Qualifications for the Speakership

Left: Sir Arthur Onslow, by George Townshend, 4th Viscount and 1st Marquess Townshend
ink drawing, 1751-1758; Right: Arthur Wellesley Peel, Viscount Peel, photogravure after Sir William Quiller Orchardson, 1898, both NPG:
CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Often, in descriptions of the office of Speaker, Christopher Yelverton’s speech of 24 October 1597, on being elected Speaker, is quoted. Yelverton was reported to have said:

Whence your unexpected choice of me to be your mouth or Speaker should proceed, I am utterly ignorant. If from my merits, strange it were that so few deserts should purchase suddenly so great an honour. Not from mine ability doth this your choice proceed, for well known it is to a great number of you in this place now assembled that my estate is nothing correspondent for the maintenance of this dignity… Neither from my person or nature doth this choice arise, for he that supplieth this place ought to be a man big and comely, stately and well-spoken, his voice great, his carriage magistical, his nature haughty and his purse plentiful and heavy. But contrarily the state of my body is small, my self not so well spoken, my voice low, my carriage lawyerlike and of the common fashion, my nature soft and bashful, my purse thin, light and never yet plentiful. (Hartley, III, 227-8)

Most accounts of the Speakership have gone on at some length about the ideal or non-ideal personality and qualifications for the speakership – perhaps most notably in Philip Laundy’s still unavoidable, but relentlessly respectful work on The Office of Speaker, published in 1964. It’s a long tradition, for the custom for those nominating a Speaker to enumerate a stereotypical list of attributes that qualified him (or, once, her) for office goes back a long way. Not to be outdone, therefore, and with an eye to Yelverton’s speech, this blog has a go at sketching some of the qualities which have from time to time been thought necessary to fill the office of Speaker – although the list below isn’t necessarily the one usually trotted out.

 

Courage

Courage isn’t often mentioned, though articles like this one routinely refer to the fact that 7 Speakers have been executed, and one murdered. Sir John Bussy, Speaker in 1394, probably 1395 and 1397 (twice), and supporter of Richard II, was beheaded in 1399 on the orders of Henry Bolingbroke, who shortly afterwards supplanted Richard as Henry IV. William Tresham (1439, 1442, 1447, 1449), was murdered in a local dispute in Northamptonshire in 1450. Sir Thomas Thorpe (1453) was murdered by a London mob in 1461, having escaped from imprisonment by the Duke of York. John Wenlock (1455-6) was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. Sir ThomasTresham (1459) was executed the same year after the battle of Barnet. William Catesby (1484), supporter of Richard III, was executed by Henry VII after capture at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. Edmund Dudley (1504) and Sir Richard Empson (1491-2), ministers of Henry VII, were attainted and executed in 1510 under his son Henry VIII. And then there’s Sir Thomas More.

With the possible exception of Bussy, none of these were killed in connection with anything they had done specifically as Speaker: their deaths are symptoms of the risks of taking part in politics at a high level in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, rather than anything to do with the role of the Speaker as such. But the threat of physical intimidation and actual violence did exist: John Finch was famously physically restrained from leaving the chair in 1629; William Lenthall said that during one confrontation in 1641 he had not expected to get out alive.   And even if physical violence was unlikely, there were plenty of other risks, to health or reputation, from taking on a role in which it was all too easy to upset either the monarch or the Commons, and sometimes both.

 

Status

In Yelverton’s speech he claimed to be unsuited for the role because of his lack of status and wealth. This should, of course, be taken as partly rhetorical: Yelverton was clearly an enormously successful lawyer, and was said to be very wealthy. He might, though, have had some anxiety over his status. There was still some expectation that a Speaker should be a knight, and a knight of the shire (elected for a county constituency, rather than by a borough): Yelverton sat for the borough of Northampton, and was not knighted until 1603. But both these expectations were a bit old-fashioned by the late sixteenth century, and had never held very strongly. Early Speakers were men with considerable military experience, generally closely associated with powerful magnates. That changed around the middle of the reign of Henry V, from which time it becomes more common for the House to choose men with legal and administrative, rather than military, experience. The most successful Speaker of the fifteenth century (at least in terms of the number of times he took the office, was Thomas Chaucer, the son of the poet, who had little military experience and was not a knight, though he did sit for a county constituency.

The convention about a county constituency was more tenacious: Sir Humphrey Wingfield (1533-1536) was the first to sit for a borough. By by the late sixteenth century it was common for a Speaker to do so, especially as it became increasingly common for Speakers to be lawyers – county seats being normally taken by local landholding gentry. But some practical concerns about the Speaker’s constituency persisted: even in the eighteenth century, there were anxieties about Speakers sitting for small boroughs under the influence of the Crown (as was the case with Speaker Cornwall, who represented the Treasury borough of Rye). And more broadly, status as indicated by the nature of the seat held by the Speaker was a good indication of his attitude to the independence and impartiality of his role.

But status mattered well into the twentieth century, for respect and authority came more easily to those who not only enjoyed it on a hereditary basis, but who also were more attuned to the manners and customs of the country gentlemen or aspiring country gentlemen who formed a majority of other Members. The lawyer and legal scholar Charles Abbot (1802-17), for example, was regarded by Lord Minto as ‘rather pert than dignified, and he has the tournure of a clerk, which he was, rather than of a Speaker’. Members who lacked standing in county and national society would have found it harder to establish themselves as authoritative figures (on which, see below).

 

Wealth

Why was a Speaker expected to be wealthy? The most obvious reason for a lawyer would be the loss of income: since the courts and the House of Commons sat at the same time, a lawyer who was tied to the House was losing his chance to represent clients. John Puckering, Speaker in the 1584 and 1586 Parliaments complained in 1595 that he had forgone £2000-worth of fees (though Sir Edward Phelips (1604-11) apparently did continue to practise during his tenure of the Speakership. William Lenthall (1640-53) complained that he had been earning through his legal practice about £2,500 a year before his elevation to the Chair.

The Speakership did have its financial compensations. The practice of a routine royal payment of £100 per session or Parliament with perhaps a further £100 if things had gone well, or if the Parliament extended into a second session, was established during the late fifteenth century. At some point the fee was changed to £5 per day, which was the amount received by Lenthall in the 1640s and subsequent Speakers until the 1790s, by then regarded as designed to support their obligations of hospitality. There were occasional perks, such as the right to take home the chairs made for the Speaker – several of them, such as this one still exist. But much more significant were fees and gifts: the Speaker was entitled, from at least the sixteenth century, to a fee of £5 from each private bill, as well as other payments for naturalization bills. Sir John Neale calculated that Yelverton might have stood to get £200-£300 in an ordinary session; in 1648 Lenthall was said (by a hostile witness) to be earning £2,000 a year, though Lenthall himself reckoned his income to be no more than £2,200 over the whole of his thirteen-year Speakership.

The fees were perfectly above board; but Speakers also raked in a wide variety of gifts and cash payments from those seeking to promote legislation. The City of London routinely made a payment to the Speaker. Sir Edward Turnor  (1661-73) was in 1666 known to have received a gift from the East India Company of 50 gold pieces; Sir John Trevor’s (1685-7, 1690-95) £1000 from the Common Council of London for assistance in passing the London Orphans’ Bill in 1694 – a payment that resulted in his removal from the Speakership and the House – was vastly in excess of previous payments known to have been received by the Speaker, but in principle, entirely typical.

Trevor’s embarrassment may perhaps have made it rather more difficult for Speakers to receive gifts thereafter, and this might account for the problems with the remuneration of the post in the eighteenth century. By then, in addition to the £5 per day allowance, the Speaker was gaining a share of the income from sales of the printed Votes and proceedings of around £450-500 per session. With fees from private bills added, the total income of the office was estimated over the eighteenth century at about £2,500-£3,000. This was regarded as way too small, given the expenses the office entailed: various expedients were adopted to top up the income, though these were always awkward, since the solution adopted (a Crown office) not only implied an obligation to the ministry – Onslow gave up his (the Treasurership of the Navy) when it was suggested that it might have had something with his failure to vote against the prime minister Sir Robert Walpole – but in theory required the office-holder to seek re-election from his constituency. That problem was overcome by conferring the office during a general election, but the situation was clearly unsatisfactory. The idea of a salary for the post was discussed from time to time over the eighteenth century, and eventually in 1790 provision was made by statute to ensure that a regular income, of £6,000, was paid, with a surplus coming from the consolidated fund if the various fees did not rise to that amount. As a corollary, the Speaker was not to have any office under the Crown (30 George III, c. 10). A subsequent Act of 1832 removed the fee system entirely, making the salary simply payable out of the consolidated fund.

 

Conviviality

The other reason for Speakers to be wealthy was that they were expected to spend lavishly. Arthur Onslow (1728-61) said that ‘he was many thousand pounds the poorer for being Speaker’, and John Mitford (1801-2), told his successor, Charles Abbot (1802-17) that ‘the office of Speaker is an office of expense much beyond its income’. Abbot himself calculated that he had spent nearly £50,000 of his own money on maintaining the dignity of the chair.

The biggest cost was probably on entertainment. From at least the early seventeenth century Speakers were expected to provide hospitality for Members during the session. Sir John Finch, the ill-fated Speaker of the 1628-9 Parliament, was allocated a dining chamber within the palace, perhaps for the purpose. Lenthall recorded that he had been ‘keeping a great retinue and public table for two years, which His Majesty [Charles I] taking notice of, gave me six thousand pound, of which to this day I have not received above the one half’. By the 1770s, Speakers were also holding regular evening levees, or receptions; a contemporary biography of Henry Addington (1789-1801) noted him holding evening levees on Saturdays when the House was sitting, and full dress official dinners on Sundays, separately for the government, the opposition, and for more junior official members. Addington’s successor Charles Abbot noted in his diary the number he had entertained each year: in 1811, for example, he invited 383 to dinner, with 275 actually attending; he had held 7 levees at which 273 commoners and 45 peers attended. He held his first on 26 January that year, for ministers; his second, for the opposition, on 27 January. ‘All the party came full dressed’ he noted of one such occasion (26 Jan. 1806) ‘as is usual to these dinners’, except for three defaulters.

These functions were held before about 1794 in the Speaker’s own London house: Charles Cornwall was holding them in the Privy Gardens in Whitehall in the 1780s. In 1794, Addington became the first to enjoy the use of a Speaker’s House within the Palace – a set of rooms previously occupied by the Auditor of the Exchequer and consisting mainly of the old cloisters of St Stephen’s College, though the renovation had been done poorly and Abbot insisted on a reconstruction from 1802 to 1808, which incorporated ‘three levee rooms’, and a state dining room in the undercroft (now the chapel) under the House of Commons itself. After the fire of 1834, although the Speaker’s residence was relatively unscathed, it seems not to have been used by the Speakers. The newspapers noted receptions being held elsewhere, including Shaw-Lefevre’s House in Eaton Place. The Illustrated London News published a picture of an exceptionally stiff and formal occasion on 23 April 1859, marking the first time the Levee was held in the Speaker’s rooms in the new Palace.

These occasions were conducted, as Abbot remarked, in full court dress, and presented problems for Members of working class backgrounds who neither possessed dress outfits or uniform or the means easily to come by them. George Lansbury wrote that when he first entered the House James Lowther (1905-21) ‘would not have us at his levees and other functions unless we went in “glad rags”’, but compromised by giving the Labour party ‘a kind of annual lunch, attendance at which did not involve special clothes’. His successor, J.H. Whitley, eventually (in Manny Shinwell’s recollection) accepted that the full outfit was not necessary for formal dinners, though Shinwell recorded how Ramsay Macdonald and some other ministers insisted on dressing up anyway:

To us a formal and pleasurable opportunity to meet colleagues and opponents “off duty” was turned into a hilariously comic occasion by the sight of our fellow ministers. Ramsay MacDonald stood looking very nautical in a blue uniform which I believe had something to do with the cinque ports. He at least was tall enough to wear his shining sword with some semblance of fitness. Unfortunately he was standing next to the small and rotund Stephen Walsh, Minister for War, whose weapon touched the floor and continually got between his legs. Tom Shaw (minister of Labour) was doing his best to look as if the breeches and stockings of court dress were his normal attire, but he was extremely self-conscious. Not so Sidney Webb (Board of Trade) who was entirely oblivious of the ridiculous appearance he presented with spindly legs and a short little body’.

Impartiality

The essential quality of the Speaker is supposed to be impartiality. Given the fact that for much of the history of the role, the Speaker was a nominee of the government, this seems a little odd: but the origins of the speakership lie after all in resisting government demands; and striking the balance between serving the interests of a political patron – the Crown, or, later, a political party – and serving the interests of a body of clients capable of making one’s life unbearable – the House as a whole – was for hundreds of years the basic dilemma of the job. Early Speakers were very clearly agents either of the monarch or of one or other powerful faction. In the late middle ages, it was normal to appoint a member of the King’s council. A fascinating document of around 1572 offering advice to a councillor suggests that it was a bad idea for the government to try to make a councillor the Speaker, partly because it would raise anxiety about the liberties of the House being respected. It was in the government’s interests to foster the House’s trust in the Speaker: if members suspected that the Speaker was trying to explicitly favour the government it would only cause trouble and waste time. It did, in fact, become unusual for a time for the Speaker to be a councillor, at least until the appointment of Sir Edward Seymour to the council shortly after his election in 1673. The history of the Speakership up to the late seventeenth century provides many examples of how Speakers had to tread a fine line between upsetting the Crown and infuriating the House, and how many, even most, failed.

It was already evident before the Revolution of 1689 that under extreme pressure, some Speakers could detach themselves from royal influence and become agents of the government’s opponents. In the turbulent and highly partisan politics following it, some Speakers started either to make an explicit appeal to anti-court opinion, or else to become effective leaders and representatives of the majority opinion in the House. Paul Foley, for example, elected in 1695 after the disgrace of Sir John Trevor, made a pitch to his colleagues that used his service on the commission of public accounts in the early 1690s to emphasise his highly independent credentials. After his election, he turned down membership of the Privy Council and offers of court employment, although in practice, he would come to work closely with the government, and acted as leader of a ‘Country’ party which was becoming closely aligned with the Tories. His associate Robert Harley (1701-5) would also use the position of Speaker to act effectively as party leader; and most of the Speakers from Foley to Spencer Compton (1715-27) were in one way or another prominent political figures, closely concerned in the management of their side in the House of Commons.

The Speakership of Sir Arthur Onslow (1728-61) stands out by contrast with this period: Onslow neither became, nor aspired to become, a major political figure, but seemed to want the Speakership in and for itself. This removal of the Speakership from the political front rank is probably a better reason for seeing Onslow’s time in office as significant, rather than his famous stance of ‘impartiality’. The latter was seen by the waspish Horace Walpole (son of the prime minister) as a pose: ‘to conciliate popular favour he affected an impartiality that by turns led him to the borders of insincerity and contradiction’; moreover Onslow was personally and politically very close to, and supportive of, Sir Robert Walpole, a relationship conveyed in the famous painting of Walpole having a word in the Speaker’s chair, painted for Onslow. Onslow’s attitude to the Chair was closely linked to his identity as an independent country gentleman, and part of a long line of parliamentarians (his uncle and a sixteenth century forbear had been Speakers too); and strongly mixed up in it are ideas of status and masculinity as well as pure constitutionality.

What an English gentleman should pride himself in and have ever before his eyes and deem the most valuable property he has, that by a seat in Parliament he has an opportunity to raise himself by his abilities and disinterested character there… to any height of true power and name with satisfaction to his own free heart… and without going through that horrible course of servile dependence upon and yet more servile flattery to the will, caprice, insolence, and often the vices of a Prince or his ministers, and which is the general foundation of all eminence in arbitrary governments.

At the most practical, his idea of impartiality is described in his statement to the Commons, indicating the precedents on a point concerning a bill in January 1733:

As to the Affair in Hand, or any Affair that comes before this House, I am not to appear of one Side of the Question nor of the other. It is my Business to take Care that the Orders and Methods of Proceeding shall be regularly observed. In all Questions about Order I am to inform you, so far as consists with my Knowledge, of what has been formerly done in the like Cases; and I am to take Care that all Decency and Order shall be observed, both in our Debates and Proceedings: This is my Duty, and this I shall always endeavour to perform as far as lies in my Power.

Onslow’s period in office certainly helped to embed the idea of impartiality as essential in a Speaker, though it did not change the fact that Speakers were usually chosen from among the close political associates of the government of the time. Not that it was necessarily helpful to the government, since, provided with an acute sense of their own importance and being practically impossible to get rid of, Speakers could quickly go beyond their control. The most notorious case was Sir Fletcher Norton (1770-80), whose relationship with the prime minister, Lord North, soured over what Norton regarded as North’s broken promise that he should be appointed to the chief justiceship of the court of common pleas. Speaker and Prime Minister had a stand-up row in the chamber in 1780, and the Government took the opportunity after the election of 1780 to propose someone else instead, upon which the opposition tried to renominate North, and the election descended into a party row. (Peter Thomas has argued that Norton’s behaviour had as much effect as Onslow’s practice of impartiality in discouraging his successors in the chair from taking political stances and intervening in debate.)

 

Authority

Yelverton’s assumption that a Speaker should be physically impressive stands in for the complicated question of character, or personality. George Townshend’s little sketch of Onslow, done in the Chamber (see above), provides a striking idea of the importance, for a Speaker, of a commanding presence. Speakers have been judged, more than anything else, on their ability to impose themselves on an assembly of between 300 and 700 people, whose collective capacity for disruptive and childish behaviour has been, perhaps, the most consistent feature of its history. Essential to the job is not only a sense of one’s own dignity, but also the ability to impress it on everyone else – what Lord Althorp called the ‘necessary humbug’ of the Speakership (he told Thomas Spring Rice that he had ‘too much sense to carry on the humbug of the Chair without occasionally laughing’ (Laundy, p. 298)). The question of whether the Speaker should adopt a generally forbidding and disciplinary attitude or a generally friendly and helpful one preoccupies much of the discussion around the Speakership: the contrast between the nice, but ineffective, Sir John Cust (1761-70) and his successor, the unpleasant and dominating Sir Fletcher Norton (1770-80) is one example of how judgements on Speakers have often played out.

Undoubtedly, in a male-dominated House, it has been easier for those who strongly share prevailing norms of (generally polite) masculinity to perform the role acceptably. Some of the most successful Speakers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were those who took their sport very seriously – men like Charles Shaw-Lefrevre (1839-57), who, though trained as a lawyer, did not practise, and was an excellent shot (‘only fit to be a gamekeeper’, according to his mother); James Lowther (1905-21), whose memoirs are full of reminiscences of country pursuits — a ‘capital day’s shooting’ in Oxfordshire with the Prince of Wales and others, collecting relics of the famous huntsman John Peel (presumably with some family connection), and presiding over the House of Commons steeplechase in 1910 which resulted in the death of Mr Tompkinson.

Naturally, what some Members find sympathetic will not work for others, and as the membership of the House became more diverse both socially and in terms of gender in the twentieth century, it was bound to be more difficult to please everyone. Women, for example, might have a rather different perspective to men: the Conservative MP Thelma Cazalet Keir found Captain Edward Fitzroy (1928-43) ‘immensely tall, immensely gaunt, a walking Frigidaire towards any idea coming from a woman M.P.’, and regarded his successor, Douglas Clifton-Brown (1943-51), as infinitely preferable: ‘One felt that Captain Fitzroy resented women in the House as deeply as Colonel Clifton Brown welcomed them.’ A more traditional Conservative, Earl Winterton, had the opposite impression: FitzRoy, ‘tall, commanding, beautifully proportioned in face and figure’, was ‘one of the most handsome men who has ever held the office of Speaker’. Clifton-Brown was ‘a small man’, who lacked the commanding presence required.

There is much that is theatrical about the Speakership: the holder needs an ability to command attention. Some Speakers felt that props were helpful. In a seminar on the role of the Speakership, conducted in 2001, shortly after the controversial election of Michael Martin, Bernard Weatherill insisted that ‘uniforms are very important’:

George Thomas – I was George’s deputy – regularly would say in my day, ‘There is going to be a very difficult debate: the old wig will protect me’. And there is no doubt, and I found this myself, that the ‘old wig’ of the Speaker in the Chair has an authority which the Deputies who don’t wear wigs don’t have.

Though Betty Boothroyd (one of the most theatrical of Speakers herself, and the one who abandoned the wig) naturally disagreed.

Stage management can be as important as props. In 1675 Edward Seymour prevented imminent violence in the chamber during a committee of the whole House: ‘very opportunely and prudently, rising from his seat near the Bar, in a resolute and slow pace, [he] made his three respects through the crowd, making his way back to the chair’, and forced every Member to make a solemn engagement ‘standing up in his place, to proceed no farther in anything that had happened in the unfortunate disorder at the Grand Committee’ Much of the theatricality of Seymour’s action finds an echo in the 1893 intervention of the great Victorian Speaker, Arthur Wellesley Peel (1884-95), when proceedings in committee on the Home Rule bill lapsed into disorder as a result of T.P. O’Connor’s shout of ‘Judas!’ directed at Joseph Chamberlain. Peel’s dramatic gifts were enhanced by the beard of an Old Testament Prophet or an ancient seer from the American Midwest (see picture above). (Henry Labouchere was supposed to have said ‘I never look at the Speaker in the chair without thinking of an image of Pharaoh’ . Contemporary (and later) comment on the matter tends to be overcome with the drama of the occasion: Peel’s successor but one in the Chair, James Lowther, talked about his ‘dignified appearance and commanding tones’; the description by the Irish lobby journalist Michael MacDonagh, in his 1914 book on The Speaker of the House, peculiarly claims that ‘like a parent, wise as well as fond, dealing with a fractious child in a brainstorm, he laid a calming hand on the troubled brow of the House and gently soothed it. And the House responded to the caress… Truly a striking manifestation of the force of personality and tact’. (MacDonagh wrote for the Freeman’s Journal, closely linked to the Irish parliamentary party: indeed, he apparently succeeded O’Connor as sketchwriter for it.) The notorious decision by William Court Gully (1895-1905), to summon police to assist the doorkeepers in the removal from the chamber of twelve Irishmen who were refusing to leave following their suspension, was evidently seen as a failure to wield the same sort of masculine authority as Peel exuded.

 

Procedural expertise

These days, it’s assumed that the expertise required by the Chair is available from the clerks who sit in front of him (although it is not easy to consult the clerks at the Table while in the Chair, and to be seen to be doing so has been taken as weakness: Jack Weatherill told a story of Horace King, the first Labour speaker, pausing to do so and being mocked thereafter). Before perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century Speakers were expected to be competent themselves to help the House over procedural difficulties, and the post usually went to someone who was either a reasonably distinguished lawyer, or thought to be an experienced parliamentarian, or sometimes both.

Whoever it was, there were still plenty of others in the House who regarded themselves as far better qualified to pronounce on procedure, who could make it risky for a man unsure of his own expertise to take on the job without exposing himself to ridicule. William Gregory’s (1679) acknowledgement of his inadequacy by virtue of only being in the House for a year: suggests a recognition of the fact. Charles Manners-Sutton (1817-34) was not regarded, certainly on his election in 1817, as procedurally adequate, despite some experience and expertise in private bill procedure.  Self-appointed century procedural experts were not shy of pointing out to the Speaker that he was wrong – men such as Sir George More or Sir Simonds D’Ewes, whose intense study of parliamentary history before his arrival in the House in 1640 illustrates the close relationship between an interest in parliamentary procedure and an interest in parliamentary history.

Several eighteenth-century Speakers were systematic students of parliamentary precedents: often they were historians too. Both William Bromley (1710-13), and Arthur Onslow maintained their own books of House of Commons precedents and pursued scholarly interests, particularly historical ones. John Mitford, Lord Redesdale, in retirement happily occupied himself in research on the origins of Parliament, corresponding with Abbot, whose interests in history made him into an effective advocate for the reorganization and preservation of the national records. Abbot’s reforming energy did not find favour with King George III, who remarked on the ‘inclination of Mr Abbot to innovation in the mode of conducting business in this country’, and hoped he would ‘not attempt novelties, which seldom succeed in the transaction of public business’. Speakers and men who went on to be Speakers played a significant part in the history of the national archives and libraries: Onslow was one of the principal driving forces behind the efforts to establish a national library out of the Cotton collection in 1731, and he was one of the ex officio Trustees of the British Museum when it was eventually created under statute in 1753.

 

Endurance

Speaker Bercow’s capacity to remain in the Chair for hours without a break has been the source of much comment ; but his feats of endurance must have been routinely matched by those of his eighteenth and early nineteenth century predecessors. The burden of long sittings were acutely felt by Speakers. Abbot would routinely keep a record of his time in the chair: in 1808 an average of 7½ hours a day over 111 days; in 1810 an average of 8 hours and 17 minutes a day over 97 days. In 1809, he wrote, in one week of 5 days he was in the chair for 59¾ hours; on one day, the day of the Walcheren debate, he was in the chair for 16 hours (well beyond the 11 hours which elicited the admiration for Mr Bercow). The 1853 report of a select committee on the duties of the Speaker pointed out that the average daily sitting in the 1840s and early 1850s amounted to between 7 and 9 hours: the Speaker was not required for all of this time (when the House was in committee, the chair was occupied by the Chairman of Ways and Means), but he had to be close by, in case the House came out of committee; and he was also accustomed to work on the business of the House from noon to 1.30pm, and from 3pm until the House met. It may not have been quite true that the Speaker was expected to be in the chair continuously: the House was said in the newspapers to have come to a ‘very prudent and humane regulation’ in 1770 that the Speaker might leave the House ‘whenever the usual calls of nature should require his absence, and that the House should still continue sitting’; but since this was not entered in the Journal of the House, perhaps out of delicacy, it is unclear whether it was ever actually implemented.

In several cases a Speaker’s health was thought to have been severely affected by long periods in the Chair: Cust died only days after relinquishing office in 1770, having had recurrent illnesses during the 1760s; his successor-but-one, Cornwall, died in office in 1789. (Though it should also be said that many believed that the atmosphere of the pre-fire House of Commons was deeply injurious to the health of all of its Members, not just the Speaker.)

The House’s failure to make arrangements for replacing the Speaker in case of illness was a longstanding problem (the House of Lords sorted out the issue in the seventeenth century). Sir George More suggested in 1607 that the House set up a committee to come up with a solution, and the clerk, John Hatsell, expected in the late eighteenth century that something would imminently be done about it, but nothing was done until the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853 the House passed a new standing order, and eventually legislation, in order to enable the Chairman of Ways and Means could take the Chair when the Speaker was unable to do so, normally by reason of illness. But it was not until thirty-five years later that the House agreed that the Chairman could take the Chair whenever requested to do so by the Speaker, to enable the Speaker to take regular breaks (Standing Order of 24 Feb. 1888).

 

Saintliness

Only one speaker, Sir Thomas More, has achieved sainthood (beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI). It seems unlikely that there will be any others.

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