In 1911 Herbert Samuel contended that the contrast between the House of Commons he knew and that of the previous century was like that between ‘an express train’ and ‘the coach of an earlier age’. To emphasise his point he felt it necessary to remind his fellow MPs that the House had once been allowed a holiday on Derby Day, an occurrence that for one commentator writing in 1952 most clearly illustrated the difference between ‘the Derby-going Victorian member of Parliament with the Whip-ridden member’ of her own day. With the 2014 Derby taking place this Saturday, it seems a fitting moment to reflect on the origins of the Derby Day holiday for Members of the Victorian Commons.
For fifty years the adjournment of the House on Derby Day was regularly put to the vote, with the race-goers invariably gaining the upper hand. The practice began in 1847 when Lord George Bentinck, then the dominant figure in British horse-racing, unexpectedly moved the adjournment, claiming that for half a century the event had been recognised as a holiday in the metropolis. His unprecedented motion was carried without opposition, but the following year Members who feared that the House faced discredit for so frivolously suspending public business, opposed the motion and were defeated by just 13 votes. Bentinck’s success in securing the day for the race-goers was, however, bitter-sweet. Having recently parted with his racing stud in order to devote himself more completely to his parliamentary duties, he proved inconsolable, when Surplice, a horse he had formerly owned, won that year’s race, apparently emitting ‘a sort of superb groan’ in front of Disraeli.
The next year’s division courted public controversy, and caused anger among the nation’s reformers. Whereas there had been 261 Members present when the motion for adjournment was passed, only 91 subsequently divided on the question of triennial parliaments. A mere 27 MPs were present for a later motion to consider improvements to the social condition of the working classes, at which point the House was counted out and the sitting closed. By 1852 it was conceded that the government was unlikely to have ‘a sufficient attendance for getting through any public business’ on Derby Day, and the motion was consequently moved without debate. For the next six years the day of the race was conveniently encompassed by the House’s Whitsun holiday, something that subsequent ministries sought to ensure whenever possible.
In 1860 Lord Palmerston finally took the matter in hand and established that the leader of the House should routinely move the adjournment, provided that it did not inconvenience public business. All went well for those connected with the turf until 1874 when the rise of Nonconformist opposition to gambling led to a resumption of debate. Sir Wilfrid Lawson spoke for the anti-Derby-goers, for whom horse racing was ‘an organized system of rascality and roguery’. He questioned whether it was appropriate for Members to ‘spend a hot summer’s day on a dusty heath, surrounded by fortune-tellers, mountebanks, minstrels, acrobats, blacklegs, betting men, and pickpockets’, and sought to disabuse anyone who imagined that adjourning for the Derby was ‘part of the British Constitution – just as much as Magna Charta’. Although Lawson and his followers were soundly defeated at subsequent divisions, in 1878 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stafford Northcote, recognised that growing opposition to the practice made it advisable for the motion to again become the responsibility of a private member, so that the House could vote ‘on grounds of perfect equality’. With the Irish crisis taking up an ever increasing amount of parliamentary time, Gladstone declined to ‘meddle’ in the ‘miserable annual squabble’ in 1881, but in 1882 he compelled Members to attend on Derby Day by retaining the day for government business.
Members who believed that their increasingly heavy workload entitled them and the ‘hard-worked officials’ of the House to at least one day of ‘rest and recreation’, ensured that the customary break in business was resumed in 1883, when they secured a majority of 100. However, those who favoured a more business-like approach to parliamentary work – being equally opposed to the partial suspension of business on Ash Wednesday and Ascension Day – persisted in their opposition. As a consequence, the Derby Day motion began to be eagerly anticipated. The debates were now characterised by the ‘light and airy banter’ so beloved by the public, and frequently marked by ‘pawky humour’ and ‘curious personal confessions’. By 1890 the race-goers’ majority had shrunk to only 27, and in 1892 the motion was defeated for the first time, although the chamber remained almost empty for the Derby Day sitting. Forced to adopt a ‘self-denying ordinance’ in order to discuss amendments to the Irish home rule bill in 1893, each of the race-goers’ three subsequent motions for an adjournment were soundly defeated, thus putting an end to the custom.
By the turn of the century it was acknowledged that the Derby Day holiday had been ‘completely abolished by general consent’, although thinly attended Houses were regularly anticipated on the day of the race, and efforts were still made to accommodate the frustrated horse fanciers. In 1901 the Leader of the House, Arthur Balfour, extended the Whitsun holiday in order to accommodate them, and in 1904 he agreed as prime minister to table only ‘non-controversial business’ on day of the race. All the same, when in 1907 Horatio Bottomley suggested that the traditional adjournment might be revived so as to allow members to judge whether the Street Betting Act required ‘amendment or extension’, he was given short shrift by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Herbert Asquith.
While Samuel’s comments suggested that the debates on adjourning for Derby Day were merely an amusing relic of the past, the shift in perceptions about whether it was proper for MPs to be granted this customary holiday in fact reflected broader changes in the personnel and practices of the House of Commons. Race-horse owning MPs such as Bentinck who coveted ‘the blue ribbon of the turf’ gave way to those who favoured a rather different approach to the demands of parliamentary business.
A. Dewar, ‘When Parliament Went to the Derby’, History Today, ii, 6 (1952), 412.
B. Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck. A Political Biography (1852), 387.