Half a century at the table: John Henry Ley and the staff of the House of Commons

Inspired by the #OnePlaceServants blogging prompt from the Society for One Place Studies, we turn our focus away from MPs to looking at the staff who kept the Palace of Westminster running, from the clerks to the caterers…

In Sir George Hayter’s famous painting of the House of Commons in 1833, the majority of the 375 figures depicted are Members of Parliament, together with a small number of leading statesmen from the House of Lords. However, the painting also features a handful of less well-known individuals. Three of them are seated at the clerks’ table – the clerk, John Henry Ley; the clerk assistant, John Rickman; and the second clerk assistant, William Ley (John Henry Ley’s brother) – while two others are standing at the opposite end of the chamber: the serjeant-at-arms, Henry Seymour, and the under doorkeeper, Francis Williams.

The House of Commons, 1833 (by Sir George Hayter, 1833-43; NPG)
John Henry Ley by George Hayter; Parliamentary Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/john-henry-ley-213906

John Henry Ley served the Commons – first as clerk assistant and then from October 1820 as clerk – for almost half a century before his death in August 1850. Shortly after Parliament reassembled for the 1851 session, MPs unanimously passed a resolution recording their ‘just and high sense of the distinguished and exemplary manner in which John Henry Ley, Esq., late Clerk of this House, uniformly discharged the duties of his situation, during his long attendance at the table of this House, for above 49 years’. Moving this resolution, the prime minister, Lord John Russell, paid tribute to Ley’s ‘readiness and courtesy’ in communicating with Members, drawing on ‘a mind stored with information relating to every subject by which the order and procedure of the House were regulated’.

As clerk of the House of Commons – sometimes referred to as the chief clerk – Ley was the most senior of the numerous staff who played a vital role in the day-to-day business of the Commons, some within the visible arena of the chamber, but many more behind the scenes. Handbooks such as Dod’s parliamentary companion listed the different departments within which clerks were required, from committees and election committees to the private bill office and the office of the Commons Journal. Other staff included the Commons librarian and assistant librarian, doorkeepers, messengers, a deputy housekeeper (the serjeant-at-arms being the official housekeeper) and the Speaker’s train-bearer.

A Commons select committee in 1833 reported that while some staff received salaries, others gained their income from fees, allowances and gratuities. It recommended that a general system of fixed salaries be implemented. The committee’s report also revealed that some of the official posts within the Commons were held as sinecures, i.e. those holding them drew the income but did not perform the duties of the office. In the Committee Clerks’ Office, for example, four posts as principal committee clerk were given to retired clerks as a form of pension. The 1833 report recommended that these sinecures be abolished. The position of chief clerk held by John Henry Ley came with an annual salary of £3,500, together with an official residence next to the Commons. Although the 1833 committee was ‘well aware of the importance of this office, and the necessity of its being filled by a person conversant with the constitutional law and practice of Parliament’, it recommended that the salary be reduced to £2,000 plus the official residence, making it more in keeping with ‘the Salaries assigned to other Officers in the State, of equal importance’. Similar cuts in other salaries were also recommended. This inquiry was part of a wider effort during the early 1830s to overhaul procedures in the Commons in a bid to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

Ley’s residence next to the Commons chamber in St. Stephen’s Chapel was among the parts of the Palace of Westminster destroyed by the fire of 16 October 1834. As noted in a previous blog, he – and his brother William – lost their wigs (and many other possessions) in the blaze, meaning that the clerk assistant, John Rickman, had to undertake the necessary duties at the prorogation of Parliament a week later. Rickman was another Commons official who had a residence on the Westminster site in 1834. So too did the deputy housekeeper, John Bellamy, best known as the proprietor of Bellamy’s, the refreshment rooms which catered for MPs and others at the Palace of Westminster.

Ruins of the Houses of Parliament on the morning after the October 1834 fire. Ley’s house is to the left of the ruined Commons in St Stephen’s Chapel.
Image credit: Dr Philip Salmon

John Bellamy’s father and namesake had undertaken the same duties, and Dod’s parliamentary companion for 1835 listed two other members of the family working at Westminster – Edmund Bellamy, who was assistant to John Bellamy as deputy housekeeper, and William Bellamy, the lower doorkeeper. The Ley family, meanwhile, had nine individuals working in the clerks’ department of the Commons between 1768 and 1908. When John Henry Ley died in 1850, the clerk assistant was his brother William and the second clerk assistant was his son Henry. The employment of relatives within the Commons persisted into the twentieth century – as Mari Takayanagi has noted, two of the ‘girl porters’ temporarily employed in the Commons during the First World War, Elsie and Mabel Clark, were the nieces of another Commons porter. As we continue our research on the nineteenth-century Commons, we hope to discover more about the contribution made behind the scenes by servants and staff to the way Parliament and its politicians operated.

Clerks and Officers of the House of Commons, Dod’s parliamentary companion (1835), 182.

Further reading:

  • Select Committee on Establishment of the House of Commons: PP 1833 (648), xii. 179ff.
  • W. McKay, ‘A sycophant of real ability. The career of Thomas Erskine May’, in P. Evans (ed.), Essays on the history of parliamentary procedure (2017), 21-32

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