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.
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.
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/