Hats and Mrs Thatcher

A scene in the Meryl Streep film about Margaret Thatcher shows her addressing the House of Commons from the despatch box, wearing a small (pillbox?) hat. Should she be? Is it in order to wear a hat in the House of Commons? Was it in the 1970s?

As so often, Parliament’s procedural manual, Erskine May, is just about silent on the subject. But there’s a long history of hat wearing in the House of Commons. The few seventeenth century pictures of the House tend to show Members wearing hats: an example is the 1625 engraving in the British Museum published by Thomas Jenner. The 1710-ish painting by Peter Tillemans in the Palace of Westminster collection has Members almost universally wearing fashionable periwigs, but no hats; in another famous image only a couple of decades later, just about everyone except Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole is wearing a hat on top of a wig. In the Hickel painting of the House in 1793 there are a handful of hat-wearers, including Charles James Fox and the Speaker. In Hayter’s picture of the Reformed House in 1833, although many Members are carrying top hats, I can see only one man actually wearing a hat. In some nineteenth century pictures of the chamber hats are almost ubiquitous (for example the 1858 painting by Joseph Nash); in others, like this 1882 painting, they are relatively rare. However, Lord Winterton, speaking in 1951 about the period shortly after his election in 1904, recalled that:

‘It was solemnly impressed on me by my Whips when I first got into the House that it was the right and privilege of hon. Members of this House to wear a hat. Without it, they would get into trouble. The only place where they need not wear hats was in the dining room. Every hon. Member had to walk into the House with his hat in hand and put it on immediately he sat down. Some of us decided that it was out of date and fantastic and we decided to break it. People shouted when we came into the Chamber, “Hat, hat.”. ‘

Although hat wearing did seem to die out for men at least after the first World War, it may still have been expected for women when they first entered the House. When the fiery new Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson rose to ask a Question on 11 February 1925, a Conservative, Colonel Applin asked the Speaker whether she was in order addressing the Chair uncovered; the Speaker said that she was (Applin was taunted from the Labour side with shouts of ‘there’s a gentleman!’ and ‘what a snob!’). Nothing changed in terms of the rules of the House about hats. What did change was the likelihood that people would wear them, and hat wearing seems to have died out among women as well as men by the late 1970s. A colleague who worked in the House of Commons in the 1970s remembers Dame Irene Ward routinely wearing a hat in the chamber until leaving the House in 1974, but she may have been the last to do so regularly. When Luton MP Margaret Moran initiated an adjournment debate in the Commons in 1999 about the hat industry (with a series of appalling  hat-based puns), she had to check beforehand whether she was allowed to wear a hat. So Margaret Thatcher would have been allowed to wear a hat: but did she ever actually do so?.

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About The History of Parliament

The History of Parliament is a major academic project to create a scholarly reference work describing the members, constituencies and activities of the Parliament of England and the United Kingdom. The volumes either published or in preparation cover the House of Commons from 1386 to 1868 and the House of Lords from 1603 to 1832. They are widely regarded as an unparalleled source for British political, social and local history.
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5 Responses to Hats and Mrs Thatcher

  1. There’s also that line attributed to the Duke of Wellington, following the changed constitution of the Commons following the 1832 Reform Act: “I never saw so many shocking bad hats in my life”.
    Hayter’s picture somewhat undermines this…

    • In fact, this is a special case. It’s customary for women MPs to wear hats to the state opening of Parliament, which is a bit of an occasion, and they will be seen and photographed sitting with them on in the chamber as they wait for Black Rod to summon the House up to the Lords. It’s much more unusual to wear a hat for a normal debate, as is shown in the film.

  2. tatiana.larina says:

    Mildmay, thw while, was sitting with his hat low down over his eyes…
    For some time he sat with his hat off, forgetful of his privilege of wearing it; and then put it on hurriedly, as though the fact of his not wearing it must have been observed – Anthony Trollope, “Phineas Finn”

  3. Sage Vals says:

    Mrs Thatcher regularly wore a hat, at least upto becoming leader of the opposition. From memory, she only stopped when advised by her media people that it looked old fashioned (and very lower middle class).

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