When party management at Westminster was still being developed the only means of ensuring good attendance at parliamentary debates was to ‘call the House’, an event described in 1855 as ‘one of the most interesting and exciting scenes’ the Commons ever witnessed. At a time when MPs’ attendance at debates was often poor, the practice was employed when important questions required the full attention of the House.
The earliest authenticated call of the House took place in 1549, although the procedure is thought to have originated in a statute of Richard II. Usually MPs were given at least one week’s notice that a call was to take place, although the interval could vary between one day and six weeks. On the day appointed the order might be discharged (i.e. dropped), but if proceeded with the Members’ names were called over according to their counties, which were arranged alphabetically, the English and Welsh counties coming before those of Scotland and Ireland. The names of MPs who did not answer were recorded by the clerk of the House and if a reasonable excuse for absence was not given defaulters were liable to be committed to the custody of the serjeant at arms and ordered to pay a fine.
By the nineteenth century calls of the House were embedded in parliamentary practice. For example, both Houses were called during the regency crisis of 1810, and the Commons was called in 1822 to consider parliamentary reform, and in 1829 to discuss Catholic emancipation. Several calls were made during the passage of the reform bills, and in March 1831 three defaulters were fined between eight and ten guineas. This was the last time that absentees were penalised, but it evidently proved an effective deterrent: the threat of another call in September 1831 reportedly ‘very much thinned the assemblage of fashionables’ at Doncaster races.
Between 1820 and 1840 the Commons was called 43 times, and between 1833 and 1868 fourteen calls were requested, although only four were carried out. The first came in the opening session of the reformed Commons when Daniel O’Connell, who had threatened to call the House on each day that ‘unconstitutional’ measures were considered for Ireland, motioned for a call on the first reading of the government’s coercion bill. His motion was opposed by a Conservative, Charles Williams Wynn, but was seconded for the government by Lord Althorp and passed. The call guaranteed the largest attendance yet seen in the House, and because there was only room for 400 MPs in the chamber, the galleries were ‘filled to overflowing’ and a gangway for the Speaker was only maintained with difficulty.
Critics of the practice insisted that calling the House did not produce an advantage because there was no compulsory process by which Members could be obliged to vote. This did not deter Radical MPs from attempting to attract attention to their proposed reforms, however, although Sir John Key’s motion to call the House to consider the repeal of assessed taxes in April 1833 was not brought to a vote. An attempt by Sir Samuel Whalley to call the House on window taxes in May was defeated by 273-124, and in July Sir John Wrottesley lost his motion for a call on the Irish church temporalities bill by 160-125.
Other MPs were more successful, however, and in March 1834 Thomas Spring Rice’s motion to call the House for the debate on the repeal of the Union was readily agreed to. Little action was taken against the 48 defaulters, however, as it was now more common for absentees simply to be ordered to appear at a future day. All the same, when Lord John Russell called the House to hear his resolutions on the Irish Church in March 1835 it was expected to be ‘rigidly enforced’ and only 28 MPs were absent. However, at least two of the defaulters were allowed to postpone appearing before the Speaker for more than a week. This indulgent attitude threatened to undermine the effectiveness of the practice. When Daniel Whittle Harvey called the House to consider his plan to revise the pensions list, 63 MPs failed to appear. When the defaulters were subsequently called to appear before the Speaker, Harvey noticed that Sir Charles Greville did not answer his name, even though he had been seen a few minutes earlier ‘looking at pictures’ in the nearby gallery. Concluding that the proceedings had descended into ‘farce’, Harvey moved for his order to be discharged the following day.
Although this was the last time a call was carried out, the mere threat of one often guaranteed good attendance. In February 1838 Sir William Molesworth proposed to call MPs to debate the administration of Canada, largely to test if any Member, whether ‘Tory, Whig, or Radical’, was prepared to support an ‘oppressive and imbecile government’ merely for ‘party purposes’. His motion passed without a division but was withdrawn when it became clear that a full attendance was guaranteed. Similarly, neither Robert Adam Christopher’s motion to call the House for the debate on the corn laws in March 1839, nor Lord Ashley’s for the discussion of Irish national education that June, needed to be enforced.
Some calls were abandoned because they were impractical. By the time O’Connell’s proposal to call the House for the second reading of the Irish bank bill came up in August 1839, many MPs were already ‘scattered all over the world’ and the motion was dropped. In May 1843 Sackville Lane Fox threatened to call the House to consider means of suppressing the repeal agitation. However, when it emerged that O’Connell was in Ireland and had no intention of returning to Westminster, the hapless MP had to stage a humiliating climb down. The continued absence of Repeal MPs continued to present problems for the House, burdened as it was by a mountain of railway bills. Eager to compel them to attend, Joseph Hume announced he would propose a motion to call the House on 22 May 1845. However, the government was keen to avoid a confrontation with the Irish and simply ensured that a quorum was not available for the sitting. Similarly, when Henry Grattan tried to call the House to debate the suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland in February 1849, his motion was opposed by the government and negatived without a division.
Joseph Hume made greater progress in November 1852 when, with the support of certain party leaders, he secured a call for Charles Villiers’s resolution on free trade. Ironically, Hume was absent when the time came, but his motion proved unnecessary as 450 Members attended the opening of the debate, Richard Cobden noting that ‘40 or 50’ of the MPs returned at that summer’s general election had now appeared in the chamber for the first time. The practice was, however, dealt a blow in July 1855 when John Roebuck, responding to reports that MPs were being induced to leave Westminster prior to his critical motion on the conduct of the Crimean War, attempted to call the House. The whole affair was interpreted as a partisan attack on the ministry, and his motion was defeated by a majority of 25.
Thereafter ‘the terrors of a “call” of the House’ passed away. Despite rumours that the House would be called to consider the Lords’ amendments to the second reform bill in August 1867, no one attempted to do it again until March 1882, when Thomas Sexton’s bid to revive the practice was defeated by a majority of 68. By this time, however, it had been concluded that improved means of transport and more efficient party management meant that attendance at debates was ‘generally ample’, and old-fashioned practices such as calling the House were unnecessary.