C is for lots of parliamentary things: committees, chairs and conferences, but also for candles, which in Parliament have been the instrument of darkness, as well as a method of illumination, and whose abolition in 1718 was perhaps the first successful attempt at procedural reform….

A Letter from an Ejected Member of the House of Commons, a tremendous polemic against the iniquities of the Long Parliament, addressed to Sir John Evelyn in 1648, vehemently attacked its ‘long debates, which sometimes held from morning till night, and then almost from night till morning agen, [and] looked little better then great brawles: and when the people supposed their Gallant wise Members were very busie, and took great paines, to sit up late anights, making them good Lawes, they were then altogether by the ears perhaps, and drawing Swords, about the Candles’.

The author (probably the Dorset MP Giles Strangwayes) was referring to the motion to bring in candles, which had, over the past seven years (and especially the in the course of the fraught politics of the years 1646, 1647 and 1648) suddenly become an essential component of the procedural armoury, a weapon that could be used to divert or delay debate, or even halt it entirely. It was initiated, it seems, in the course of a bitter debate in the late evening of 8 June 1641, which Strangwayes may well have had in mind. It was almost a month after the execution of the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Wentworth, the earl of Strafford, after a bitter series of debates and mounting popular pressure forced the king’s deeply reluctant acceptance of Strafford’s attainder bill. On 8 June the House were hearing the report of a committee established to investigate what would become known as the army plot, an alleged conspiracy – very close to the king – to use the military to suppress Parliament. There was uproar in the chamber as the House debated whether two of those involved should withdraw from the House: in the end both withdrew, and then, wrote the diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes, ‘a long dispute or debate followed touching their censure which was prosecuted with so much heat and animosity on both sides as the Speaker could scarce direct who should speak, we sitting so long that it began to grow dark, whereupon the House did at last rise in confusion’.  Other sources indicate that the final uproar came around nine o’clock, when the serjeant at arms came in with candles to illuminate a chamber which must have been getting dark.

The following day complaints were made against two members, Herbert Price and Sir William Widdrington, both future royalists. The two had, it was alleged, violently seized the candles from the hands of the serjeant ‘when there was no general command in the House for the bringing of candles in but a great sense of the House went for rising, it being so very late’. Herbert Price claimed that candles had been ‘called for and brought in’, but when he found out that it was likely that they would be taken out again, he ‘stepped out of his place to the Serjeant, and took one of the canles from him, and set it on the House floor that it might have been of use to all’. It was said that others had tried to push the serjeant out of the House when he was bringing in the candles, and Sir John Hotham confessed that he had told him that he ought not to bring in lights without the order of the House. The Speaker remarked that he had not expected to get out of the House alive. It was generally agreed that ‘the serjeant ought not to bring in lights without the consent and order of the House’. Widdrington, when he finally turned up, agreed that he had taken the candle from the Speaker ‘desiring to hold it that himself might be seen because he intended to speak’. The two ended up in the Tower for a week or two before being released.

The incident suggests that previously it was assumed that the House would formally order candles to be brought in when necessary: however, the journal records no such order before June 1641, so it must have been a matter of routine. Thereafter, as tensions rose even higher, the request for candles was treated with much greater formality. On 15 December, when the House was urged to vote to print the great listing of the iniquities of Charles I’s regime, the Remonstrance, ‘it growing so dark as the clerk could not see to write divers moved to have candles brought in’, there was a division over the motion.

Motions for candles became common during 1646-8, following Parliament’s victory in the Civil War, as the House of Commons broke into factions that struggled over the fate of the king. The procedure is noted in the journal once more in 1642, again in 1645. But candles were called for on six occasions in 1646 (four of them in December); nine in 1647; eight in 1648 and six in 1649 – always in the context of bitterly argued, partisan debates. And their use reached their apogee in November-December 1654, during the debates on the Instrument of Government, the constitution for the Cromwellian Protectorate. Between 10 November 1654 and 4 January 1655 candles were moved for 12 times, on 5 occasions provoking a division.

The device of calling for candles was by then regarded as manipulative and underhand, a way of perverting the normal course of debate. With London poorly lit, and in a House which was accustomed to sit early in the morning – seven, eight or nine o’clock were the usual hours for the beginning of business, although a tendency would shortly become visible for the time of beginning to become stretched later and later – sitting late into the night was not only unusual, but, if too often repeated, impractical and unbearable. There was pressure to put off business to another day, if it seemed likely to be extended after the hours of darkness. ‘I never knew good of candles’, said Sir Arthur Haselrig in March 1659. Nevertheless, it rapidly became a normal, if disliked, aspect of Commons procedure. By the 1690s it was seen as a way in which an organised court could divert difficult questions: one pamphleteer complained of ‘the scandalous way of putting the question for candles, and carrying it in the negative’, in order to prevent the Commons from carrying out an attack against a government minister. (Considerations upon the Choice of a Speaker (1698), p. 7).

This suggests that the effect of an unsuccessful motion for candles was that it stopped a debate short and made no provision for it to be taken up again on another day – in effect, the debate was adjourned sine die, a way of killing it off. Journal entries for days on which the motion for candles was negatived do suggest just that: that the House carried out no further business once it decided not to bring in candles (though in a number of cases there was an attempt to set a date for when the business could be resumed). Conversely, if a motion for candles was passed, it could act as a proxy for a vote on the business itself, and lead to a quick abandonment of resistance by the losing side, once they recognised that the supporters of the business concerned had a majority to carry it through the night. At least early on there was plenty of confusion about what was and was not the effect of calling for candles – it was claimed in 1675 that ‘one candle may always be on the table, when it grows dark, without a Question, and at a division, that you may see who goes out, and who in’.

The business of candles ended almost as abruptly as it started. On 6 February 1718 the House declared that ‘when the House, or any Committee of the whole House, shall be sitting, and daylight be shut in, that the Serjeant at Arms attending this House do take care, that Candles be brought in, without any particular Order for that Purpose’. And that was that: the House never again ordered that candles be brought in, for the first time – and the last time for long afterwards – removing a procedural obstacle that obstructed the House in its day to day business. It’s difficult to say why it was stopped: I’ve found no discussion surrounding the change, and the House had been routinely ordering candles to be brought in (two occasions in 1717, three in 1716, and so on). Perhaps one explanation might be the tendency of the House of sit later in the day, a process which may have meant that the need for candles was no longer an exceptional occurrence, though if that was so, one might have expected that over the previous twenty years the number of occasions on which candles were called for would have been steadily growing, whereas they seem to have been stable. Or perhaps it was because a House in a rather less charged period of party competition had come to see that a motion to switch on the light was a patent absurdity.

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I began my A-Z of parliamentary history a couple of weeks ago with ‘Applause’. There were many options for ‘B’. The most obvious – bills – is far too big a subject to deal with in a blog. I thought the ballot would be a much easier proposition: it has turned out (of course) to be far more complicated than I had imagined. And I’ve barely mentioned the Lords…

We often think of elections by secret ballot as a relatively modern practice, one of the key Chartist demands, eventually conceded in 1872, a major element of the system of parliamentary elections we have today. We less commonly think of its use within the House of Commons itself. The word is currently used to describe two different processes in the Commons. The first is the procedure used for the election of senior office holders – the Speaker, deputy speakers and select committee chairs. The second is that for the allocation of time on the floor of the House for the debating of private members’ bills under Standing Order 14 (10) – a system which outside Parliament is more likely to be referred to as a sort of lottery, something like a raffle or the tombola at the village fete (though, of course, Members do not pay to enter). In the Lords the ballot is used for the election of the lord speaker, and for the by-elections of hereditary peers (though the electorate is, of course, external to the House).

We also rarely recognise just how old the ballot is. For the ballot as a means of decision-making, either as a form of election or as a means of allocating benefits, has its origins in antiquity. It’s often a surprise to discover that secret voting, including by ballot, was not unusual in medieval England either. There are many examples of secret voting in municipal elections from the fourteenth century onwards. Here’s an example from Oxford in the sixteenth century and another from Barnstaple in the seventeenth. A 1607 charter required the use of the secret ballot at Pontefract (which, coincidentally, is where the ballot was first used for parliamentary elections under the 1872 act). Some of the trading companies and corporations set up around this period favoured secret voting by ballot, apparently to the disapproval of Charles I, who forbade the practice for any company in the City of London in 1637. No doubt election by ballot was the most convenient way of taking contested decisions (particularly the choice of officers) in such commercial organisations; and presumably the crown disliked it because it meant that they were less easily pressured into compliance with its wishes. The king’s disapproval may suggest some more specifically political undertones to the choice of the ballot. Balloting was famous from its use in Venice, described most fully by Gasparo Contarini in the book published in English translation in 1599 as The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (De Magistratibus). Venice was deeply admired not only for its wealth and strength, but for the remarkable effectiveness of a government in which power was widely distributed and yet corruption allegedly unknown: the orderly silence in which the election of its officials took place was seen as one of the essential ways in which faction was prevented and independence preserved. James Harrington’s essay setting out an imagined republican constitution for England, Oceana, published in 1656, contained an appendix describing ‘the manner of the Venetian ballot (a thing as difficult in discourse or writing, as facile in practice) according to the use of it in Oceana’.

Balloting for jobs

This connection with democracy and republicanism might be part of the reason why balloting was adopted by the House of Commons following the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the republic. There was, it seems, a false start just after Parliament’s victory in the Civil War, on 10 October 1646, when, a motion that a committee charged with considering army commissions should also ‘consider of a balloting-box, and the use of it’ (presumably for making decisions about who would be appointed) was narrowly defeated. But in February 1650, a year after Parliament executed the king, the ballot was adopted by the new republic as the way of constituting its council of state, the executive that operated with delegated power from the House of Commons. The proposal was controversial, for there was a division on it, but the ballot would become an annual ritual during the Commonwealth. The rules were, thankfully, considerably less elaborate than those used in Harrington’s republic of Oceana, though complex enough. Notice was to be given a day before of the hour of the election. When the election took place, the doors were to be shut and no-one allowed to leave or enter. All members would be counted. Then every Member should write his choice of four names on a piece of paper, and the clerk of the House would go round the House collecting the papers in a ‘vessel’. Four of those who were already members of the council would act as tellers and would work out which four had received the greatest number of nominations. The winners would then be put to the House for approval. If there was a tie, the names of those with equal number of votes would be drawn out by lot and then put to the House in turn. An attempt to make each ballot paper identifiable was defeated.

After the Restoration, balloting fell into disuse, probably because the House no longer made appointments to significant offices, other than the speakership itself. Balloting was revived, however, after the Revolution of 1688-9. It’s tempting to attribute this, again, to a Whiggish preference for a system so strongly associated with a republic. It was used specifically for appointments to paid positions, established under statutory authority, that were regarded as particularly sensitive in political terms. On 19 May 1690, the Commons debated the appointment of a slate of commissioners to be named in a bill for taking the public accounts since 1688. The House decided that there should be nine commissioners and that every member of the House should draw up their own list of nine people to be put into a ‘glass at the table tomorrow morning at eleven of the clock’. A motion that each member should put his name on his paper was rejected, as it had been in 1650. From then on, the ballot was generally used when commissioners from the Commons were to be appointed to undertake various functions under statute, often inquiries into the public accounts. They were much fewer after 1715, but commissions were balloted on an annual basis after 1786 to serve as a court of appeal for offences committed in the East Indies.

Balloting for committees

But if statutory commissions became less common after 1715, balloting acquired a new function, as the means of nominating some House of Commons select committees. It was adopted initially for the appointment of committees with a particular requirement of confidentiality, ‘committees of secrecy’. The first was on 9 April 1715, when a committee of secrecy was appointed to examine books and papers about the negotiation of the peace with France and Spain in 1713. It was clearly intended by a new government in power to dig up material designed to compromise, and perhaps impeach, their predecessors and rivals. Similar committees were appointed in the same way to enquire into the conduct of the Earl of Orford – Sir Robert Walpole, the former prime minister – in 1742, shortly after his removal, and to enquire into the state of the East India Company in 1772. Some committees were appointed by ballot which were not described as committees of secrecy, but they were also on highly political business, such as that to inquire into the failure of the South Sea Company in January 1721. At some point (the new system is first referred to in 1742) the procedure was changed, so that instead of the clerks going round the House collecting the lists, members would come up to the table and place them into ‘Glasses’.

Why was balloting used for such bodies? The ostensible reason must have been to deter faction: this was seen as its great virtue in Venice, where it was supposed to result in matters likely to split the political world deeply being handled discreetly, and with little apparent factional bitterness. The real reason was probably precisely the opposite. It can be glimpsed in the incident in February 1786 before the ballot for members of the committee of appeals for offences committed in India, when notice was taken of a list of members being delivered in at the door of the House, presumably designed to influence members in preparing their own lists. It is even more apparent in the debate which led to the appointment of the last balloted select committee of major significance. In 1805 the tenth report of the commission of naval enquiry, a body set up by William Pitt years before as a clean government measure, produced evidence of either corruption or extreme carelessness against his key ally Henry Dundas, Lord Melville. After the Whig MP Samuel Whitbread had secured the passage of a series of resolutions critical of the administration and censuring Melville on 8 April, he demanded that a select committee to look further into the findings of the committee. When he proposed a list of members for the committee, Pitt objected, and proposed that the committee be named by ballot instead. Charles James Fox immediately

expressed his astonishment, that on a subject of such moment the right hon. gent. should resort to this mode. Nothing but the most perfect publicity could satisfy the ends of justice, or convince the public that they were in earnest. He said, that it was perfectly understood that a select committee of 21, if chosen by ballot, was a committee of persons who, somehow or another, spoke the sentiments of the minister, and if this were chosen in that way, jealousy and distrust would be the consequence; that this was a committee to try the ministers themselves, and that it was a monstrous thing that it should be nominated in a way that would countenance the supposition of influence.

Pitt, however, prevailed, and a committee was appointed in the traditional way on the following day, despite Whitbread’s report of a ‘very confident rumour’ that

notwithstanding all the apparent fairness and impartiality of a ballot, … the names to be returned upon the committee were pre-determined by the minister; by which the business of the ballot was converted into a solemn mockery, and rendered wholly nugatory as to the obvious intentions of the house. A list of those names had been this day put into his hand, which he would now read in his place.

They were all ministerial nominees. After further dispute, Whitbread proposed a motion ‘That it is a high breach of the privileges of this house, to circulate lists nominating persons to be chosen on any committee by ballot’. It was voted down by a solid ministerial majority.

So curiously, balloting, far from being a way of overcoming influence, turned out to be a way of disguising it: governments had found ways of discreetly ensuring that their nominees were appointed by circulating among their supporters a list of their preferred members. Its opponents were presumably, at this stage, incapable of the organisational effort required to do the same. The Melville affair wasn’t the end of the balloting system, as several further select committees were appointed in 1805. But the only ordinary select committees that were appointed by ballot after 1805 seem to have been a couple to do with election abuses, and only a handful of committees of secrecy were subsequently appointed by ballot, in 1817-19.

The Ballot and Elections

It might have declined for these sort of committees, but the ballot was by then entrenched in the procedures for the determining of election petitions. Initially the ballot was proposed as a way of introducing secret voting on propositions put to the House. These were complaints challenging the outcome and conduct of individual elections, on which the House of Commons itself was accustomed to adjudicate. They were the subject of bitterly fought partisan battles, particularly in the earliest years of the eighteenth century when the struggle between Whigs and Tories was at its most virulent. In January 1708 the Commons made an attempt at reform, setting up a committee to ‘consider of methods for the more speedy and easy trying and determining of controverted elections’. Among its conclusions was that ‘all questions at the trial of elections shall, if any member insist upon it, be determined by ballot’. When the committee was asked to consider how this would work, intriguingly, Robert Molesworth was added to the committee. Molesworth’s uncompromising advocacy of the virtues of old republican government was well known from his attacks of corruption in contemporary Scandinavia, An Account of Denmark, though his denunciation of political party and faction did not prevent him from becoming one of its principal agents. It’s not known, however, whether Molesworth was in any way responsible for the system that the committee recommended. This involved a balloting box and balls. One clerk would carry the box around the House while the other handed the balls to the members; two members of the House, appointed by the Speaker, would go around with them, and every Member present would be offered the balls. Each of them would ‘present his Hand bare and open, to receive the Ball, and … hold it up between his Finger and Thumb, before he put his Hand into the Box’. Then the votes would be counted and the result declared. The procedure was agreed to, though only on a narrow vote. It was tried for the first time only a few days later, on 26 February 1708, in proceedings on the election for Ashburton in Devon. It did not, however, last. I can’t find another instance of it being used, and at the beginning of the next session, on 22 November 1708, a motion that any motions on election petitions should be determined by Ballot ‘if any Member insists upon it’ was proposed and narrowly rejected. When the same motion was proposed again in the new Parliament of 1710, it was thrown out by an enormous majority. Perhaps this highly Tory Parliament sensed its Whiggish and republican associations.

Balloting though did come back, as part of an elaborate system created in statute for dealing with election petitions under what was known as ‘Grenville’s Act’ of 1770, and its successor of 1771. This time the ballot was used not to take decisions on the floor of the House, but in order to select the members of the committee that would hear each case. This system was first used on 11 December 1770, to appoint a select committee on the recent by-election at New Shoreham, Sussex. Unlike the ballots for the appointment of commissioners or select committees, however, this was not an election, but essentially a lot. The procedure was set out in extraordinarily specific detail in the original Act. All members in the vicinity were summoned to return to the House; the Speaker then counted the number of members in the House to ensure that the required quorum was present. With the petitioner, his counsel and agents attending at the bar, a box containing slips of paper on which were written the names of each Member of the House was placed on the table, with elaborate precautions designed to ensure that it had not been tampered with. The pieces of paper were removed and placed in equal numbers into six glasses, which were then shaken up. The clerk then ‘publicly drew out of the said six glasses, alternately, the said pieces of paper’, and gave them to the speaker, who read them out. Forty-nine names were drawn out. Then the counsel and petitioner were called upon to nominate one from among the members whose names had not been drawn, to be added to those chosen by lot. After this the counsel for both sides would then go out of the House and alternately strike off names, until the list was whittled down to a total of 15.

This system was in operation for nearly 60 years (although in 1829 the number of names to be drawn from the ballot was reduced to 33), but by the early nineteenth century it was seen as just as bad as its predecessors. The balloting element was not the only problem, but it was certainly one of them. The process by which names were struck out of the lists was particularly open to abuse, as each side would remove those they reckoned most likely to challenge their case. The result was commonly referred to as ‘knocking out the brains of a committee’. In a way that is difficult to piece together, this seems to have become a process in which the parties were intimately involved; party whips would customarily pressure the members on their side to attend in order to weight the odds on their side. It was widely acknowledged to be an appalling display, with the election committees as collections of men ‘of men whom neither honour, virtue, nor their oaths could bind when their political bias was engaged’. As with its use for the appointment of committees, the ballot, so generally seen as a means of protecting decision-making from illicit influence, had instead become associated with the operation of party, with abuse and corruption.

New legislation for determining election appeals was passed in 1839, which got rid of the balloting system – ironically, just at about the same time as the House of Commons was at the receiving end of a torrent of petitions demanding the use of the ballot in parliamentary elections. It wasn’t the end of balloting in the Commons either, for despite the poor reputation of the system for establishing election committees, around the same time it began to be used in procedures for dealing with private bills and for allocating the increasingly limited amount of time available to private members. By the twentieth century the ballot for private members’ bills was a major event in the annual parliamentary calendar. But this blog is already far too long, and that will have to wait for another day…

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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