‘I shall persist’: Joseph Brotherton (1783-1857) and late hours in the Commons

Joseph Brotherton by Samuel William Reynolds Jr (1836) (C) NPG

In 1832 the borough of Salford elected its first MP, who would represent the constituency for the next quarter-century. Described in 1838 as an ‘ultra Liberal’, Joseph Brotherton was in many ways typical of the industrialists who made up a significant proportion of the representatives of the newly enfranchised textile towns of northern England. He was a second-generation cotton and silk manufacturer who, having made enough money to retire from business in his late thirties, devoted himself to public life, through politics, religion and philanthropy. Like many fellow MPs, he gained experience in local government before embarking on his parliamentary career. He shared the commitment of other Lancashire Liberal MPs to the repeal of the corn laws, and supported a range of other radical causes, including the abolition of slavery, retrenchment in public spending and the removal of capital punishment. He was also a dedicated advocate of reducing factory hours, differing from some of his fellow northern industrialist MPs on this score.

Brotherton stood out from his fellow parliamentarians in other ways, most distinctively through his position as a minister in the Bible Christian church founded by Rev. William Cowherd in Salford. He regularly conducted services when not busy in London with his parliamentary duties. Brotherton and his wife Martha were dedicated practitioners of two key principles followed by Cowherd’s congregation – teetotalism and vegetarianism – and Martha was the anonymous author of the first vegetarian cookbook, originally published in parts in 1812, which went into numerous editions. Vegetable Cookery, as it became known, included an introduction written by Brotherton ‘recommending abstinence from animal food and intoxicating liquors’. He chaired the meeting at which the Vegetarian Society was founded in 1847. Brotherton’s diet prompted consternation at public dinners, but the parliamentary reporter James Grant recorded how the ‘other Reform members and friends with whom he occasionally dines’, including Joseph Hume, ‘take care to provide him with some sort of pudding or vegetable dish’.

Vegetable cookery, with an introduction, recommending abstinence from animal food and intoxicating liquors, by a lady (1833); image credit: Wellcome Collection (public domain)

For Grant, what distinguished Brotherton most at Westminster was not his dietary habits, however, but his perseverance in attempting to reform the sitting hours of the Commons. Brotherton’s main aim was to prevent MPs from continuing to debate after midnight. As explained in this blog by Paul Seaward, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, the House drifted later and later in the time that it began to sit (and therefore also to rise), meaning that proceedings after midnight became increasingly common. Brotherton’s desire to end this practice did not stem from any reluctance to perform his parliamentary duties, quite the opposite. One obituary noted that ‘rarely was the Speaker in the chair and Mr. Brotherton absent’, and in 1852 he claimed to have voted in 3,500 divisions during his twenty years in Parliament. He also undertook a vast amount of work in connection with private bills, and was reportedly responsible for guiding at least three-quarters of the 200 private bills carried annually through their various stages in the House.

‘H.B.’, ‘The House Wot Keeps Bad Hours’ (18 July 1831) Image credit: Philip Salmon

Brotherton outlined several different reasons for wishing to stop business after midnight. The first was his concern that the late hours were adversely affecting the health of MPs. He also felt that it would make the House more efficient, since time after midnight was often wasted in debating when the House would adjourn, and MPs who were ‘sleeping about on the benches’ did not make effective legislators. Seconding one of Brotherton’s motions on this question in 1841, William Ewart observed

Would it not strike a foreigner with astonishment to witness the dormant legislation which was transacted in that House at a late hour? On one bench a Secretary to the Treasury might be seen extended at full length; on another a Secretary to the Admiralty alike recumbent; on another a non-effective army official; and on another a subdued President of the Board of Control. Last Session, when a question was addressed to the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, it was found that he was fast asleep. These were unseemly incidents, which could not occur under a different system.

Another concern was that business after midnight was less well reported in the press, as reporters needed to file their copy in time to meet publication deadlines. Brotherton protested that

The public had a right to know what was done in that House; but under the present system it was impossible they could obtain that knowledge. At midnight the reporters were exhausted, and experience proved that they could not pay attention to matters which occurred after that hour. The public remained uninformed upon topics of great importance if they were discussed after twelve o’clock.

Brotherton’s efforts to curtail debate after midnight took two main forms. The first was to move the adjournment of the House once the clock passed that hour, a tactic he deployed on numerous occasions, prompting one fellow MP to dub him ‘the guardian of the night’. Although weary MPs often voted with Brotherton to adjourn, his interventions sometimes provoked pleas to withdraw his motion so that the remaining business could be completed. Brotherton was not immune to yielding to this pressure, particularly if it was a matter of swiftly getting through unopposed business, but on other occasions he insisted that ‘I shall persist’. He faced accusations both in Parliament and the press that he was inconsistent in his efforts, seeking to curb business after midnight when the Conservatives were in office, but relaxing his vigilance when his own party controlled the legislative agenda. This did not tally with the facts, however, and Lord John Russell was among those who rallied to his defence, noting in 1853 that Brotherton had ‘persevered in his efforts, under several different administrations’. Yet Brotherton was not above bending his own rules – Lord Shaftesbury (formerly Lord Ashley) recollected that to aid the passing of the Factory Act, Brotherton would ‘as the hour of 12 approached, have some particular business which called him out of the House, and while he was away 12 o’clock had struck, and some important parts of the Bill had been carried’.

Given that his motion for adjournment was not always successful, relying as it did on catching the eye of the Speaker – which Brotherton found much more difficult under Charles Shaw-Lefevre (Speaker, 1839-57) than his predecessor James Abercromby (Speaker, 1835-9) – and on enough MPs joining him in the division lobby, Brotherton also tried another approach. At the beginning of several sessions, he attempted to pass a resolution setting out the procedure for ending business after midnight. These proposals varied in their wording over the years. In November 1852 he tried to make the process automatic, rather than relying on any specific number of MPs to request the adjournment. However, his motion ‘That in the present Session of Parliament no business shall be proceeded with in that House after midnight; and that at Twelve o’clock at night precisely, Mr. Speaker do adjourn the House without putting any question’ was defeated by 260 votes to 64. His efforts in other years met the same fate.

Fittingly, in what appears to have been his last speech in the Commons in 1856, Brotherton again called for the House to adjourn. He died of a heart attack shortly before the beginning of the 1857 session while travelling on an omnibus from his home in Pendleton into Manchester. Although his efforts to adjourn at midnight were often greeted ‘by a chorus of cheers, groans, hootings, cock-crowings, bellowings, and other discordant cries’, Brotherton remained a popular figure on both sides of the House. While he never succeeded in setting up an alternative mechanism to curtail debate, his persistence ‘had gradually some effect upon the practice of the House’. In 1871 the select committee on public business recommended the adoption of the ‘half past twelve rule’ (that no opposed business could be debated after 12:30 a.m.), embodying what Brotherton had for so long sought to achieve.

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