Daisy Cooper, the new Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans, wrote yesterday in incredulous tones of her discovery in the cloakroom of the House of Commons:
On my second day as a new MP, during my induction tour of parliament, I was shown the members’ cloakroom, but it wasn’t until last week that I had reason to go there. In the cloakroom, every constituency has its own coat hanger, adorned with a loop of pink ribbon. The purpose of this ribbon is so that one can hang up one’s sword. Yes, you heard me correctly. Each MP has a well-maintained, traditional sword loop, and yet no MP has carried a sword for generations.
It’s a much-repeated story, sold to generations of new Members by generations of doorkeepers. The incredulity, though, is deserved, because it hardly stands up to much scrutiny. For one thing, the flimsy pieces of pink (or red) ribbon (or tape) would scarcely bear the weight of a sword. For another, there doesn’t seem to have been such a thing as a cloakroom for depositing swords in the old Palace of Westminster before it was destroyed by fire in 1834; and there was certainly no reason when constructing its replacement to provide for swords when people had stopped wearing as a matter of routine around fifty years previously.
It’s not that the practice of providing Members with a little loop of tape is new. Pictures of the cloisters – one of the surviving medieval parts of the Chapel of St Stephen’s, which between the post-fire and the post-war reconstructions of the building served as (among other things) a cloakroom for Members – show tape hanging from Members’ coat pegs: one taken by Benjamin Stone in 1897, for example; and another from around 1920; and there are others included on the History of Parliament’s blog from the seminar on the cloisters given by Elizabeth Hallam-Smith.
But the many colourful accounts of parliamentary quirks and traditions that flourish from the 1880s onwards make no reference to swords in connection with the cloakroom (though they do often refer to the claim that the front benches in the chamber being two swords’ lengths apart in order to prevent fighting, but that’s another story). There is nothing (so far as I can see) in the several books by the lobby journalist Michael MacDonagh (author of, among other things, Parliament: Its Romance, Its Comedy, Its Pathos of 1902); nothing in the voluminous journalism of Sir Henry Lucy, whose parliamentary sketches for Punch brought him national fame in the 1880s and 1890s; nothing in the lengthy and heavily illustrated anecdotal history, Parliament, Past and Present written in 1902 by Arnold Wright and Philip Smith, a journalist and a parliamentary official. And so on.
I have found just two references in the press to the tapes before the late 1920s. The first is a report of the Irish MP (Irish, though he sat for one of the Liverpool seats from 1885 to 1929) and journalist Thomas Power (‘T.P.’) O’Connor, giving a talk in 1904 at Eastbourne, illustrated by some of the caricatures of Frank Carruthers. O’Connor, in pursuit of a cheap laugh, said that ‘The cloisters which once echoed to the monks were now used as a cloak-room, members hung their umbrellas on a piece of tape, thus making acquaintance with an important piece of the machinery of government’ (Eastbourne Gazette, 13 Jan. 1904). The other is a long sketch for Cornhill Magazine in 1907 by the Liberal MP James Yoxall, MP for Nottingham West from 1895 to 1918 and General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Yoxall imagines a new MP, ‘Mr Titmouse of Yatton’, turning up at the Palace of Westminster on the first sitting day, and entering through ‘what is certainly the most stately and beautiful cloakroom in the world’. Covering his embarrassment at encountering the sartorial solecisms of a ‘Socialistic Labour Member’ (‘below a Norfolk jacket of treacle-coloured homespun appeared black trousers topping tan boots; above the Norfolk jacket a flamingo necktie and a flat cloth cap ringed a shaggy head of power’), Titmouse turns to the attendant, and tries to strike up a conversation:
“Hat-rack, eh? Very handy. What’s this for?” Again Mr Titmouse stared. Were these the vermilion neckties of a hundred Socialistic Members depending from the walls, sanguine traces of suicide caused by English refractoriness to economic theory and any critique of pure reason? No—they were only loops of red tape. From the very beginning one of the great and permanent Governmental institutions of this country had met the Titmouse eye; dependent from each of the brass pegs was a slip-knot of red tape. “To hang your umbrella in, sir,” the attendant explained; and, hanging his umbrella in this particular slip-knot incontinently, Mr Titmouse could observe that one of the properties of red tape is to yield, but to clip and strangle whatever depends on it; as much in reality as in symbol, indeed.
So: umbrellas, not swords. But where does the sword myth come from? The first mention of it I have found is in 1928, in the report of a talk given by Fred Martin, while prospective Liberal candidate in the Aberdeen seat he had previously represented between 1922 and 1924. Martin (who had lost his sight during the First World War) told the Aberdeen YMCA that ‘each Member’s peg in the cloakrooms of the House was what Mr Martin described a ‘hank’ of red tape. It was, he said, a survival of the days when gentlemen were gentlemen, and carried swords to the House of Commons. They now put their umbrellas in it, a terrible degradation of an ancient symbol.’ The second is in a similar address by Vice-Admiral Gordon Campbell in 1933, telling his constituents at Burnley about his first experiences in the House:
In the cloakroom on each Member’s peg there was a piece of red tape. When he saw it he felt quite at home, for he had become fairly well used to it after his experiences with the Admiralty. (Laughter.) But those pieces of red tape belonged really to the past when Members had to sling their swords up in the cloakroom before entering the House. The red tape was still retained, and he believed that it was renewed every session. (Burnley Express, 25 January 1933)
Campbell’s explanation mixes the old joke about red tape with the new one about the swords; in subsequent tellings of the story the red tape idea is usually forgotten. Hanging umbrellas by red tape is perhaps not much more modern than hanging swords, so the moral of the story is perhaps unaffected. But the most obvious moral is the power of a convenient and colourful myth.