Reporting Parliament: a view from the Victorian Commons

Today we take it for granted that parliamentary debates are recorded in Hansard. In the Victorian era, however, there was no ‘official’ record. In this blog to end Parliament Week, Dr Philip Salmon shows how, before the advent of modern democracy, public interest in Parliament was sufficient for reports of debates to be produced and sold commercially. As democracy advanced, however, the public’s appetite began to change …

During the early 19th century the way debates and other goings-on in Parliament were reported and broadcast to the public underwent fundamental change. It was during this period that Hansard, the famous record of parliamentary speeches and proceedings, first became established, while daily accounts of discussions in both Houses began to occupy a prominent place in many leading newspapers.

Thomas Curson Hansard (1776-1833)

Amazingly, this coverage of parliamentary debates not only occurred in contravention of the ‘official’ orders of the Commons, banning strangers and reporting, but also operated as a commercial venture. Aided by the huge public interest in issues such as the abolition of slavery, Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform, what went on in Parliament became big business. By the early 1830s an estimated 2 million people were reading parliamentary reports in the press, while Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates, launched in 1803 and taken over by Thomas Curson Hansard in 1812, sold sufficient copies to turn a reasonable profit, at least until the 1850s.

Not every attempt to cash in on the public interest in Parliament succeeded. Hansard reckoned that by 1829 he had already seen off ‘the greater part’ of 18 rival publications, ‘some promising to give a more condensed and some a more elongated account of the proceedings in Parliament’. The ill-fated Parliamentary Review, for example, rearranged all the debates by topic, providing background information and ‘critical essays’ analysing all the ‘measures discussed’ and arguments ‘on both sides of the question’. The extra work this involved, however, made it too expensive and out of date by the time it appeared.

Hansard’s approach, on the other hand, kept costs to a minimum. Rather than paying for his own reporters, Hansard concocted his account of the debates from the daily newspapers and with notes he sometimes received from MPs. His compilations, for that was what they really were, appeared in regular instalments which could later be bound together, rather than at the end of each session. His heavy reliance on the accuracy and selection criteria of the press reporters, however, was far from ideal. Debates on local or minor matters were often omitted, leading many MPs to complain, not least because of their growing need to satisfy constituency opinion. Worse still, speeches delivered late at night, after the reporters had left to file their copy, failed to get covered.

Charles Dickens as a young reporter

Sensing a gap in the market, in 1828 Charles Dickens’ uncle, John Henry Barrow (1796-1858), a former lawyer turned journalist, launched the Mirror of Parliament. Unlike Hansard, Barrow not only employed his own dedicated team of reporters, but also paid them a ‘most liberal remuneration’ for each ‘turn’ in the press gallery. The debates that were later covered by his talented teenage nephew Charles Dickens, in particular, were singled out for praise by leading politicians.

By 1831, at the height of the reform crisis, the Mirror had become ‘the highest extant authority’ of proceedings in Parliament. It wasn’t just that Barrow’s accounts of debates were much longer and closer to the original in terms of language and sentiment. Barrow also managed to cover far more speeches and include a broader range of MPs. The radical Henry Hunt’s brief Commons career is a case in point. Where Hansard printed 660 of his ‘speeches’, the Mirror recorded over 1,000.

By now, however, the Mirror was also in financial trouble. The main investor Henry Winchester MP pulled out after haemorrhaging ‘a considerable portion’ of £7,000 and although Frederick Gye, the famous owner of the pleasure grounds at Vauxhall Gardens, stepped in, within a few years he had also ‘lost a good deal of money’.

In 1834 the Mirror appealed to Parliament for financial assistance. The editor of The Times, however, was unimpressed. ‘That an individual who had embarked in the business of reporting for his own profit should throw the losses caused by his own unsuccessful management … upon the country… to the detriment of all other journalists [was] barefaced … impudence’, he declared.

The Commons agreed. A motion to support publication of an ‘authentic report of the debates arising in the House’ was defeated by 117 votes to 99. Although the Mirror managed to soldier on, reducing its reporters’ salaries and switching to a cheaper folio size, the writing was clearly on the wall. In 1841 it ceased operation.

Ironically, around the time that the Mirror of Parliament folded, the newspaper reports upon which Hansard relied so heavily for its commercial survival started to be replaced by a new form of coverage. By the late 1840s satirical and descriptive ‘sketches’ of parliamentary proceedings had begun to emerge as a staple of the rapidly expanding Victorian popular press.

This created an obvious problem for Hansard. With many newspapers eventually adopting some version of the ‘parliamentary sketch’, the number and range of press reports that Hansard was able to use to compile debates shrank. In 1862 the Morning Chronicle, which had continued to produce extensive daily coverage of debates, was forced to cease publication, leaving its arch-rival The Times as the pre-eminent source.

In this changing public atmosphere, and with its subscriptions falling, it was now Hansard that turned to Parliament for support. In 1855 the government agreed to purchase 100 copies for the various departments of state, providing a guaranteed annual income. In the late 1870s ministers agreed to subsidise coverage of the debates that the press usually ignored, and for the first time Hansard started to use its own reporters, rather than relying solely on newspaper reports.

Even this was not enough, however, and in 1888 Thomas Hansard junior (1813-91), who had been running the business since 1833,  retired and sold the entire operation to a new company, which reckoned it could produce an ‘authorised report’ without subsidy.

Over the next twenty years this venture and six successor operations, including one run by Reuters, all tried to succeed where Hansard had failed, and make a commercial success out of producing parliamentary debates. None of them succeeded. One even went bankrupt. In 1909 Parliament finally assumed responsibility for recording debates itself, employing its own staff of reporters and creating the department that continues to operate today.

Further Reading:

J. Vice & S. Farrell, The History of Hansard (2017) VIEW

K. Rix, ‘ “Whatever passed in Parliament ought to be communicated to the public”: reporting the proceedings of the Reformed Commons, 1833-1850’, Parliamentary History (2014), xxxiii. 453-74

P. Salmon, ‘The House of Commons, 1801-1911’, in A Short History of Parliament, ed. C. Jones (2009), 248-69 VIEW

A. Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers. A History of Parliamentary Journalism (2003)

M. H. Port, ‘The Official Record’, Parliamentary History (1990), ix. 175-83.

E. Brown, ‘John Henry Barrow and the Mirror of Parliament‘, Parliamentary Affairs (1956), lx. 311-23

H. Jordan, ‘The Reports of Parliamentary Debates, 1803-1908’, Economica (1931), xxxiv. 437-49

The earlier blogs in the History of Parliament’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017 can be found here.

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2 Responses to Reporting Parliament: a view from the Victorian Commons

  1. Pingback: Accessing Hansard online: a research guide | The Victorian Commons

  2. Pingback: ‘A place of business’: the temporary chamber of the House of Commons, 1835-1851 | The Victorian Commons

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