Relaunches are risky affairs, as recent events have illustrated; but since nothing has been posted on this site for rather a long time (most of our blogging having migrated to the History of Parliament blog), a relaunch seems in order. A new year’s resolution was to create an A-Z of parliamentary history through its practices, customs and institutions. The idea is to reflect on institutional life: to show how institutions develop new practices, or adapt old ones, how they learn, how an institution keeps in step, or gets out of step, with, society at large. It’s intended to begin a dialogue, as there is much that is still obscure (to me, at any rate) about many of these. This is the first result. More to follow, hopefully so I get roughly to the end of the alphabet in the course of a year, but no doubt that ambition will break down at some point, like most resolutions. The first is on Applause:

A short article on the BBC website, written after SNP members burst into applause when their leader in the Commons, Angus Robertson, spoke on 27 May 2015, pointed out that while clapping is not regarded as proper in the House of Commons, there have been a number of occasions on which it has happened.  It cited Tony Blair’s last speech in the House of Commons on 27 June 2007, and the speech by Charles Walker on the debate on the conduct of the Speaker on 26 March 2015 . Since then, there have been more: a tribute to Jo Cox on 20 June 2016; and David Cameron’s last Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday 13 July 2016. There have been other, earlier, incidents: Robin Cook’s resignation statement on 18 March 2003 was strongly applauded in some quarters of the House, with some Members trying to convert it into a standing ovation. It’s tempting to argue that this tendency to ignore old conventions, and burst into applause, is new – the product perhaps of a society more apt to wear its emotions on its sleeve. It’s notable that the Modernisation Committee of the Commons considered the question of applause in 1998 in response, as it said, to some new Members, who, they said, found it ‘incomprehensible’ that applause was not allowed

No doubt there is something to be said for the view that customs have changed. But there is also a long, and very interesting, history of clapping in the House of Commons, which says much about changes in the culture both of the House, and, more generally, of British society. Before one starts on this, it’s important to make some distinctions. A first is to establish what, exactly, people mean when they use words other than ‘clapping’. Applause and clapping are often assumed to be synonyms, as indeed, in many contexts, they are: but applause often has a metaphorical use, and one can’t assume that the statement ‘the prime minister sat down, to much applause’, necessarily means that people clapped. Something similar may be said about the phrase ‘standing ovation’. The second is the distinction between clapping and other enthusiastic signs of approbation, such as shouting, cheering, waving order papers and so on (the latter being generally regarded as acceptable in the Westminster context). A third is a distinction between the chamber of the House and other sites in the Palace. It has been said, for example, that Harold Nicolson records a standing ovation given to Churchill on 8 May 1945, following Germany’s unconditional surrender. What actually happened in the House was that, when Churchill came in ‘The House rose as a man, and yelled and yelled and waved their Order Papers’. It was afterwards, when Churchill went through Central Lobby, that the crowd broke into ‘loud clapping’. (The occasion echoes another, on 14 December  1797, when Charles James Fox made a rare appearance in the Commons following his decision to secede from Parliament because of its enthusiasm for the war against France: as he ‘passed through the lobby of the House, which was full of strangers, there was a great burst of applause and clapping of hands’).

It is true both that the taboo on clapping in the chambers of both Houses is quite an ancient one; and that the practice is pretty much as ancient as the disapproval of it. The earliest reference I’ve found to clapping comes in the published version of a speech made (or said to be made) in the House of Commons in 1645 by Serjeant Wilde, in a speech defending the journalist Marchamont Nedham. At the end of his speech, after a silence, his audience ‘all were pleas’d (after some particular favourable coughs and hums) to applaud him with a respective venerable general Hum, (in token of approbation) and withal clapping their hands (with an unanimous acclamation) they gave such a shout that the noyse was heard, from Westminster to Wapping, and Saint Thomas Waterings’.

There are few references to clapping in either the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. But since it was said in March 1777 that ‘several of the members, in a transport of approbation, forgot themselves so far, as to testify it in accents of bravo! Hear him! Which they accompanied with a clapping of hands’, it was clearly disapproved of by then. Sheridan’s speech on Warren Hastings on 7 February 1787 is reported as having been received ‘with the most animating and even tumultuous enthusiasm’, which another source, Willam Townsend’s 1843 History of the House of Commons (p.  451), glosses as being expressed ‘by a new and wholly irregular method—by loudly and repeatedly clapping their hands’. Sir Gilbert Elliot referred to ‘a universal shout, nay even clapping for half-a-second’  . It was again Sheridan whose speech on 21 April 1798 was reported to have been greeted with ‘Loud and universal cries of hear! Hear! accompanied with clapping of hands’ (Speech of Mr Sheridan, in the House of Commons, on Friday the 21st of April 1798, On the Motion to Address His Majesty on the present alarming State of Affairs, p. 6). One commentator, deeply opposed to the motion of censure passed by the House of Commons on 8 April 1805 on Henry Dundas, Lord Melville, was outraged by the reaction the passage of the vote received:

it might … be proper for some of those who can speak with authority upon what passes in the House, to contradict a rumour which has been in circulation, but which cannot be true, (being probably nothing more than an anecdote of the National Assembly of France, transferred to a British House of Parliament,) that after the Speaker had announced the vote from the Chair, on the 8th of April, some persons ratified the judgement upon Lord Melville by a clamour of applause, accompanied by an expression of approbation unprecedented in Parliament; viz. a clapping of hands. (Brief Remarks on the Proceedings of the House of Commons, concerning Lord Melville, on the 8th of April, 1805 (1805))

There are many other instances when Members are recorded as having received ‘applause’ or ‘ovations’, among them those accorded to William Wilberforce on the passage of the slave trade bill on 23 February 1807, Viscount Castlereagh on 6 June 1814, and the earl of Derby in the House of Lords on 24 February 1857, though the nature of these demonstrations aren’t clear.

So it’s evident from these examples not only that clapping was disapproved of in the House, at least from late eighteenth century, but that it did, from time to time, happen. But there is plenty that isn’t clear: first, when, exactly, it came to be regarded as improper (if this had not always been the case), and, second, why. On the first point, it is possible that attitudes to clapping may have changed over time, though as Ephraim Chambers wrote in his 1741 Cyclopedia, that ‘The ancient way or applauding by clapping the hands, is scarce retained anywhere but in colleges and theatres’ it was presumably regarded as not the done thing in Parliament before then.

On the question why, perhaps some clues may be found in the history of the theatre. No-one, so far as I have discovered, has written a history of audience reaction in the British theatre. But histories of plays and playgoing do offer some helpful perspectives. Here, for example, is the comment of a dramatist writing in 1616 upset by the boorish behaviour of the audience when his play was originally put on the London commercial stage:

Clapping, or hissing, is the only meane

That tries and searches out a well writ Sceane,

So it is thought by Ignoramus crew,

But that good wits acknowledge’s untrue;

The stinkards oft will hisse without a cause,

And for a baudy jeast will give applause.

(quoted in Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (2004), 53 and 54). The impression is not that clapping is regarded as improper, exactly, but at least a bit vulgar: appropriate at the end of a performance, perhaps, but not during it. Other references in the eighteenth century reinforce the impression that though clapping was normal, there was something enthusiastic about it which may have been seen as not quite genteel.

It is also interesting that the 1805 complaint cited above linked clapping to turbulent behaviour in the proceedings of the French National Assembly. The French revolutionary legislatures and their unruly behaviour had long been the subject of highly censorious comment among British parliamentarians and others. Clapping may have seemed associated with practices creeping into British politics from the other side of the channel. The appalled reaction in Britain at behaviour in the French National Assembly attached even more to the unruly activities of the public admitted to their galleries. It’s noticeable that even before the French Revolution outbreaks of clapping in the gallery seem to have been singled out as particularly annoying. An incident of enthusiastic clapping on 24 November 1783 in the Irish House of Commons was referred to as ‘a gross and indecent outrage’ and the House made a point of inserting a reference to clapping in their motion disapproving of it. This case suggests a link with Ireland, and it’s noticeable that references to clapping crop up rather more frequently where Ireland is being discussed. One case which makes a link both to Ireland and to the French Revolution is the discussion in the House of Lords on 22 June 1869 of a disturbance that had taken place the previous week. Lord Romilly, then master of the rolls, introduced the subject, by complaining of the outburst of stamping of the feet at ‘the touching peroration’ of the Earl of Derby, and of clapping ‘at the somewhat more elaborate and laboured peroration of Lord Cairns’ [of Garmoyle]. ‘Your Lordships will remember’, he went on,

that the persons present in the Galleries during the sittings of the National Assembly took a great interest in the discussions, and there gradually grew up a sympathy between the occupants of the Galleries and some of the orators, which eventually came to overawe the Assembly. Sometimes the sentiments and sympathies of the Assembly were not in accordance with those of the Gallery — on one occasion indeed, a speaker remarked that though the Assembly did not sympathize with him, the public did — and the Gallery, in point of fact, was used for the purpose of overawing the Assembly. HL Deb 22 June 1869 vol 197 cc400-10

Romilly’s respondent, Earl Granville, mentioned that during the debate he had in fact been asked to move that the Gallery be cleared: ‘I hesitated, however, to take that course, for I felt that probably the great majority of the persons in the Gallery on that particular occasion were from a part of the United Kingdom where the people are supposed to be peculiarly impulsive’. He meant, of course, the Irish: debates on the Irish Church bill had been proceeding all of the previous week.

None of this completely explains the taboo against clapping in the chambers of the two Houses. One might say that a perfectly adequate practical explanation is given by the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons in its 1998 report: the danger that there might be ‘orchestration of what would amount to standing ovations with the success or failure of a speech being judged not by its content but by the relative length of the ovation at the end’. But even admitting that might be so, why should clapping have been singled out as unacceptable, but cheers, shouts, loud murmurs of ‘hear, hear’ never have been banned in the same way (the Modernisation committee itself pointed out the ‘growing misuse of the traditional cry of “hear, hear”’)? My guess is that the answer lies in eighteenth century notions of what was or was not genteel; and any thoughts from historians of gesture, the theatre or masculinity (or, for that matter, anyone else) would be very welcome.

Posted in A to Z | 1 Comment

In search of the perfect (parliamentary) picture

ipswich photo2

In Ipswich the other day I went into the Church of St Mary Tower, and came across this wonderful and very unusual memorial to William Smart or Smarte, who died in 1599. Smart was MP for Ipswich in 1589, and was a member of the corporation for almost 40 years. He was a great benefactor to the town, with his book collection the basis of the second oldest municipal library in the country, now held at Ipswich School.
He also funded Almshouses – Smart’s Almshouses – in the town, on which his gift is commemorated with the inscription ‘Let gentle Smart sleep on in pious trust / Behold his charity, respect his dust’ . The memorial in St Mary Tower has two acrostic verses mourning and praising Smart (‘Schooles, Churches, Orphanage rooms shal keepe ye stil in sight / Men women children ould and young shal wear thee day and night / Alas then not for ye we cry but for our selves alas’), together with an image of Ipswich itself at the bottom, and a picture of Smart, praying.

I took some very poor pictures of the memorial and of Smart himself: the lights in the church and the glass on the memorial made it difficult to do a better job. But this is only one of the many wonderful treasures in local churches and elsewhere which make visible the careers of the politicians who are covered in the History of Parliament. As you can see, we’ve been trying to find images of our MPs to illustrate our website pages, with some brilliant help from individual photographers, as well as from the National Portrait Gallery, the Parliamentary Art Collection and others. But there are very many more out there.

So here’s a challenge – can you provide pictures of any of our MPs? Browse the gallery section of the site for examples of the sort of thing we’re after – tombs, monuments (preferably ones with a representation of the individual concerned on it). We’re also very happy to receive images which in some way illustrate elections in the past, which we could use on our constituency pages – perhaps showing benefactions by individual MPs to towns, or sites well known to be the site of the election.

If we use the images, we’ll of course credit them properly. If you like, we’ll send you a set of our printed volumes if we use three or more of your pictures – take your pick from any of the periods 1509-58, 1558-1603, 1660-1690, 1754-90, or 1790-1820 (be careful – they are quite large, with 2 or more volumes in each set). We’d need the images to be your own copyright, with no copyright issues about rights to use them. Please contact Emma Peplow ( with your pictures!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Eligibility for Parliament

Mohammad Sarwar’s recent decision to renounce British citizenship in order to take office as Governor of Punjab province in his native Pakistan is another remarkable step in the career of a man who was the first Muslim Member of Parliament, and the first to take the oaths on the Koran. References to Mr Sarwar’s renunciation of his British citizenship suggests that he did not rely on the fact, but it is a little known point of British nationality law that members of Commonwealth countries who have the right of residence in the UK are eligible for election to the Commons – currently under section 18 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006.

That provision ultimately derives from the ancient principle of British citizenship, that those born within the dominions (including colonies) of the monarch have rights of citizenship, including eligibility for parliament. Traditionally, people who were naturalised subjects, however (naturalization was by individual Act of Parliament before the full elaboration of citizenship law), did not acquire full rights – although people born abroad to English parents, under a statute of 1351 (De Natis Ultra Mare, or the Status of Children Born Abroad Act) did. The famous 1608 case of the Post-nati (also known as Calvin’s case), considered this principle in respect of a person born to Scottish parents in Scotland: did he become an English subject after the king of Scotland became the king of England in 1603? The answer was yes – any Scottish person born after 1603 was a subject of the king, and therefore entitled to the rights and privileges of English-born subjects of the king, though this did not apply to people born before 1603.

This would have made them eligible for election to the House of Commons.  And as Andrew Thrush reveals in his Introductory Survey to the 1604-29 section of the History of Parliament, MPs in the Jacobean Parliaments were very worried by the idea of an influx of Scots MPs into the Westminster Parliament. Oddly, however, as it seems contrary to the legal principle stated in the case of the post-nati, it was naturalised Scots, born before 1603, who were the first to take seats at Westminster: see ‘Membership‘.  The first to sit was John Murray. Were there are any MPs elected before the 1603 union who were only naturalised English subjects? I can only say that we haven’t come across any at the moment.

Perhaps the decision of the Commons not to object to the credentials of pre-nati Scots is just another instance of the point made by Andrew Thrush in his Introductory Survey – the tendency of the Commons to ignore their own rules when it suited them in individual cases. After the Act of Settlement of 1700, however, there could be no ambiguity. The Act was the result of debates in the Commons in March 1700, connected to the need to make provision for the preservation of a Protestant succession in the event of the death of the childless William III and to protect further the rights and liberties of the people – its provisions on qualification for civil and military office clearly imply some criticism of the king’s reliance on his Dutch associates and advisers. The Act’s statement of the law in respect of eligibility for parliament seems, though, to be in line with the 1608 judgement:

no person born out of the kingdoms of England Scotland or Ireland or the dominions thereunto belonging (although he be … made a denizen (except such as are born of English parents) shall be capable to be of the privy councill or a member of either House of Parliament or to enjoy any office or place of trust either civill or military or to have any grant of lands tenements or hereditaments from the Crown to himself or to any other or others in trust for him.

With birth within the dominions of the King the principle governing citizenship, there were plenty of people born in pre-independence America, Canada, Australia and other colonies, and children of people born elsewhere who would become members of the UK Parliament throughout its subsequent history. They include the descendants of French Huguenots, and there are many many examples of people born in the colonies being MPs: see for example the 1754-90 survey sections on  West Indians and North Americans.

Posted in History of Parliament Online, Parliamentary History | 5 Comments

Karl Anton Hickel and Parliament

Pictures of parliaments at work can all too easily look like an end-of-term school photograph, in which getting everyone in is more important than any interest in the whole. I can think of very few pictures of the House of Commons which are much more than a valuable topographical record of the Chamber. The most impressive exception is Karl-Anton Hickel’s The House of Commons 1793-4, well-known from countless reproductions in books about Britain in the eighteenth century, or books about Parliament (and indeed on blogs!), showing William Pitt as prime minister in full flow, with the House in rapt attention. In many ways it’s a surprising picture. For one thing, it’s very unusual at that date. Before about 1780, only two images of the House as a whole had been created in the eighteenth century. For a second, it’s painted, not by a British artist, but by an Austrian court painter temporarily resident in London, Karl Anton Hickel. Why was it painted?

Pitt addressing the commons, by Karl Anton Hickel, © The National Portrait Gallery

Pitt addressing the commons, by Karl Anton Hickel, © The National Portrait Gallery

The short answer is that we don’t know: but there is a longer, and more speculative response. The few facts known about Hickel could easily be fitted onto the back of one of the heads in his famous collective portrait. Born in Bohemia in 1745, he was the son of a painter and younger brother of Joseph, who established himself as painter to the imperial court and one of the most successful portrait painters in Vienna. Evidently there was not enough room in Vienna for two Hickels; Anton, or Karl-Anton, left Austria in the late 1770s, spending time in Munich and southern Germany and Switzerland. He obtained an appointment as a court painter to Joseph II in 1785, though he was in Paris in 1786, working for the Queen and her closest friend, the doomed Princesse de Lamballe. Lamballe was to be killed in particularly grisly fashion in the massacres of September 1792 which marked the beginning of a new and very dangerous phase of the French revolution.

If Hickel was still in France in 1791, he might have seen one of the first, and greatest, artistic representations of the early and most hopeful signs of that revolution – Jacques Louis David’s Serment du Jeu de Paume. David’s famous picture – never completed, but exhibited as a worked-up sketch in Paris in 1791 – shows the moment when the Estates General, summoned in 1789 by king Louis XVI and under the impulse of an apparent threat to dissolve it by force, took a collective oath not to break up until a new constitution had been secured (you can view the picture here).

Is Hickel’s picture a response to David’s? It would be nice to be able to prove a direct connection: that Hickel saw David’s great drawing in Paris in 1791, or at least heard about it through reading the French newspapers, and – the portraitist of two French royalist icons, Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe – was inspired to paint an anti-revolutionary rejoinder with his picture of the House of Commons. I think that there’s a hint of this in the stormy skies in Hickel’s painting, but this is the only thing that might be borrowed from David’s drawing: most other aspects of its design appear to be dictated by following the shape of the chamber itself. I can’t prove it, then, but I’m still searching for more evidence to explain why an Austrian court painter might have been interested in painting the British Parliament in 1793-4.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Hats, a postscript

I can’t resist a short postscript to the two previous posts on the subject: Hats and Mrs Thatcher, and Hats and procedure, posted about a year ago. Outside Parliament, William Brock was fined, presumably in the 1580s, for keeping his hat on;  in his old age Sidney Wortley Montagu was described as ‘a large, rough-looking man, with a huge, flapped hat, seated majestically in his elbow chair, talking very loud and swearing boisterously at his servants’.   Sir Francis Seymour in 1735 was alleged to have refused to take off his hat in front of the king. Thomas William (‘Billy’) Coke, MP for Derby 1818-26, was  (wrongly) credited with the invention of the ‘billycock’ hat.  Hylton Joliffe, MP for Petersfield for much of the period 1802-34, was famous as a sportsman and for the size and shape of his hat. Shortly after becoming Lord Cobham in 1749, Richard Grenville, at a reception given by his wife, spat for a bet into the hat of one of the guests, who made Lord Gob’em, as he was now called, write him a formal apology.

Posted in Hats | Tagged | Leave a comment

MPs following fashion… or not

As the previous post about stuffed breeches in the Elizabethan House of Commons suggests, Parliament could be a place to show off, sartorially, as in many other ways. As described in the 1604-29 section of the History of Parliament (which will be released on History of Parliament Online at the end of the year) a little later, in 1626, Basil Dixwell, a bachelor with an income reportedly of £2,500 a year was noted to ‘be the bravest man in the House of Commons’ on account of his ‘quotidian new suits of apparel’; and at the investiture of Prince Henry as Prince of Wales in June 1610, John Noyes, MP for Calne, observed that some of his fellow Members ‘did wear apparel worth an hundred pounds a man’, making him ‘feel like a crow in the midst of a great many golden feathered doves’. There are a number of other examples: Sir Edmund Isham, MP for Northamptonshire from 1737 to 1772, was particularly careful about his dress; Robert Sawyer, MP for Wilton for over forty years in the eighteenth century, was nicknamed ‘amoretto’, fancied himself as a man of fashion, and  was satirized by Lord Chesterfield for his attempts at gallantry and wit during visits to Bath. Henry de Ros, an MP in 1816-18 was  ‘for several years the glass of fashion in the circles of ton’ (i.e., among the most fashionable), though he was proved to be a bit of a cad after he was caught in flagrante delicto with Harriet, daughter of William Spencer and disowned the child she was expecting, claiming that the lady was ‘as common as the street’ and had invited him to her father’s house on the strength of a casual encounter. George Campbell, Marquis of Lorne, who sat in the Commons in 1790-96, declined an invitation to court celebrations for the Prince of Wales’s birthday in July 1791 because he was one of the ‘cropped fashionables’ who had cropped their hair short and wore no powder, which was ‘not the etiquette yet’.

But counter-examples are a bit more common: Alexander Pendarves, MP from the 1690s to 1720s, was ‘excessively fat, of a brown complexion, negligent in his dress, and took a vast quantity of snuff, which gave him a dirty look; his eyes were black, small, lively and sensible; he had an honest countenance, but altogether a person rather disgusting than engaging. He was good-natured and friendly, but so strong a party man that he made himself many enemies’; Sir John Hoskyns, MP for Herefordshire in 1685, and president and secretary of the Royal Society, was described as ‘One of the most hard-favoured men of his time … his visage was not more awkward than his dress, so that, going, as his use was, on foot with his staff and an old hat over his eyes, he might be taken rather for a sorry quack than, as he was, a bright virtuoso’; and Matthew Robinson Morris, MP for Canterbury in 1747-61 was evidently equally eccentric in his dress, as in much else.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Elizabethan costume in the House of Commons

Expanding on the hat theme, coming across a reference from the parliamentary journal of Hayward Townshend at the beginning of the sixteenth century provoked a search through the History of Parliament Online for accounts of how people dressed in Parliament. The reference is from the end of his Journal of the 1601 Parliament, when he noted down

“Memorandum: that over the seats in the Parliament House are certain holes, some two inches square, in the walls, in which were placed posts to uphold a scaffold round about the House for them to sit on which used the wearing of great breeches stuffed with hair, like greate woolsacks; which fashion beinge left, in the parliament holden VIII Elizabeth the scaffolds were thus pulled down, and never since set up, neither was the fashion ever since used. Thus all the old Parliament men affirmed, talking one day together in the House before the Speaker came.” (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, ed. T. E. Hartley, III (1593-1601), 493).

The Parliament of 8 Elizabeth presumably means the second session of the second Parliament of Elizabeth I, i.e, 1567. There are several interesting things about this passage. The first is the creation of the first (if temporary) gallery in the House of Commons chamber in St Stephen’s Chapel: the building had only been occupied by the Commons for around twenty years by 1567. The second is the way in which Townshend describes an institutional memory of Parliament being passed down from older members to newer ones while the House was otherwise unoccupied – a fascinating glimpse of the less formal ways in which an institution is being built. And the third is the extraordinary impact of a fleeting fashion on the provision of seating in the House. What does Townshend mean by stuffed breeches, exactly? Perhaps the hose seen in this portrait of  Sir Richard Grenville/Greville (MP for Cornwall in 1571) or this one, of Sir Philip Sidney; but these images come from the 1570s, after the time at which Townshend suggests the fashion had died out. Any suggestions welcomed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment