it would set a bad precedent: that strikes and riots were an effective way to get the Government to change policy. As far back as 1831, the Queen Square riots in Bristol had caused £300,000 of damage and dozens of people are believed to have been killed in arson attacks by the rioters. These took place in protest at the House of Lords’ rejection of the Whig ministry’s reform bill (which was eventually passed in 1832). The November 1839 Chartist rising at Newport involved thousands of Chartist supporters. In 1842 itself, the General Strike – which took place after the Commons rejected the Charter – was clearly linked to Chartism, and had a very negative impact on British commerce. Supporting Chartism would have seemingly condoned these violent actions.

Feargus o'connor

Feargus Edward O’Connor (c) NPG

With very few Members of Parliament willing to voice their message, the Chartists were always doomed to fail. One Chartist supporter remarked that no-one ‘who signed the petition ever thought for one moment that the legislature would grant the Charter. The people expected nothing at the hands of the government’; Feargus O’Connor himself said that ‘a million of petitions would not dislodge a single troop of dragoons’. However, with no other ‘peaceful and constitutional method’ for them to protest and after three petitions, the Chartist movement began to fade after 1848.

In theory, petitions should be more effective today. For one thing, it is far easier to collect signatures given changes in technology (although there are still paper petitions). For another, modern politicians should be more open to persuasion, because the vast majority of those who sign petitions are eligible to vote. Moreover, there is now a direct mechanism for petitions to influence government policy. Since 2006 any petition that asks for a change to the law will receive a response from the government if it has 10,000 signatures; any petition with 100,000 signatures is considered for debate within Parliament. But of the top 10 most signed petitions, only one has been successful (‘Accept more asylum seekers and increase support for refugees’).

MPs still seem to ignore petitions, unless they align with their own personal viewpoints or those of their party leader. Therefore, it may be argued that petitions themselves are an ineffective way of bringing about reform. Unlike the Chartists, who turned to petitioning because they did not have the vote, all adults now have the opportunity to vote in a democratic election for the candidate that fits their views the best. If a Chartist-like movement does re-emerge in modern society then perhaps it will be joined predominantly by children and young people who are denied the vote but have easy access to social media, for example, in a campaign for the voting age to be lowered to 16.


Further reading:

Posted in 19th Century history, Electoral Reform, Politics, Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘The last remedy God has left him’: medicine in the 18th century

Today’s blog from Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-1790 Section is in keeping with our theme, health, medicine and Parliament. This theme is particularly significant this month as last week in the UK we celebrated 70 years of the National Health Service. Robin considers medication and wellness practices in the eighteenth century…

In the summer of 1726, the Princess of Wales wrote to her confidante, Mrs Clayton, passing on the news of the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury: ‘the poor duchess’, she complained, ‘is soon destroy’d, it is the glorious work of Sir J[ohn] Shadwell’. Shadwell, son of the playwright, poet laureate and historiographer royal, Thomas Shadwell, was a celebrated royal physician, who had first been appointed to the royal household as an extra physician to the person in 1709. Three years later, he was promoted physician to the person. The duchess had relied on Shadwell’s services for some time. In the summer of 1718 she had believed herself to be dying and had nominated Shadwell her executor (it was reported that he stood to gain £800 from her demise). On this occasion she rallied. Now he was summoned in response to the duchess complaining of stomach pains and prescribed something to ease the symptoms. When that failed to have the desired effect, he took the decision to add a large dose of laudanum on top of the initial remedy, ‘which laid her asleep for this world’ [RA, GEO/ADD/28/062].

Such an error in prescribing in an age when, in spite of growing professionalism and the rich rewards available to elite physicians, medicine enjoyed a rather mixed reputation may not come as much of a surprise. It is a reminder, though, of a distressingly frequent theme in the lives (and deaths) of many of the characters covered by the History – substantial numbers of whom died prematurely whether through their own misadventure or the mistaken ministrations of their doctors.

Of course, sometimes the remedies worked – or at least did no obvious harm. In December 1737 Bishop Hough of Worcester reported how a ‘violent pain in his right arm’ had been cured thanks to a dose of laudanum. For some, a psychological stimulus seems to have done the trick. In April 1705 he duchess of Beaufort insisted to Charles, Lord Bruce that the pleasure of his letter had ‘proved a better medicine than any’ her resident physician was able to prescribe her current malady. By contrast, in the summer of 1700 Sidney Godolphin, Lord Godolphin, insisted that the sheer terror of taking the medicine sent him by Bishop of Moore of Norwich had ‘frighted away the rheume from my eyes’ without recourse to testing the potion.

If all else failed, many sought relief in the waters of Bath, Tunbridge Wells or spa towns overseas. In 1720 the apparently fast declining Lord St John (presumably William, Lord St John of Bletso) was readied for a journey to Bath, his doctor insisting that ‘It is the last remedy God has left him’ (he did not survive). Bishop Reynolds informed Archbishop Wake that if he got no relief ‘by the warm weather and Fuller’s medicine’ his friends intended to despatch him to Bath too.

The proliferation of newspapers in the century perhaps inevitably spawned a large number of people, genuine and not so genuine, seeking to sell a variety of patent remedies through the classified advertisements sections. In 1775 Elizabeth Rogers, a bookseller, announced that as well as books she was able to sell ‘Ward’s medicine by appointment’ and among other things also stocked ‘Herring’s Norfolk antidote for the bite of a mad dog and other mad animals’.

With such a large number of drugs, lotions and potions easily available, some appear to have opted to self-medicate rather than trust to the dubious talents of their physician. In some cases the results were tragic. In 1739 William Craven, 3rd Lord Craven, was reported to have ‘unhappily precipitated his death by eagerly taking too great a quantum of a medicine, which had in due proportions afforded him great relief; and which carried him off in about four hours time.’ [London Daily Post & General Advertiser, 20 Aug. 1739]. At about the same time as Craven’s unhappy accidental overdose, Sir John Shadwell once again appeared in the papers. Shadwell had been living in Italy for some time and was now called in to assist Lord Charles Fitzroy, a younger son of the 2nd duke of Grafton. Once again, the result was unhappy and Fitzroy did not recover.

Shadwell was in many regards a successful physician and it would be unjust to imply that any other medical man of the time would have fared any better. Rather, his career points to several features of medicine in the period: the reliance on opiates such as laudanum; the tendency to trust to measures that would ‘quieten the humours’ and the vast confidence in foreign travel and spa waters in treating the sick. Shadwell also demonstrates the curious imbalance in the attitude to medicine. Medical men might be trusted as executors of complicated estates and feted as fashionable celebrities in their own right. The social and financial rewards were also potentially great. This is indicated by the fact that while only a handful of physicians made it into Parliament in the period (for example John Freind, Charles Cotes and Charles Oliphant) many more MPs had physicians for fathers (the best known example being Henry Addington, whose father was physician to William Pitt the Elder). Nevertheless, theirs remained a somewhat mysterious profession, and beyond the respectability of the Royal College of Physicians, the world of medicine was easily infiltrated by bootleggers and by others intent on preying on the credulous.

Following the death of the duchess of Shrewsbury, the newspapers published the key provisions of her will, clearly altered since the draft of 1718, revealing among other things that Shadwell was no longer an executor and that his bequest had been reduced to £200. On the death of George I the following year he was not continued in post as a royal physician. Shadwell died at Bath, appropriately enough, in January 1747 and was buried in the abbey.


Further Reading:

  • Extracts from the letter of the Princess of Wales to Mrs Clayton are courtesy of the digitized papers from the Royal Archives, Windsor (, (c) HM Queen Elizabeth II
  • W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter, eds., William Hunter and the Eighteenth-Century Medical World (1985)
  • For more on early modern medicine see Dr Jennifer Evans and Dr Sara Read’s blog, Early Modern Medicine:


Posted in 18th Century history, Early modern history, Health and Medicine, social history | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Voice and Vote: behind the scenes

This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.


Nancy Astor’s suit

The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

The exhibition contains works of art and objects ranging from the bolt clippers used to remove suffragettes who chained themselves to statues in Parliament to the suit worn by Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat. It also reconstructs some of the spaces where women have taken part in parliamentary life over the past two centuries – as spectators in the 19th century, and as MPs and peers in the 20th century and beyond.

The ventilator: Dr. Philip Salmon


Amy Galvin-Elliott of the University of Warwick listening to speeches in the reconstructed ventilator

The ventilator contraption in the attic above the old House of Commons has become a potent symbol of the way women were politically marginalised in the early 19th century. In operation until 1834, when the old Commons was completely destroyed by fire, women used the holes it contained for drawing out foul air to peer down into the chamber below. Diary entries reveal the tactics used to gain access to the attic, usually with the contrivance of the doorkeepers, and the extent to which women were often able to hear proceedings with remarkable clarity.

Based on the findings of a workshop in Parliament that we and other project partners – including academic colleagues from the University of Warwick and the University of York – attended last year, and the discovery of new evidence showing how the ventilator looked, the exhibition recreates the experience of listening to debates in this symbolic female space. The historic speeches you can hear were carefully selected for their special contemporary interest to women. They include William Wilberforce speaking against the slave trade, an angry exchange about the Tory government’s connivance in helping the king defame and try to divorce Queen Caroline, and a passionate call by Thomas Fowell Buxton for a ban on the ‘barbarous’ practice of sati (burning widows) in India.

As well as researching how the MPs sounded as speakers and where they sat, it was necessary to try and gauge the number of MPs present and the atmosphere in the chamber, using a wide range of contemporary sources. Some debates were also extremely long and were rewritten in a way that retained their linguistic authenticity. The speech made by the Radical MP Henry Hunt when presenting the earliest known petition for women’s votes, during a debate on the ‘Great’ reform bill, was modified in this way, along with the eloquent appeal made by the leading Irish agitator Daniel O’Connell for an immediate end to colonial slavery. Pointing out that 1.5 million people had signed petitions against the government’s phased approach, O’Connell berated those who claimed they had been ‘mostly signed by silly girls and old maids’, protesting that they were ‘not only guilty of bad taste but also of insulting the entire female population’.

The cage: Dr. Kathryn Rix


The ladies’ gallery in the Voice and Vote exhibition

The ‘cage’ was the nickname given by women to the Ladies’ Gallery in the new House of Commons designed by Charles Barry. Its metal grilles obstructed women’s view of proceedings and its stuffy atmosphere led the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to describe it as ‘a grand place for getting headaches’. Visitors to the exhibition can listen to extracts from five debates, recorded by actors for this reconstruction. My contribution was to select these debates, compiling scripts using Hansard, as well as providing background information on the MPs involved and the atmosphere in the chamber during each debate.

I wanted to provide a broad chronological spread of speeches, from the beginnings of parliamentary discussion of women’s suffrage in the 1860s to the debates leading up to the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The earliest debate comes from 20 May 1867, when John Stuart Mill attempted to include women’s suffrage in the Second Reform Act. The response from Edward Karslake reflected the overwhelming consensus in opposition to Mill. The second extract, with Russell Gurney moving the second reading of the 1870 married women’s property bill, provides a reminder that the suffrage campaign was one aspect of a wider movement for women’s rights. The third debate marked another failed attempt to enfranchise women, when William Woodall tried in 1884 to add a female suffrage clause to the Third Reform Act. His opponents included the Liberal prime minister, William Gladstone.

Another Liberal prime minister, H. H. Asquith, features in the fourth extract, on the 1912 Conciliation Bill, a compromise measure to enfranchise a limited number of women. The second reading was moved by James Agg-Gardner, a Conservative backbencher who remembered this speech as ‘a formidable prospect, especially for one who had but rarely addressed the Commons’. I also chose a less well-known figure for the final debate, from 22 May 1917. Sir Joseph Walton, long-serving Liberal MP for Barnsley, endorsed women’s suffrage and looked ahead to the post-war situation, when he hoped for equal political rights and equal pay for men and women.

The chamber: Dr. Emma Peplow

The Voice and Vote exhibition ends with women’s experiences in Parliament in the 20th century up to the present day. Although the first woman took her seat in Parliament in 1919 (Nancy Astor – although she was not the first elected), until 1997 women were still a very small minority of MPs and Parliament remained an overwhelmingly male environment.

Former women MPs have shared their memories of being one of this minority with us in our oral history project interviews (see our blogs on women in Parliament in the 1970s/80s and the 1990s). Together with the exhibition’s curators, we chose a number of extracts from our oral history archive that reveal women’s experiences both in getting elected to the Commons and within the chamber once they were at Westminster.

Many of our interviewees faced sexism when putting themselves forward to be candidates, as selection panels traditionally considered MPs to be male. In this clip Labour’s Hilary Armstrong remembers the support she did get from a local women’s committee at one (ultimately unsuccessful for Armstrong) selection meeting during the 1980s:

Having made it to Parliament, for many the experience was quite a shock. In this clip Diana Maddock (Liberal Democrat) who caused an upset with her by-election win in 1993, describes how she explained to Liberal Democrat party members what Parliament was like:

Despite many (although not all) sharing experiences of sexism with our oral history project, they – and the exhibition – also reflect these women’s real achievements once they were at Westminster and able to both influence and introduce legislation. In her interview the Conservative MP Marion Roe discusses her private member’s bill to ban what was then called ‘female circumcision’, which we now know as Female Genital Mutilation or FGM:

You can listen to all the extracts from our oral history project at the end of the exhibition, sitting on the benches, next to the final wall which includes the names of all women MPs to date – a fitting place to hear about their experiences.

For details of how to book a free exhibition ticket, see here.



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The soldiers’ ‘real friend’: John, Earl Ligonier: Huguenot refugee and British commander-in-chief

In this latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow in the Lords 1715-90 section, examines the career and lasting influence of one of the pre-eminent British generals of the middle years of the 18th century.

Ligonier may seem, initially, a strange subject for a site devoted to the 18th-century peerage. He was a British peer for only the last seven years of his life, from 1763, when he was already well into his 80s, and he sat in the House of Lords on just 17 occasions. These British titles were extinguished at his death in 1770, and an Irish title granted in 1762 became extinct in 1782 upon the death of his nephew.

Nevertheless, the many titles he received late in life – two Irish and two British –were a belated recognition of his contributions to the British Army. Ligonier’s career is instructive because it encapsulates in a single person Britain’s long history of military engagement with France in the 18th century.

Born into a French Protestant family in 1680, Jean-Louis Ligonier fled in 1698 from the ongoing persecution of the ‘Huguenots’ in France. Ending up eventually in England, he was naturalized by an Act of Parliament in February 1702 and immediately enlisted as a volunteer to fight in Flanders against the forces of his former homeland. He fought in many of the major engagements of the War of the Spanish Succession: Blenheim (1704), Ramillies (1706), Oudenarde (1708), the siege of Tournai (1709) and Malplaquet (1709). He emerged miraculously unscathed from the last of these, though his clothes were in tatters through the 20 bullets he reportedly received to his person. By the war’s end in 1713 he had been promoted to adjutant-general of the Allied armed forces in the Iberian Peninsula, and lieutenant-governor of Minorca.

When Britain went to war again against France in the War of the Austrian Succession, Ligonier was given his first field command position, as major-general. He was present as a commander at the victory at Dettingen in 1743 and the defeat at Fontenoy in 1745. Assigned to defend the English Midlands during the Jacobite uprising, he did not participate at Culloden. He returned to the continent and, now as commander-in-chief, oversaw the retreat of the British Army and its allies from Rocoux. He was captured at Lauffeldt on 2 July 1747 and in his captivity was treated with esteem by Louis XV himself, who sent him back to the British camp with the preliminary proposals for peace. In February 1748, on the eve of the treaty negotiations, Ligonier was selected to replace his deceased colleague, Field Marshal George Wade, in the House of Commons as Member for the borough of Bath. The electoral patron for the borough, its postmaster Ralph Allen, obviously had a penchant for choosing military leaders to represent this fashionable spa town.

Ligonier moved from the battlefield to the council room for the Seven Years’ War, when, as commander-in-chief and master general of the ordnance, he acted as overall strategist and chief of staff of the British war effort. In the same period he was raised to the peerage, first as Viscount Ligonier of Enniskillen in the Irish peerage (1757), then as Viscount Ligonier of Clonmel, also in the Irish peerage (1762). He was created Baron Ligonier of Ripley on 27 April 1763, only a few weeks after the Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War. The peace was announced formally to the members of Parliament at the opening of the new session, 15 November, when Ligonier was first introduced to the House of Lords as a British peer. After he had resigned his military offices, he was, on 10 September 1766, promoted Earl Ligonier.

Unlike the dukes of Marlborough and Wellington, who bookend his career, Ligonier does not have a great epoch-making victory such as Blenheim or Waterloo to his credit. When he was in Flanders in the 1740s he was more often involved in trying to avert a complete rout of his forces by the superior French forces. The victories of the Seven Years’ War were won on the field by his subordinates, many of them hand-picked by him, such as Jeffrey, Lord Amherst, James Wolfe and John Forbes.

It could be argued, however, that he was as influential in the shaping of the modern British Army as either Marlborough or Wellington. He had the skills of both a soldier and a politician, devising strategy and persuading others to implement it. He also remodelled the structure of the British Army, developing new types of fighting forces such as light infantry and cavalry, and horse artillery.

As we mark the contributions of members of the British armed forces, we should turn our attention to Ligonier’s impact on the individual soldiers. Ligonier was known as a humane commander who took great care to attend to the health and comfort of those under his charge. As a colonel he paid out of his own pocket for a second doctor to attend to the needs of his own regiments. When a commander-in-chief, he frequently battled with the Treasury to provide additional medical staff for the army, to have the rye in his soldiers’ bread replaced with wheat, and to have adequate blankets supplied to them during the long winter months.

Tributes flooded in when Earl Ligonier died in 1770 at the age of 90. Horace Walpole deemed him to have ‘had all the gallant gaiety of his nation, and was universally beloved and respected’. A more formal notice judged that:

Through all the rage of contending parties, changes of measures and administration his character was never once mentioned with disrespect nor one of his actions arraigned. The glorious successes which attended our arms in all parts of the world may justly in great measure be ascribed to his Lordship, his co-operation with the great men at the head of affairs and his just regard to real merit in all his appointments and recommendations.

But perhaps the most valuable comment on his career was the obituary notice that lamented that ‘in him the soldier has lost a real friend: one who in public and private life did honour to humanity’. [Whitworth, 393, 394, 399]



Further reading:

Rex Whitworth, Field Marshal Lord Ligonier: A Story of the British Army, 1702-1770 (1958)

Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession (1993)

Richard Middleton, The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years’ War, 1757-62 (1985)


Georgian lords 2


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Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women – a guidebook

Dr Paul Seaward is one of the editors of the “Voice & Vote guidebook” to accompany the UK Parliament Vote 100 project‘s landmark exhibition in Westminster Hall. In today’s blog he explains the contents of the book, who contributed to it and where you can get one…

Last week we were delighted to celebrate with the curators of the wonderful Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall, Mari Takayanagi and Melanie Unwin, the publishers, St James’s House, the contributors, and the many sponsors, the publication of the beautifully illustrated book that goes with the exhibition. We are delighted with Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women, which charts the story of women’s involvement in politics from the seventeenth century right up to today. We are enormously grateful to Stephen Mitchell and his team at St James’s House for producing such an attractive looking volume; and most of all to a great team of contributors – Paula Bartley, Elaine Chalus, Krista Cowman, Emma Crewe, Amy Galvin-Elliott, Oonagh Gay, Elizabeth Hallam-Smith, Helen McCarthy, Simon Morgan, Emma Peplow, Louise Raw, Sarah Richardson, Kathryn Rix, Jane Robinson, Anne Stott, Duncan Sutherland and Jacqui Turner, as well as Mari and Melanie, who found time to work on the book as well as the enormous job of researching, commissioning and setting up the exhibition itself.

The book is arranged, like the exhibition, around the spaces with which women have been particularly associated in Parliament over the years. The first section opens with the Ventilator, the extraordinary construction in the attic above the House of Commons, designed to take away the heat from the chamber, but which women – banned from watching proceedings from the main public gallery – used in order to get a glimpse of the heads of the leading politicians on the floor below. The second two sections cover the ‘Cage’ – the stifling special gallery constructed in the new House of Commons built by Sir Charles Barry in the mid-nineteenth century, where women were allowed to view debates, but only with difficulty through a brass grille, designed to keep them out of sight and mind. The third is built around ‘The Tomb’, the gloomy common room offered to the first women MPs. And the last section covers the ‘Chamber’, and marks how women finally arrived in both Houses in decent numbers – though in still far from equal numbers to men.

The text charts, of course, the struggles of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to obtain the vote – the frustrating business of successive petitions and private members’ bills, of suffragists and suffragettes and of promises made and promises broken. But it also shows how women were highly active in the political arena well before this: as very visible canvassers in elections; as campaigners in causes, including the abolition of slavery; and as political hostesses and influencers. It charts the work of women in Parliament once they were, finally, able to both vote and to stand for election, highlighting remarkable MPs such as Ellen Wilkinson, Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams, and many others. It describes the other battle to secure seats in the House of Lords for women too, only finally achieved in 1963. The illustrations include most of the items in the exhibition, as well as many contemporary photographs and other material.

This is our second collaboration with St James’s House. Our first was on a book covering The Story of Parliament published in 2015 to coincide with the anniversaries of Magna Carta in 1215 and the Simon de Montfort Parliament of 1265, and we very much look forward to working with them again on further publications.

Not only a fine souvenir of the exhibition, our new book is also, we modestly think, an excellent introduction to its subject. You can obtain it from the Parliament Shop online or, if you can get there, by buying it at the exhibition itself – click here for more information about the free exhibition which is now open in Westminster Hall until 6 October 2018.

Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women edited by Mari Takayanagi, Melanie Unwin, and Paul Seaward [Price: £15] ISBN 978-1-906670-70-2


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