Gallery

G is for gallery, where since at least the seventeenth century the presence of members of the public, looking on to the Houses’ debates has been connived at by Members, officially forbidden and in practice tolerated, before, much more recently, it has been actively encouraged. The history of the galleries is closely bound up with the history of the reporting, and the reporters, of parliamentary proceedings.

The House of Commons

Andrew Thrush has described the construction of the first permanent gallery in the House of Commons in 1621.  An earlier gallery had been built in the 1560s, it was said to accommodate members who would insist on wearing the latest fashion of stuffed breeches which took up an inordinate amount of room. It was taken down by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I. The gallery built in 1621, at the western end of the chamber, facing the Speaker’s chair, and reached by a set of stairs referred to as a ‘ladder’ in the 1640s, was intended for the use of Members. It became the favoured outpost of an unruly element in the House. In 1670 the stairs were rebuilt. In the extensive remodelling of the building overseen by Christopher Wren in 1692, new galleries were built along the side walls of the chamber as well as the western end. The side galleries were widened and supported with iron columns topped with Corinthian capitols.

It is probable that even though they were not meant to, ‘strangers’, or members of the public, found it quite easy to get into the galleries (as they did, from time to time, into other parts of the House). As David Hayton describes, although the House forbade the presence of strangers and frequently passed orders concerning their removal, their presence most of the time was tolerated. The gallery was cleared during divisions, or when the speaker’s attention was occasionally drawn to their presence. A more restrictive approach to the admission of strangers to the galleries resulted from the battle with newspapers over reporting the House’s proceedings. Once the House had lost its battle to forbid it, a number of members did their best to prevent it during the 1770s by removing reporters’ access to the gallery. But their views were far from universally held, and some members argued that there were plenty of benefits from public access to the debates: one member commented in 1777 on how valuable it was to step for a minute into the gallery where they could consult with visitors with expertise on whatever subject was currently under debate.

An American visitor in 1805 (Benjamin Silliman) thought the gallery could hold around 150 or 200. The normal way of getting into the gallery was by producing a note signed by a Member – by 1834 Members were said to be able to admit two members a day. The other means of entry was by providing a bribe to one of the doorkeepers, usually 2 shillings and sixpence (half-a-crown). The late eighteenth century German traveller Philip Moritz, describes how he was initially turned away, disappointed, and did not understand the doorkeeper’s comment about a bottle of wine, which his landlady explained when he got home as a request for the half-a-crown pourboire.  A Frenchman living in New York, Louis Simon, described his visit in 1810:

I had an order of admission from a Member of Parliament, but it was easy to perceive that a bank-token (a silver piece worth 5s 6d.) was more welcome to the door-keeper. This payment is done openly, and you may change a bank-note at the door of the gallery of the House of Commons as you would at the door of the playhouse. There is in this an appearance of indelicacy certainly, but the object is to throw some difficulty in the way of mere idle curiosity, and check the concourse of the lower class. This payment of money answers the purpose nearly as well as the necessity of obtaining an order from a member.

Newspaper reporters were usually given favoured treatment, at least by the doorkeepers, paying a guinea or so to secure their places for the whole session. Being in the gallery was clearly a popular entertainment, and the demand for seats was often very high. Silliman commented that the gallery could sometimes be full by 7am even when the House was not expected to meet till 4pm, and might then be sitting all night. ‘After you have once taken your seat, you must actually occupy it all the time, or you are considered as relinquishing it’, he commented, though he said that it was possible to reserve your place by placing a hat on it.

The obligation to keep your seat for so long, or lose it, was no doubt the explanation for the incident in 1743 reported by one member: ‘On Monday, some gentlewomen in our gallery not being able to hold their water, let it run on Mr Dodington, and a Scots member who sat under. The first had a white duffel frock spoiled, the latter almost blinded’ (Thomas, House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century, 148-9). Women were certainly among the people routinely admitted to the gallery in the eighteenth century. It is possible their presence was at least initially regarded as surprising, if not improper, judging from the Speaker’s reaction in 1675: some women being seen in the gallery, ‘peeping over the gentlemen’s shoulders’, he remarked, ‘What Borough do those ladies serve for?’, inviting the response that ‘they serve for the Speaker’s Chamber’, and presumably a jocular suggestion that he had mistaken them for gentlemen with fine sleeves.  The ‘banning’ of women from the chamber in 1778 was a complicated affair, explored by Elaine Chalus in Elite Women in English Political Life c.1754-1790. It came in the context of the battle against publication of parliament’s proceedings by the newspapers and the efforts of several members to exclude the public in order to exclude the reporters. On 2 February a crowd, frustrated by their removal, virtually forced their entry to the gallery; the Speaker ordered them to be cleared, though the women (apparently about 60 of them, including the duchess of Devonshire and the Speaker’s wife, Lady Norton) were initially allowed to stay. But the member who initiated the clearance insisted on their removal as well, and it seems to have been the reaction of the women in the gallery at the time to their eviction, leading to two hours’ uproar and interruption of business, that prevented their readmission, along with the men, afterwards. Though there was no formal order for their exclusion, the clerk of the House John Hatsell wrote in his procedural manual, probably in the 1790s, that subsequent speakers Charles Cornwall and Henry Addington had ensured that they were not admitted. This was not quite true: a handful of elite women did, from time to time, secure entry to the gallery without being ejected, but it seems to have been shortly after the incident in 1778 that the space above the chamber, looking down through the ventilator, was made available for women to use, as described in Amy Galvin-Elliot’s blog for the Vote 100 project.

There are a number of accounts of eighteenth century visits to the gallery of the Commons, including the well-known one of Moritz. The earliest I’ve found is in Eliza Haywood’s satirical political novel, The Invisible Spy of 1754, in which one cynical character, Careless, describes how he had ‘an hour or two upon my hands, and went thither merely to kill time: — but was never more diverted in my whole life, than to see how some young members, who had got their heads together, and were giggling over a copy of verses inscribed to Fanny Murray [the notorious London courtesan], were put to silence in an instant, and look’d as silly as a school-boy under the lash of correction, on the speaker’s crying out with an audible and austere voice, — “To order, gentlemen, — for shame, — to order.” ‘ Careless may have found it amusing, but other visitors were distinctly unimpressed by their view from the gallery. The radical agitator Samuel Bamford described a visit one evening in 1816:

After a tough struggle at elbowing and pushing along a passage, up a narrow staircase, and across a room, I found myself in a small gallery, from whence I looked on a dimly lighted place below.  At the head of the room, or rather den, for such it appeared to me, sat a person in a full loose robe of, I think, scarlet and white.  Above his head were the royal arms, richly gilded; at his feet several men in robes and wigs were writing at a large table, on which lamps were burning, which cast a softened light on a rich ornament like a ponderous sceptre of silver and gold, or what appeared to be so.  …  On each side of this pit-looking place, leaving an open space in the centre of the floor, were some three or four hundreds of the most ordinary-looking men I had ever beheld at one view.

The Scottish army officer, writer and traveller Pryse Lockhart Gordon, recorded frequent visits to the House of Commons around the time of Pitt’s ‘coming into office’ (actually, probably after 1789, as he refers to Addington as Speaker). Having bribed the doorkeeper with a guinea and ‘now and then a bottle of wine’ he found it easy to gain access, and struck up a friendship with the other regular gallery attendees – the journalists, especially the Scotsman James Gray and James Perry, joint owners of the Morning Chronicle. He told a story of one of their reporters, which indicates not just that heavy drinking was a reporters’ stock-in-trade as early as the late eighteenth century. The reporter concerned was Mark Supple, an Irishman who ‘generally drank his wine at Bellamy’s’, and was known for gingering up members’ speeches into flowery prose.

One evening, as Mark sat at his post, during a long conversation on some trifling business not worthy of his notice, there was a long pause in the House. Mr Addington was Speaker; and Supple, who had taken an extra dose of Bellamy’s bee’s wing port, thinking that business ought to be going on, hollowed out lustily—‘Mr Speaker, give us a song.’ Conceive such a man as Addington, whose long, grave, perpendicular countenance was never seen to alter a muscle! Imagine his astonishment and indignation at such an indignity offered to the orders of Parliament, and from the gallery! The House was in a roar, and it was said that both Pitt and Dundas joined in the laugh. When the consternation had a little subsided, the Speaker ordered the mace-bearer to take the audacious culprit into custody, and he came into the gallery for this purpose. Supple sat coolly on the hindmost bench, confident that no one would betray him. The enquiries were fruitless, till the offender pointed with his finger to a fat fellow… sitting on the lower benches. The hint was sufficient; the innocent man, to his great surprise, was taken into custody forthwith; but he vehemently pleaded “not guilty,” and upon the testimony of those who sat near him, was released.

The House of Lords

The gallery in the Lords is another story, though very much a parallel one. The peers were clearly deeply divided about whether to welcome non-members,  though as in the Commons they were much in evidence in and around the chamber – welcome or not – just as commonly as they were in the lower House. The House first erected a gallery in 1704 at the north end of the chamber, opposite the throne, to accommodate people on occasions when the monarch attended. They found it inconvenient, encumbering the entrance to the chamber, and had it removed in 1711. After a number of debates, they eventually agreed in 1737 to reinstate it. Notoriously, the gallery was invaded by a group of very highly-placed women in May 1738, famous from the story in the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The Lords set up a committee in March 1739 to consider the ‘manner in which persons are admitted into the gallery’, and although this does not seem to have reported, in January 1741 it ordered that the gallery be locked up and taken down after the end of the session.

The gallery was indeed removed, but there were plenty of members who wanted it reinstated. On 7 June 1778 the House ordered a new gallery to be erected. In a confused debate on 7 December 1778 it decided not to do so after all. In 1782 a Committee was set up to consider building one. It which recommended a gallery for members of the public, including ladies who applied to the lord great chamberlain, people who had an interest in hearings on private business, MPs and Irish peers . But when the report was debated by the House itself all of its recommendations are rejected. It seems to have taken nearly forty years, a move to another chamber, and a royal divorce before a gallery was established. In 1820 the House agreed to address the king to build galleries for the ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline within the larger chamber to which the House had moved after the Act of Union. Temporary galleries were certainly built (visible in the famous painting by Sir Charles Hayter) . In 1831 the House agreed to replace it with something more permanent. It was probably at this date that special provision was made for women. The journalist Archibald Grant wrote about the arrangement – and the rather more refined atmosphere than in the Commons gallery – in his Random Recollections of the House of Lords: from the Year 1830 to 1836, though by then the chamber had been destroyed by the fire of 1834:

Immediately above the bar was a gallery for the public and the press. It consisted of four seats (i.e., benches) and was capable of accommodating about one hundred persons. The front seat was appropriated exclusively to the reporters. The others were for the public indiscriminately, who had procured Peers’ orders—the only means of admission. Half a crown will procure any one admittance to the gallery of the House of Commons. Fifty pounds will not effect the same object in the gallery of the House of Lords. Gentlemen and others, not knowing the existence of the rule—or not aware of its strict enforcement—have, on various occasions, offered considerable sums for permission to enter; but the decided manner in which the first offer has been refused, has always prevented a second. It was only on the occasions of the trial of Queen Caroline, in 1820, that the gallery of the House of Lords was erected. Previous to that time, strangers stood below the bar; and there the reporters, at great inconvenience, took their notes of the speeches of the members of the House. Some four or five years ago, a small part of the gallery was, by means of a division, allotted exclusively to the ladies. It was only capable of accommodating about twenty with any degree of comfort. On all important occasions it was well filled, chiefly by the immediate relations of Peers…

In speaking of the gallery of the House of Lords, it would be unpardonable to omit the mention f the remarkably obliging disposition, and urbanity of manner, invariably shown towards all who have occasion to be in it, by Mr Maggs, who is entrusted now, as he was in the old edifice with the care of that part of the House. Strangers, when visiting other places sometimes experience uncivil treatment from the officers; but anyone who has been in the gallery of the House of Lords must have quitted it with a grateful sense of the kind and polite deportment of Mr Maggs.

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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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