Welcome to the Victorian Commons

The Victorian Commons blog provides news and highlights from the History of Parliament’s research project on the House of Commons, 1832-68. For details about the project and how to access our work see our About page. The main History of Parliament website can be accessed here with regular blogs here. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheVictCommons and our colleagues @HistParl & @GeorgianLords

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Artist in the Attic: Women and the House of Commons in the Early-Nineteenth Century

In this guest post, Amy Galvin-Elliott from the University of Warwick looks at how women were able to witness debates in the House of Commons from the ‘ventilator’, a space used until the fire of October 1834 destroyed the old Palace of Westminster. Amy is undertaking a PhD as part of an ESRC funded project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. She is supervised by Dr Sarah Richardson, Dr Laura Schwartz and Dr Mari Takayanagi. Her thesis is titled ‘From Suffragette to Citizen: female experience of parliamentary spaces in long nineteenth century Britain’. She recently presented her research at the Century of Women MPs conference organised by the Vote 100 project, the History of Parliament Trust and the University of Westminster.

In February 1778 a fateful incident saw women banned from the public galleries of the House of Commons. Prior to this, in spite of their lack of an official or legal role in political life, women could and did engage with the Commons and its political happenings through familial ties. However, on the day in question, the Speaker called for the public galleries to be cleared but a group of female spectators refused, initiating what The Times described as ‘a state of most extraordinary ferment and commotion’ as ‘officers found their duty of turning out the fair intruders no easy work; a violent and determined resistance was offered to them’. The consequence of this was that when the public galleries were reopened, women were no longer admitted.

Undeterred, some women continued to visit the Commons in the disguise of male clothing. However, there was no official space in which women could gather to watch political debates as they had been previously able to do. Indeed the nineteenth century dawned with a renewed focus on the ideology of separate spheres that confined women to the home and reserved the public arena for men. This included excluding women from Parliament as – in the words of The Times – ‘the good sense of the country was opposed to making the ladies of England into political partisans; much better to let them acquire political intelligence through ordinary channels than to bring them to keep bad hours and to witness proceedings that would not always be agreeable to their feelings’.

Nevertheless, women were still intent upon watching political debates, and as a result found the space of the ventilator. In the middle of the medieval House of Commons hung a chandelier, and above this a ventilation shaft ascended into an attic space to carry away the heat, smoke and fetid air of the Chamber. It was around this ventilation shaft that women gathered and peeped through to watch debates; it seemed to physically and ideologically represent their exclusion from public life. The first woman to observe the Commons from the ventilator was Elizabeth Fry; having given evidence on prison reform to a Select Committee in February 1818, she was determined to watch the ensuing debates in the House, and so the Speaker gave permission for her to watch from this attic space. It was hot, uncomfortable, and not at all fit for purpose, but women persisted in their interest in Commons debates and the ventilator was frequently filled with female spectators of the House.

The recent discovery of a watercolour painting found in a family sketch book compiled by Lady Georgiana Chatterton of Baddesley Clinton gives one of only three visual representations of the ventilator that are known. It is believed to have been painted by Georgiana herself. The painting was found alongside a ticket to Westminster Hall dated 11th July 1821; this was the date of the King’s Speech in the House of Lords, and so there would have been a high demand for tickets to Parliament, which had to be obtained through links to MPs. A well connected young girl of fourteen, as Georgiana Chatterton was at the time, would have been very likely to attend with a chaperone. Her painting depicts the women in the ventilator in vivid detail, revealing something of what it was like for women to experience engagement with Parliament through the space of the ventilator.

Chattertonventilator

Sketch of the ventilator by Lady Georgiana Chatterton (c) Shakespeare Birthplace Trust/ Baddesley Clinton NT

Lady Georgiana paints the women in the ventilator with craning necks and focused faces, showing their clear engagement with the debate in the Chamber below them and challenging the idea that women were unable and indeed ought not to be involved in politics. The women take up a large portion of the painting and are depicted in detail as clear individuals. This contrasts with the idea that women couldn’t participate in Parliament, and the male MPs depicted below them are paradoxically indistinct and restricted to the lower third of the image. In this way the men appear ironically contained and subject to the gaze of their female observers. Lady Georgiana’s focus on the ventilator and her representation of women in a position of relative power within Parliament recreates the ventilator as a female space of political education. It provided the opportunity for women to interact with both politics and one another in an all-female space, at a time when they were otherwise excluded from the political sphere. The early-nineteenth century was broadly a period of female oppression that restricted women to home and hearth, but in the very centre of power, some women were contesting the status quo and engaging with political debates from a small, cramped, and uncomfortable attic.

amygeventilatorvv

Amy in the reconstructed ventilator at Voice and Vote

If you would like to know more about the ventilator and the history of women in Parliament, do visit the Voice and Vote exhibition in Westminster Hall. It is open until 6th October 2018 and free tickets can be booked here: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

Amy Galvin-Elliott

Posted in Guest blog, Parliamentary buildings, women | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843)

Our MP of the Month has a special significance for the History of Parliament Trust, being the great-grandfather (and namesake) of our founder, Josiah Wedgwood MP.

Josiah-Clement-Wedgwood-1st-Baron-Wedgwood

Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943) (C) NPG

This year the History of Parliament is marking the 75th anniversary of the death of its founder, Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943), with events including a touring exhibition in Staffordshire. Between 1906 and 1942 Wedgwood was a Liberal and then a Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the exhibition began its tour earlier this week.

He was not, however, the first member of his family to enter the Commons. His great-grandfather and namesake, Josiah Wedgwood, is among the 2,590 MPs we are researching as part of the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Like his great-grandson this MP sat for a Staffordshire constituency, representing Stoke-on-Trent from 1832, after failing to get elected for Newcastle-under-Lyme the previous year. However, his parliamentary career was shorter than his great-grandson’s: he only sat in one Parliament before standing down at the 1835 election.

Owen, William, 1769-1825; Josiah Wedgwood II (1769-1843)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843), by William Owen (Image credit: Wedgwood Museum via artuk.org)

Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843) was the second son and namesake of the famous potter and inventor, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95). He followed his father as head of the family’s pottery manufacturing firm, based at Etruria near Stoke-on-Trent. Although he was the second son and had lived as a country gentleman in Dorset before his father’s death, taking little interest in the business, its management fell to him because of his older brother’s ‘chronic incompetence’ and his younger brother’s death.

Wedgwood has been depicted as a ‘plodding’ and unimaginative man, who lacked his father’s genius, but he proved effective at cutting the company’s costs in the face of foreign competition and the loss of European markets during the wars with France. In 1828 he closed the firm’s famous London showroom and – in the words of his great-grandson, Josiah Clement – ‘committed the unpardonable vandalism of selling off the stock, patterns, and moulds there stored’.

Standing as a Reformer at Stoke-on-Trent in 1832, Wedgwood declared his strong support for the ‘immediate abolition of slavery’. He was keen to remove the monopolies held by the East India Company and the Bank of England, and wanted to alter the corn laws. Although he was an Anglican – not sharing the Unitarian faith of his father – Wedgwood advocated reform of the Church of England. He did not, however, support further electoral reform, voicing his opposition to the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. He topped the poll, almost 200 votes ahead of his fellow potter, John Davenport, also a Reformer, who won the second seat.

Emma_Darwin_-_1840

Emma Darwin (née Wedgwood) in 1840

While Hansard records more than 12,000 contributions in Parliament from Josiah Clement Wedgwood, his great-grandfather was a silent member. He was, however, a regular presence in the division lobbies, where his votes included support for a low fixed duty on corn, the shortening of slave apprenticeships and the replacement of church rates with an alternative source of funding. His youngest daughter Emma was among the women who witnessed debates in the Commons from the ‘ventilator’ – the space in the attic from where women could peer through holes designed for drawing out foul air into the chamber below. In a letter to a friend in August 1833 she recorded a notable incident, when Daniel O’Connell accused the press of not reporting him fairly or accurately.

Harriet [Gifford] and I went to the Ventilator to hear O’Connell’s quarrel with the Reporters, whom he accuses of reporting his speeches falsely, whereupon they say now they will not report a word more of his; so now he declares they shall not report at all, and he had the gallery cleared of all the strangers and the reporters amongst them yesterday.

VentilatorWOA26

Sketch of the ventilator in St Stephens by Frances Rickman (1834) via http://www.parliament.uk (WOA 26)

Despite his success at the poll in 1832, Wedgwood was told that he was unlikely to retain his seat at the 1835 general election, and retired from politics. In his later years he was affected by a form of ‘palsy’ or Parkinson’s disease. He retired from the family business in 1841, two years before his death. Seven of his children survived him, including Emma, who had married her cousin (and Wedgwood’s nephew), the natural scientist Charles Darwin in 1839. Wedgwood’s second son Francis (Frank), the grandfather of Josiah Clement Wedgwood, continued the management of the family’s pottery firm.

The biography on which this blogpost is based was written by Dr. Henry Miller, and is among those available on our preview site.

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen’: views from parliament by a Devonshire Tory

Our Victorian MP of the Month is the Conservative MP for Devonshire South, Montagu Parker. His correspondence with his mother between 1835 and 1841 provides a fascinating perspective on life at Westminster.

The Tory Beggar's Petition

A Whig handbill mocking Parker from the 1835 by-election (BL Add MS 48,258)

Montagu Edmund Newcombe Parker (1807-1858) is best known as a footnote in Britain’s electoral history for his defeat of the Whig Home Secretary, Lord John Russell, at the 1835 Devonshire South ministerial by-election. In one of the electoral shocks of the nineteenth century, the 28 year-old Parker, a country gentleman who had been the ‘butt of the Devonshire boys’ at Eton, summoned the strength of local Conservatives to turf out a Cabinet minister who only three years earlier had been celebrated nationwide for his role in the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 12.25.59

Montagu Parker’s voting record on our prototype division explorer.

Parker continued to represent Devonshire South until 1841, and, truth be told, left very little formal record of his activities in parliament. He made no recorded speeches, attended around 23% of recorded divisions (where he proved a loyal Conservative), and was appointed to three election committees. His only area of real engagement came over private legislation, where he assisted in the passage of 16 local or private acts relating primarily to Devonshire town or road improvement schemes.

letter-22-may-1835.jpg

Parker’s first letter to his mother after entering parliament, 22 May 1835 (BL Add MS 48,258)

Fortunately, Parker left a series of correspondence with his recently widowed mother, Harriet Edmund Parker (1785-1877), who resided at the family’s Whiteway House estate in Devon. The letters, which are held by the British Library (Add. MS. 48,258), provide an intriguing insight into life at Westminster. His mother’s evident interest in Parker’s parliamentary experiences is arguably indicative of one way in which women could engage with politics despite their exclusion from the parliamentary franchise.

Parker found himself a minor celebrity on his arrival in London in May 1835, where he initially remarked that ‘attending to ones duties in the House of Commons and going out to parties … does not give much time for rest out of the 24 hours’. Within days, however, he had caught the ‘House of Commons influenza’, which left him with ‘a most unpleasant sore throat, cold and pain in my joints’.

Parker was almost taunted into breaking his parliamentary silence within days of taking his seat, when reference was made to the Devonshire South by-election during a debate on the ballot. He recorded:

I overheard several persons near me saying “some Devonshire man ought to answer this”, with the view no doubt to get me on my legs, but I was advised, and I think with good judgement not to take any notice of it.

He was instantly suspicious of the loyalties and parliamentary stratagems of the Conservative leader, Robert Peel, expressing bemusement over the latter’s decision to speak against Lord Chandos’ s 1835 motion on agricultural distress and unwillingness to oppose the 1835 municipal corporations bill, remarking that it is ‘evident he [Peel] is playing some game which cannot be devised at present’.

Temporary Commons

The temporary House of Commons in 1835

Parker found the summer heat insufferable throughout London, and was disparaging of the acoustics in the temporary Commons (which opened for the 1835 session), as well as the lack of attentiveness with which MPs listened to debate. Following a debate on the 1835 municipal corporations bill he complained:

I was in the lower part of the House, and the noise and interruption that is always going on prevented him [John Yarde Buller, MP for Devonshire South] being heard … In fact there are barely a dozen speakers in the House that are listened to with attention. So much for the behaviour of the first assemblage of gentlemen.

Untitled-1

‘View of Caxton’s house in the Almonry, Westminster’ © London Metropolitan Archives

In fact, the only time that Parker felt the Commons displayed the gravitas it should was on the day of Queen Victoria’s coronation, when he noted the ‘curious’ effect of a sitting involving ‘500 members in uniforms and court dresses of various kinds, where one had been accustomed to see nothing but plain clothes and some of those never of the cleanest’.

While Parker disliked ‘being made a cats paw of’ by the Conservative whips, he was happy to throw himself into the service of the party at the 1837 Westminster by-election. At 5 a.m. on the day of the poll he was ‘pushed into the service of getting up the slippery voters’, remarking that he was sent ‘into the most disreputable parts of Westminster, and certainly we visited places there for the first and I hope the last time’. His least favourite task in the Commons appears to have been the attendance of week-long afternoon committees on local bills, that were drawn out by the involvement of competing delegations of ‘pompous’ local officials who observed proceedings as ‘if everything depended’ on them.

AN00616325_001_l (1)

Edward Oxford’s attempted assassination of Queen Victoria, June 1840 (© British Museum)

By 1840, Parker had observed a real shift in power towards the Conservatives and a sense of excitement at Westminster, which was accentuated by the June assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. After expressing his delight at the Conservatives mustering 300 votes to defeat the government in a division over the Irish registration bill in May 1840, he observed how Lord John Russell had ‘lost much of his previous reputation’, and stated his belief that a few more by-election successes in ‘boroughs like Ludlow and Cambridge’ would lead to the downfall of the government.

Parker’s instincts were right. Unfortunately he was not provided with an opportunity to record his experiences of the subsequent Peel ministry, as local party machinations forced his retirement ahead of the 1841 election. Parker did not return to parliament, and died in July 1858. His mother, who lived to the age of 91, outlived him by eighteen years.

The full biography of Montagu Parker MP is on our free preview website. For details of how to obtain access to this or any other of our completed articles please click here.

Posted in Biographies, Constituencies, Elections, MP of the Month, Parliamentary life, women | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Imagery and props: Wellington, Disraeli and Gladstone

Our research fellow Dr. Martin Spychal shares some insights from his work on the BBC Radio 4 series, Prime Ministers’ Props…

I’ve recently been working with our former editorial board member, Professor Sir David Cannadine on the second series of his BBC Radio 4 series Prime Ministers’ Props. Each episode examines how a Prime Minister became associated with a certain object or prop in the popular mind, and how that prop came to define the public image of the premier in question. After a twentieth-century focused first series, this time around three of our five episodes focus on nineteenth-century prime ministers: the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone.

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827)

W. Heath, A wellington boot or the head of the army (1827) © British Museum

One of the major means of understanding the public image of these three men is via the satirical cartoons, and early photographs, that accompanied their political careers. Wellington’s political rise and fall at Westminster between 1827 and 1830 was book-ended by two prints that mocked his connection to his famous prop – the Wellington boot.

The Wellington boot had been designed for Wellington and his troops during the Napoleonic Wars, and in post-war Britain became the footwear of choice for the fashionable gentleman. In October 1827 William Heath depicted Wellington, replete with huge cocked hat, appearing out of a Wellington boot. Wellington had recently been re-appointed as commander-in-chief of the British army under Viscount Goderich’s short-lived administration. As well as satirising the fact that Wellington was now at the head and the foot of the army, the smugness of the Duke’s face adverted to the pressing likelihood of his appointment as Prime Minister. Wellington had recently cemented his position as leader of the Protestant right of the Tory party after defeating William Huskisson’s 1827 corn law bill in the Lords, and while Goderich’s political position grew weaker during the autumn of 1827, Wellington embarked on a speaking tour of the north of England where he was feted by his supporters as a leader in waiting.

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830)

W. Heath, This ere pair of left off vellingtons to be sold wery cheap (1830) © British Museum

Sure enough, in January 1828 Wellington was appointed Prime Minister. It was not a happy premiership, however. During his first year in office he lost standing with his supporters on the ultra right over his government’s 1828 corn law, and test and corporation legislation, and several key liberal-Tories resigned from his cabinet over parliamentary reform. Catholic emancipation in 1829 saw him lose even more friends on the right, and by the general election of 1830, many of the Tories who had lauded him in 1827 were, along with the radical press, outwardly accusing him of supporting the recently toppled Bourbon monarchy in France and seeking a military dictatorship via the newly formed Metropolitan Police. The final straw for Wellington came in November 1830 when he controversially declared that Britain’s notorious system of rotten boroughs ‘possessed the full and entire confidence of the country’, which helped spark riots in London. Wellington was forced to resign with his political authority in tatters. In response, William Heath likened the Duke and his home secretary, Robert Peel, to an unwanted ‘pair of left off Vellingtons to be sold wery cheap’.

download (1)

Vivian Grey “Sent For!!!”, Fun, 7 Mar. 1868 © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Disraeli and his novels are the subject of our second episode. Throughout his career they provided ammunition for satirists and commentators seeking to decode his political ambitions. Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), which charted the political travails of Vivian Grey and his ruthless pursuit of power, proved easy pickings. When Disraeli first became Prime Minister in 1868, the satirical magazine Fun couldn’t help joking that ‘Vivian Grey’ had been ‘Sent For’.

However, contemporaries dug much deeper than this for hidden meaning in his novels. One example of this is an early Punch cartoon, which followed Disraeli’s 1847 novel Tancred. It offers a disconcerting taste of the anti-Semitic criticism that Disraeli, a practising Anglican of Jewish descent, faced throughout his career.

Punch (London, England), Saturday, April 10, 1847

The House of Commons According to Mr Disraeli’s Views, Punch, 10 Apr. 1847.

As with several of his books, Tancred centres on a protagonist and his quest for moral and religious fulfilment. For his critics, the characters in these novels offered proof of Disraeli’s ‘eastern’ bias and his desire to infect the British constitution with these alleged views. An article that accompanied the cartoon mocked Disraeli as the ‘Jewish Champion’, and warned that Tancred offered confirmation of his desire to turn the House of Commons into a ‘Mosaic parliament, sitting in Rag Fair’, a reference to the market in Houndsditch, London, popular with Jewish traders. The cartoon itself is equally disturbing, depicting Britain’s leading politicians in stereotypical Jewish clothing, with their faces imagined in anti-Semitic caricature.

download.png

W. Currey, William Ewart Gladstone, 6 August 1877 © NPG

Disraeli’s great rival, the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, provides the focus of our third episode. Gladstone’s prop was his axe. A committed axeman since the 1850s, Gladstone actively played on his love of tree-felling to portray himself as Britain’s premier political woodsman, committed to chopping down the roots of corruption in the British constitution. As well as in cartoons and speeches, Gladstone expertly manipulated the new technology of photography to perpetuate an image of him in his leisure time at his Hawarden estate, felling trees as a plain-clothed, masculine labourer.

From the later 1870s cabinet cards and carte-de-visites of Gladstone with his axe at his Hawarden estate adorned the mantelpieces of Liberal supporters, and Gladstone’s cultivation of his woodsman image was so successful that his axe-head became the official emblem of the Liberal party during the 1885 general election.

Daily News, 23 November 1885

Daily News, 23 November 1885

In 1886, however, Gladstone’s axe received perhaps the most bizarre pictorial treatment, when one ‘C. B. Harness’ claimed that his cure-all ‘electropathic battery belt’ was responsible for Gladstone’s continued vitality. As well as providing perhaps the only example of a Prime Minister advertising a toning belt, the unauthorised use of Gladstone’s image in adverts such as this, along with the widespread success of Wellington boots and Disraeli’s novels, are an important reminder of the centrality of politics to nineteenth-century culture.

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 3 Apr. 1886

You can catch the remaining episodes of this series on BBC Radio 4 at 9:30am Wednesdays. All episodes will be available through BBC iPlayer after their initial broadcast.

Further reading:

  • M. Dent. ‘“There Must Be Design”: The Threat of Unbelief in Disraeli’s Lothair’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 44 (2016), 671–686
  • D. Hamer, ‘Gladstone: The Making of a Political Myth’, Victorian Studies, 22 (1978), 29-50
  • S. Mayer, ‘Portraits of the Artist as Politician, the Politician as Artist: Commemorating the Disraeli Phenomenon’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 21 (2016), 281-300
  • H. Miller, Politics Personified: Portraiture, caricature and visual culture in Britain, c. 1830-80 (2015)
  • R. Muir, Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814–1852 (2015)
  • P. Sewter, ‘Gladstone as Woodsman’ in R. Quinault, E. Swift & R. Clayton Windscheffel (eds.), William Gladstone : new studies and perspectives (2012)
  • A. Wohl, ‘“Dizzi-Ben-Dizzi”: Disraeli as Alien’, Journal of British Studies, 34 (1995), 375- 411
Posted in Biographies, Materiality, Prime Ministers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tackling electoral corruption: how Victorian Britain reformed the trial of election petitions in 1868

As part of our series on the 1867 Reform Act, we are reblogging this piece from Kathryn Rix on an important associated measure, the 1868 Election Petitions Act.

The History of Parliament

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, an important part of the electoral reforms which had begun with the Second Reform Act of 1867. Dr. Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project explains why and how Benjamin Disraeli’s ministry aimed to tackle the problem of bribery and corruption at mid-Victorian elections.

On 31 July 1868 the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act received royal assent. This measure transformed the way that Parliament investigated allegations of bribery and corruption at elections. Rather than election petitions challenging the result of the contest being considered at Westminster by election committees composed of MPs, they would now be tried in the constituency by an election judge.

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

Although it did not pass until 1868, this Act needs to be understood as part of a wider package…

View original post 1,154 more words

Posted in Corruption, Legislation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

MP of the Month: Henry Fawcett (1833-84)

Continuing our recent focus on the personalities and campaigns associated with ‘votes for women’, our MP of the Month highlights the remarkable career of Henry Fawcett, husband of the leading suffragist Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), whose statue was unveiled in Parliament Square earlier this year.

Prof Henry Fawcett MP

Henry Fawcett is best remembered today as the first completely blind MP. An advanced radical on most issues, he became an increasingly outspoken critic of the Liberal leadership after 1868, before Gladstone judiciously persuaded him to accept junior office as postmaster-general in his second ministry, severely curbing his tongue. Fawcett’s activities in this role included introducing a parcel post service and oversight of the early telephony system.

Our current research on the 1832-68 Commons only covers the initial three years of Fawcett’s career – he was an MP from 1865 until his death in 1884 – but this early period was no less striking. The son of a Salisbury draper, Fawcett lacked both the élite connections and financial resources conventionally required for a parliamentary seat. Instead it was his talent for mathematics and entry to Cambridge University, where he became a fellow of Trinity Hall and the first professor of political economy aged just 29, which provided him with a public platform and a new route into national politics via academic celebrity. The success of his lectures to the Social Science Association on issues such as labour relations and strikes, and the huge popularity of his accessible guides to the theories of Charles Darwin on evolution, Thomas Hare on electoral reform, and J. S. Mill on political economy (to name but a few), made him a household name before he even set foot near a hustings.

What really made Fawcett famous, however, was being blind. Aged just 25, he had been shot accidentally by his poorly sighted father during a partridge shoot. Although he was saved from a serious chest injury by a thick coat, stray pellets destroyed his eyes. The way in which he carried on with his academic career at Cambridge and maintained an active lifestyle – walking, fishing, rowing, riding and even skating – made him an inspirational figure to many. It also seemed to tally perfectly with the liberal self-help attitudes and associated laissez-faire philosophy running through so much of his writing and speeches.

Millicent helping Henry write © National Portrait Gallery, London

How did he manage? Before his marriage to Millicent (right), Fawcett relied on his family, a group of extraordinarily devoted friends at Cambridge (including his biographer Leslie Stephen), and paid secretaries to help him read and write. The tapping of his stick became a ‘familiar sound’ in Trinity Hall, where his night-time meanderings often kept students awake. The college servants also helped, but it was his employment of a ‘personal attendant’, a 14 year old ‘intelligent boy’ named Edward W. Brown (1844-71), which really made it possible for Fawcett to function as he did and remain so independent. Fawcett and his ‘lad’ became a regular sight travelling together to meetings, conferences and debates, and eventually in the corridors of the Commons.

Getting into Parliament, however, was far from easy. Despite Fawcett’s accomplishments as an academic and speaker, serious concerns existed about his ability to perform the duties of an MP. At all four of his attempts to get elected, at Southwark in 1860, Cambridge in 1863, and Brighton in 1864 and 1865, his blindness not only attracted much-needed attention and public sympathy – here after all was a candidate without money or connections – but also incredulity and opposition. ‘How is it possible for a blind man to be a Member of Parliament?’, demanded one newspaper:

How can he catch the Speaker’s eye, know when another MP rises to explain, receive deputations, or introduce them to … ministers? A Member of Parliament thus afflicted must necessarily become an impediment to business and a bore to those around him, or else he must become a nullity. (Evening Mail, 30 Nov. 1860)

Two features stand out in Fawcett’s early election campaigns. First, there was a gradual shift away from disability-based objections and a growing appreciation of Fawcett’s abilities, aided by his extraordinary talent for public speaking and regular references to the successful career of a blind representative in the Belgian assembly, Alexander Rodenbach. Second, Fawcett could be surprisingly cautious for an ‘advanced radical’ on some political issues, such as manhood suffrage, owing to his Millite concerns about democratic despotism.

This may explain why, once elected for Brighton in 1865, Fawcett initially kept his head down and didn’t rock the boat, remaining ‘comparatively quiet’ and backing the moderate Liberal leadership on many issues. Indeed, of the 224 votes he cast during his first Parliament, only 24 saw him take a radical line against Gladstone, mostly on matters relating to Dissenters’ rights and improvements to the electoral system.

One of his earliest and most famous disagreements with Gladstone, of course, was over votes for women. In June 1866 Fawcett helped J. S. Mill organise and present the first mass petition calling for women’s suffrage, signed by almost 1,500 females. The following year, on 20 May 1867, he spoke and voted in support of Mill’s unsuccessful attempt to enfranchise women, paying tribute to Mill as the ‘teacher’ from whom ‘he had learnt all his lessons of political life’. By now he had been married for almost a month to Millicent, who became his ‘eyes and hands’ and a familiar sight around Westminster. Noting how she always guided him to the Commons, one observer later described how:

A tall, fair-haired young man, evidently blind [is] led up to the door by a youthful petite lady … The British Constitution would be quite upset were a woman to invade the floor of the House of Commons … so she has to consign him to a youth who stands waiting to lead the blind member to his place … As she trips lightly up the stairway leading to the Ladies’ Cage, near the roof of the House … [a] whisper passes round, “One day, perhaps not far off, she will take her seat beside her husband, and remain there”. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. i (1875), pp. 352-6)

 

For further information about Fawcett see:

Lawrence Goldman (ed.), The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism (1989)

Lawrence Goldman, ‘Henry Fawcett’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Leslie Stephen, Life of Henry Fawcett (1886)

Posted in Biographies, MP of the Month, women | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Voice and Vote: behind the scenes

Our editor Philip Salmon and assistant editor Kathryn Rix, together with our colleague Emma Peplow, share some highlights of our involvement with the Voice and Vote exhibition currently running in Westminster Hall.

The History of Parliament

This blog looks at how the History of Parliament has been involved behind the scenes with the Voice and Vote exhibition which opened in Westminster Hall last week. Dr. Philip Salmon and Dr. Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons project share their contributions to the reconstructions of the ‘ventilator’ and the ‘cage’, where women could listen to parliamentary debates in the nineteenth century, while Dr. Emma Peplow highlights the ways in which our Oral History project has shed light on the experience of female MPs in the twentieth century.

DSC_1186 Nancy Astor’s suit

The Voice and Vote exhibition, which runs until 6 October, has been organised by the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project, led by Melanie Unwin and Mari Takayanagi. Marking the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it looks at the campaign for votes for women, as well as the role women have played in the House…

View original post 1,193 more words

Posted in Parliamentary buildings, Parliamentary life, women | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment