Doorkeepers

D is for Doorkeepers, not only an essential oil in the wheels of the House of Commons, but also part of its collective memory. Today’s blog begins to pin down the history of a role that has become a Westminster institution.

Doorkeepers oil the wheels of the House of Commons.  The role is an ancient one, but impossible to pin down, and hardly unique: in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries most institutions or great establishments had a doorkeeper or porter, just as offices and buildings today have receptionists or caretakers. But doorkeepers in Parliament are an institution in themselves.  They complement the police in providing security for the chamber – their knowledge of Members crucial in knowing whom to exclude; they pass messages to Members; and most importantly, they are the repositories of gossip and the fount of wisdom on what is actually going on.

The role is referred to in the fourteenth century treatise on Parliament, the Modus Tenendi Parliamentum, which remarks that ‘it is necessary that this doorkeeper should recognize those who ought to enter so that no-one shall be denied entry to parliament who ought to be in parliament’. In the small and chaotically organised pre-1834 Palace of Westminster ensuring that only Members had access to the chamber itself was a hard task for the two main doorkeepers who sat in the lobby and the lower doorkeeper who guarded the stairs leading up to it. Doorkeepers had to cope with volatile and potentially dangerous situations, such as the invasion of the chamber in January 1642 by the king and a band of soldiers, when they were roughly shoved out of the way, or the mass occupation of the lobby in 1780 by a mob egged on by Lord George Gordon.

Their crucial function of holding and passing on information is well outlined in the sketch of the legendary eighteenth century doorkeeper Joseph Pearson, published in the (possibly spoof) collection of his writings, Pearson’s Political Dictionary (1792), a vaguely Johnsonian series of brief essays providing a cynical commentary on current politics with sarcastic remarks on the major figures. Pearson was said to have had

such an astonishing portion of keen observation, that he could pretty nearly foretell the period of the termination of every debate, when once it commenced. By the thronging of the Members he foresaw, and nicely calculated its magnitude: By the opening of the first speaker, and the peculiarity of the subject, he guessed pretty accurately all the orators of the night; and knowing the time nearly that each would speak, he has often prognosticated to Peers, guttling Members, waiters, porters, &c. who enquired of him what time he thought the House would break up.

But eighteenth-century doorkeepers were known not so much for their remarkable prescience as for their shamelessness in asking for money. Doorkeepers had several sources of income. There was a salary, but more significant were the various fees payable on the introduction of bills, the delivery of messages on behalf of the House, and other functions. More important than any of these officially sanctioned sources were the gratuities that they requested from each Member at the beginning of the session, and the sums paid by members of the public for access to the gallery from where they could watch the debates. Neither exaction was authorised by the House, but both seemed to be hallowed by long practice. There may have been additional underhand payments too, which would probably have been less tolerated, perhaps for squeezing people into the lobby to get close to ministers, or for distributing certain papers (an example is the pamphlet which the House regarded as libellous that was ‘delivered at the door by the Doorkeeper’ on 14 May 1690).

Members seemed in general accepting of the sessional payment that was extracted from them by the doorkeepers, though some resented it and they could resist it, as in a story about the old Tory MP for Durham William Lambton, who died in 1724:

Once on the meeting of a new parliament, the door-keeper seeing him dressed in a plain, grey, home-spun coat, made of the wool of his own sheep, and thick shoes, would not admit him further than the lobby, where he sat quietly enough until a friend in a finer coat came up, who remonstrated with the door-keeper on his shutting out one of the most honourable and respectable members of the house of commons. The door-keeper changed his tone, and hoped his honour would give him something as a remembrance. Up started Will, more vexed at the fellow’s servility than at his former rudeness, and gave him a hearty box on the ear, saying, “there’s a god’s-penny for thee; I think thou’lt ken auld Will Lambton again!”

Rudeness was also thought to be a common trait of doorkeepers. An 1804 satire, designed as a political alphabet, shows a surly doorkeeper, ensconced in his  characteristic seat with its hood protecting him from draughts, and with his dog, expecting his ‘tenths’.  The perception may have been based on the legendarily rude Pearson, ‘a plain, blunt, honest man, … so far a leveller, that, if the proudest Peer in the realm addressed him with the smallest degree of haughtiness, he was certain, in return, to meet with a very sharp and ungracious answer’. He was said to use his powers over the seating in the gallery according to his own whim. He was notorious for outrageously embarrassing reluctant Members to cough up his gratuity, in which he seems to have had the sympathy of plenty of their colleagues.  A story was told of the Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton, routinely referring to him as ‘the most impudent person breathing’; Pearson returned the compliment.

Nevertheless, doorkeepers could make a lot of money. An 1836 committee report itemised the income of the head doorkeeper, Mr Pratt, in 1835 as £1097, made up of a paltry salary of £50, £50 in perks and £85 in emoluments, plus £318 in (official) fees, and a whopping £593 in gratuities. The amount rivalled that of some quite senior government officials. Pratt’s colleague, Francis Williams, the second doorkeeper, received a lower salary, but the same amount in fees and gratuities. The 1836 committee had asked questions about the origins and status of the doorkeepers and found that they had usually been servants, which perhaps made the scale of their income harder to take. When one of their predecessors, a Mr J. Kennedy, died in 1825 at his residence in Marsham Street, he was said to have ‘amassed a considerable fortune, and had large estates in his native country in Wales’; the obituary remarked on his long-term friendship with the lord chief baron of the exchequer, despite the difference in their positions. Kennedy’s office, it noted jealously, was ‘a place of great emolument’. Kennedy had probably purchased his position from its previous incumbent, as certainly was the case with some doorkeepers still in post ten years later.

With the attack on the sinecurist state of the early nineteenth century, such an informal and potentially corrupt means of remunerating the House of Commons’ security service seemed no longer appropriate, and replacing the gratuity system with a better salary was high on the agenda of reformers such as the indefatigable scourge of waste and ‘old corruption’ Joseph Hume. With fees already transferred to a ‘fee fund’ which would support collectively the House of Commons staff, committees in the 1830s examined in some detail the appointment and emoluments of the doorkeepers, discussed the irritation felt by some Members at the request for gratuities, and proposed a new scale of salaries for the door keepers (their proposal, of £300 for the first door keeper, must have represented a considerable reduction in the income from the post.

The replacement of fees and gratuities for a simple salary may have resulted in a better reputation for the doorkeepers, who as a result of long service and the value of their collective memory and knowledge, were often much respected figures. William White (1807-82), who retired in 1875, remarkably from 1859 wrote a regular column for the Illustrated Times, later republished  with an introduction by the Irish Nationalist MP, Justin McCarthy, as The Inner Life of the House of Commons. The success of the column – one of the earliest efforts at regular ‘sketch writing’ – showed White as a generally fond commentator on the ways of the House, though some Members did not escape teasing. The later nineteenth-century doorkeepers indeed retained the ghost of Pearson’s contempt for his masters. On his retirement in 1896 (after a career going back to 1859) Mr Jennings gave an interview to the newspapers whom he told that though Members ‘may be got up more carefully than formerly… there is not that independence of thought and practical knowledge about them’ that there used to be. He ‘makes little attempt to disguise his conviction that the House is almost hopeless as a business body so long as it is run on its present lines’. It was a line that emphasized the role of the doorkeepers not only in providing information on what was going on, but also in acting as part of the collective memory of the House: a memory that often tended to hark back to the greater days, and greater Members, of the past.

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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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