Counting the House, that is, establishing that a quorum existed for the conduct of Commons’ business, was described by Henry Lucy in 1886 as ‘perhaps one of the most useful agencies in Parliamentary procedure’. From 1640 a quorum of the House of Commons consisted of 40 members, including the Speaker. This was said to have coincided with the number of counties into which England was divided at that time. However, it was not until 1729 that the House was first ‘counted out’.
The Speaker was responsible for ascertaining whether a quorum was present before he took the chair to open the sitting; if not, he called ‘no House’ and the sitting was adjourned. Once a sitting had begun, however, the Members themselves were responsible for maintaining a quorum, a privilege that was ‘rigidly guarded’. At the same time, it was widely recognised that a great deal of routine business could be accomplished by little more than a dozen MPs, so unless the Speaker’s attention was called to the absence of a quorum, matters proceeded unhindered.
Most MPs were keen to avoid the ‘scandal’ of a count out, which could be interpreted as an ‘unmistakeable confession that elected legislators were playing truant’. Originally, it was the practice for the Member requesting a count to approach the Speaker from behind his chair and quietly whisper in his ear, and parliamentary reporters observed the etiquette of not mentioning the name of ‘the often unwelcome interloper’. However, it was later more common for MPs to rise from their seats and openly attract the Speaker’s attention. After the Speaker commanded all strangers to withdraw, a ‘two minute glass’ was turned by the clerk to allow MPs to congregate in the chamber before the Speaker began the count. Members who arrived whilst the count was proceeding were added to the total. If forty or more Members were present, the Speaker resumed his seat and business continued. If fewer than forty were present the House was adjourned. The absence of a quorum was also recognised if the number of MPs voting in a division amounted to fewer than 40.
Counting out was widely recognised as a useful parliamentary tactic, and the signs of a prearranged count were said to be unmistakable. The benches thinned gradually as Members rose ‘listlessly’ from their seats and quietly left the chamber. The request for a count, usually made by a young MP with ‘no reputation to damage’, caused the speaking MP to ‘stop suddenly and drop in his seat as if he was shot’. The protagonists then sat and looked at each other ‘as if they were all at a Quaker’s meeting’, before a ‘noisy influx of smokers and diners’ entered the chamber.
An important change was agreed in 1839 when, at the suggestion of Lord John Russell, a bell was rung to give notice that the House was to be counted, despite Daniel O’Connell’s objection that MPs ought not be summoned to the chamber ‘like domestic servants’. Eventually electric bells rattled throughout the House, although the sound often served as a warning to MPs to keep away rather than to attend. Later standing orders restricted the times when counts could take place, and by 1847 the morning sitting, at which government business was conducted, was exempt.
Counting out was justified as a way of preventing ministers from smuggling money votes through a thin House, although its other uses could be regarded as less creditable. Sometimes ministers tried ‘whipping the house out’ in order to stifle discussion of matters of public interest, as when Sir Joshua Walmsley’s 1856 bill to extend the franchise was ‘still-born’ after only 38 MPs appeared to open the sitting. Employing this ‘impudent and reckless “dodge”’ to prevent political embarrassment did not always work, however. In May 1849 the Liberal whip, Henry Tufnell, reportedly induced ‘at least eighty’ members of his own party to leave the Commons chamber, but still failed to avoid a division at which the government was defeated.
Counting out commonly occurred on Tuesday evenings, which were dedicated to the business of private members. Some observers viewed this as an appropriate means of ending discussions which were of no public interest, or to punish parliamentary ‘bores’, ‘fifth-rate political thinkers’ and ‘amiable monomaniacs’ for thrusting their ‘petty projects’ on the House. However, in 1834 radical MPs like O’Connell and Joseph Hume complained that they were being systematically deprived of opportunities to raise important issues in the Commons. In a similar vein, the Spectator asserted in 1861 that independent motions were ‘remorselessly thugged’ by ‘a strangling count-out’.
On occasion counts could encourage ‘disgraceful conduct’ among MPs. In April 1860 the Conservatives were accused of trying to obstruct the Liberal reform bill by counting the House at dinner time. When around 50 Liberal MPs rushed to the chamber from the dining room, a party of Conservatives led by Lord Robert Montagu forcibly closed the outer door. Members who succeeded in getting inside ‘were assailed in the most offensive manner’, and one member of the government was ‘jammed in the doorway in imminent danger of personal injury’.
Counts of the House were clearly far from a mundane aspect of parliamentary procedure. They could generate considerable excitement, and were a useful tool which both those on the front benches and those on the back benches could try to exploit to their advantage.