The Organization of the House

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Space and Time

Ever since the reign of Edward VI the Commons had met in St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. The accommodation was somewhat cramped for an assembly which not infrequently numbered over 350 and could rise to over 450. According to one newsletter-writer, the debate of 27 Jan. 1702 on the Maldon election had been attended by the greatest number ‘that was ever known’ in the House since the Revolution, some 434 Members in all, ‘there being one more than at the abdication’ (the division on 5 Feb. 1689 on the transfer of the Crown, when in fact 439 Members had been present).1 Yet a month later, on 26 Feb. 1702, Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, recorded a division after a debate on the previous session’s impeachments in which the numbers totalled 456.2 The election of John Smith I as Speaker on 25 Oct. 1705 attracted 453 Members; and 464 were recorded at a division during the great debate on the succession on 16 Apr. 1714.3 These were of course occasions of great partisan excitement. The discussion of routine business might well take place in an almost empty chamber. The veteran Whig lawyer Sir Anthony Keck, who had eventually taken a seat in Parliament in his early 60s, observed ruefully that ‘we seldom get an House with 11 or 12, and a House is only 40 if there is a tiger or a great bear or some monster to be seen or baited; we have generally a very thin House’.4

The chamber itself measured 57 feet 6 inches long by 32 feet 10 inches wide.5 Extensive building works supervised by Sir Christopher Wren* in 1692 (while the House was temporarily accommodated in the Court of Requests), resulted in the lowering of the ceiling from 45 to 30 feet, under a new roof. Needless to say, this did nothing to improve the ventilation of a room which was already unbearable when crowded. Nine years later the House appointed a committee to see how the problem could be tackled, and adopted the expedient of making holes in the ceiling, with only a partial success. The Speaker’s Chair was situated at the east end of the chamber, with the clerks’ table immediately in front, while the Members sat on benches on either side, four rows deep, extending a little way behind the Chair, where there was also some standing room. The benches themselves had been painted green in 1670, and were described in 1708 as ‘covered with green and matted underfoot’.6 In 1690 there was a gallery at the west end, above the lobby. Wren added further galleries along the north and south walls, at a height of 15 feet, supported by thin iron columns in order not to obstruct the view of those seated in the body of the chamber. Even with this extra accommodation, many still preferred to wander about rather than remain seated for any length of time, and in February 1698 it was ordered that every Member should take a seat on entering the chamber, and not loiter in any of the passages, or ‘the passages to the seats’, or the space behind the Chair.7 Originally, the north and south galleries each contained a single row of seats, but in 1707, to make allowance for the addition of 45 Scottish MPs after the Union, these were widened and another row added on either side. Seating was also available in benches below the bar at the west end of the chamber.

How far it is appropriate in this period to talk of ‘front-’ and ‘back-’ benchers, or of ‘government’ and ‘opposition’ sides of the House, is unclear. The convention that the front bench immediately to the Speaker’s right was occupied by important officers of state (evolving in due course into the ‘Treasury bench’) seems to have operated in the early eighteenth century. Otherwise, we know very little. Although one historian has stated confidently that ‘long before 1714 it was becoming customary for opposition Members to sit on the Speaker’s left’,8 and one may also assume a natural tendency to prefer the company of the like-minded, it would be unwise to assume a rigid separation by party. Among other reasons, it was not always possible, in times of mixed ministries or cross-party oppositions, to characterise individuals firmly as ‘Court’ or ‘opposition’. In fact, such fragmentary evidence as we have suggests that Members generally gathered together in groups rather than going to one side or the other of the House. The ‘several parties’, wrote the journalist John Toland in 1701, ‘have their peculiar sides and corners’.9 A reference in 1699 to the ‘Saxon corner’, for example, may refer to the west country followers of Sir Edward Seymour, whose own favourite seat was just below the bar.10

Daylight entered the chamber through three high round-arched windows in the east wall, behind the Chair, and eight rectangular sash-windows in the side walls, two above and two below the gallery on either side, which had been put in by Wren’s instructions in 1692 following the demolition of the clerestory, and the removal of the original Gothic windows. There was also a central chandelier, and individual sconces mounted on the pillars which supported the north and south galleries.11 A motion to bring in candles was a conventional device to secure an adjournment (by defeating the motion), but it was not always a mere device. A debate on the Grimsby election in March 1701 continued until only one candle was left alight, and then came a motion that candles be brought in.12

Beyond the chamber itself, and the lobby, the Commons made use of a number of other rooms in the palace. There was a ‘withdrawing room’ for the Speaker, to which in 1692 Wren added ‘a little closet and a flight of stairs’, accessible through a passage running behind the east wall and popularly known as ‘Solomon’s Porch’. The ‘Speaker’s chamber’, situated above the cloister and reached by a staircase from the north-west corner of the lobby, comprised two rooms, each about 20 feet square, in which, from 1693 onwards, committees (other than committees of the whole House or those, like privileges and elections, which met in the chamber itself) held at least their first meeting. They could also meet, as before, in the ‘smoking room’ above the lobby, which in due course became known as the ‘old committee-room’. The Clerk of the House had the use of an inner room in the Court of Wards, and in the 1692 rebuilding acquired ‘a particular closet’ opening off the north-east corner of the lobby. The estimates also mentioned the provision of ‘a room adjoining to the ante-room for the clerks’, and various ‘conveniences’ for the clerks, housekeeper and doorkeeper. A ‘bog house’ was situated behind the south wall of the lobby.

The daily timetable of the House was subject to considerable variation. Nominally each day’s business began at 9 a.m., the time to which the House was usually (though not invariably) adjourned. One guide to the actual times of sitting may be the orders given at the opening of a session to the constables of Middlesex and Westminster, to keep the streets from Temple Bar to Westminster clear of obstructions, for Members making their way to and from the Parliament. In 1667 the hours were 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., ‘the usual time of the meeting and rising of this House’; but in 1710 they became 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and in 1717 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.13 The orders relating to new motions confirm this trend towards later hours. Before 1690 the deadline was fixed at midday; at the beginning of the 1690 Parliament this became 1 p.m., and in January 1702 it was extended by a further hour.14 Early-day proceedings aroused little comment, except for the occasional suggestion that, by sharp practice, important matters had been presented in the morning, ‘before the House filled’, as happened in 1696 over the Fenwick case.15 Late sittings were a different matter. Parliamentary reporters made a point of noting when the day’s proceedings ended deep into the evening, at ten o’clock, 11, or even midnight.16 That they also recorded afternoon sittings closing at 6 p.m. would imply that even this hour was regarded as late, and that the normal time of adjournment was earlier,17 an inference that could also be made from the fact that the committee of privileges usually sat in the evening three hours after the House itself had adjourned.18 Yet Bishop Nicolson wrote in his diary of going from dinner to listen to debates in the Commons without any indication that he thought this extraordinary.19 Moreover, the different responses to excessively late sittings in 1696 and 1708 suggest that, although these were still the exception rather than the rule, the House was gradually accustoming itself to later hours. The 2nd-reading debate on the Fenwick attainder bill on 16 Nov. 1696, having begun at about 11 a.m., was brought to an end 12 hours later. In recognition of its own Herculean efforts the House then adjourned until midday on the 17th. A further lengthy sitting on that day, again on Fenwick, was followed by adjournment to 11 a.m. on the 18th, when the House debated the recoinage in a third marathon session. This necessitated yet another unusual adjournment, to 10 a.m. on the 19th, when the regular pattern, of daily adjournment to 9 a.m., was resumed.20 A decade or so later, 10-hour debates and midnight sittings no longer justified changing the next day’s timetable. For the House to alter its routine now required something even more arduous. After a debate in February 1708 on the scandal over the number of troops in the Peninsular army had raged until 3 a.m., the next day’s business was entirely aborted.21 But in 1709 another 3 a.m. rising, this time after a fiercely partisan debate on the Abingdon election, was followed by no more than a minor adjustment, a postponement of the beginning of the morning session by a single hour, from 9 a.m. to 10.22


Clerical and Administrative Organization23

In this period the clerical and administrative staff of the Commons comprised a principal clerk (the Clerk of the House), together with a Clerk Assistant, and four under-clerks (or ‘Clerks without doors’); and a Sergeant at Arms (properly described as the Sergeant to the Speaker), under whom were a housekeeper, two doorkeepers (one for the House itself and one for the lobby), four general messengers (with unspecified ‘assistants’24) and a further messenger, whose responsibility was to deliver to the Members the daily Votes of the House and other papers . The four Clerks without doors attended committees of the House, as is evident from the minute-book kept by one of their number, James Courthope, in 1697-9.25 In addition, the Clerk of the House privately engaged an under-clerk ‘who hath the charge and custody ... of the Journals, and bills and proceedings thereon, with other papers laid before the House’. The Clerk also employed various stationers’ and scriveners’ clerks, on a temporary basis and at piece-work rates, to copy documents and engross bills. The under-clerk responsible for the Journals had an office in the Court of Wards, where the records themselves were kept.

The Clerk of the House and the Sergeant were both appointed by the Crown, the latter by the Lord Chamberlain’s warrant,26 but while the Sergeant enjoyed complete discretion in the selection of subordinate office-holders within his sphere of authority the prerogative of the Clerk of the House was circumscribed in one important respect: he chose the Clerks without doors, whom he described as ‘my clerks’, but failed in his attempt in 1710 to assert a claim to nominate to the place of Clerk Assistant, when Speaker Bromley (William II) ruled that the Clerk Assistant was ‘a distinct and proper clerk of the House, to be appointed by the House, as their Clerk Assistant, and a check upon the Clerk of the House appointed by the Crown’. Finally, and in a separate category, were the officials appointed personally by each Speaker: his secretary, chaplain, ‘gentlemen’ and ‘trainbearer’.27

Most of the clerks’ income derived from fees. The Clerk of the House received a mere £10 p.a. in salary; 10s. a week during parliamentary sessions for supplying the monarch with copies of the Votes; an end-of-session gratuity of £50 (which lapsed during Queen Anne’s reign); and occasional gifts from the ‘royal bounty’, usually in the form of grants of land (in freehold or lease). Fees, however, brought him £300-£400 p.a. The Clerk Assistant earned less in fees, only some £20 out of annual income of £120 in 1713, and this after his salary had been raised (to £100 p.a.) in 1701. Both the Clerk of the House and the Clerk Assistant maintained a private legal practice out of term, and complained of any extension of the duration of sessions, which would limit their time for private work. Culverwell Needler, Clerk Assistant until 1710, held a second office under the Crown, as solicitor to the commissioners for licensing hawkers and pedlars. The Clerks without doors, whose salaries were also raised in 1701, to £50 p.a., received on average £90 a year extra in fees, with the senior clerk, or ‘clerk of engrossment’, enjoying the particular privilege of taking 10s. on every private bill introduced into the House. They too looked to outside employment to augment their earnings, and offered assistance to parliamentary lobbyists in return for monetary inducements. Fees were also an important element in the remuneration of what might be termed the ‘household’ staff of the Commons, under the Sergeant at Arms. The Sergeant himself enjoyed a salary of £50 p.a.; the Housekeeper £10 per session, later increased to £30;28 each of the general messengers £25 per session; and the messenger responsible for the delivery of the Votes and papers £10. Fees augmented the annual income of the Sergeant to £290, and those of his subordinate officers in proportion.

By 1713, however, the yield of fees had fallen sharply, across the board, because of a reduction in the number of private bills being introduced into the House (the consequence of the passage of the General Naturalization Act of 1709, and changes to standing orders). In response, all the officers joined in a petition to the Queen, requesting an ex gratia payment to compensate them for losses already sustained, and an increase in salaries. What the Treasury granted was a single payment, to the Clerk Assistant, Clerks without doors, housekeeper and messengers ‘for their pains and attendance relating to the Act ... for a General Naturalization, and for the losses sustained by them during the said Act’.

Throughout this period the Clerk of the House was Paul Jodrell (d.c.1728), a Chancery solicitor and member of Lincoln’s Inn, who had succeeded to the office in 1683 under the terms of a reversionary grant. It is to Jodrell that historians have ascribed responsibility for the reorganization of the Clerk’s office, and the appointment of the Clerk Assistant and Clerks without doors. He also created the post of under-clerk responsible for the Journals, which was held by Zachary Hamlyn in 1709. The first Clerk Assistant, appointed in 1689, had been Samuel Gwillym, but he had resigned that year and been replaced by Culverwell Needler (1656-1712), the son of a clergyman ejected in 1662, and himself a lawyer trained at Clifford’s Inn and the Inner Temple. Needler retired in 1710, ‘disabled by palsy’, and was followed by Edward Stables (d.1731), like Jodrell a member of Lincoln’s Inn, who was to succeed as Clerk of the House in 1726. The four Clerks without doors who had been appointed in 1689 all remained in office throughout this period: John Hookes (b. ?1662), the senior clerk, George Cole (d.?1720), James Courthope (d.1720), and Hicks Burrough (d.1733).29 The Sergeant in 1689 was Sir William Bishop (b. c. 1634), of Bridgetown House, near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire.30 He was a sinecurist, however, and the duties of the post were carried out by two court sergeants, John Topham and Richard Shoreditch.31 In 1693 Samuel Powell was appointed in Bishop’s place. Powell acted himself, as did his successor Thomas Wybergh (d.1717)32, who took over the office in 1709. Of the Sergeant’s staff, it is possible to identify the postal messenger, Nicholas Ryall (b. c. 1643), and the holders of the post of housekeeper. The first incumbent, until her death in January 1704 was Ryall’s wife Anne (c. 1657-1704). She was replaced by Thomas Smith, who may have been a relation, since Anne Ryall’s first husband had borne the surname Smith.33


The Speakership

In 1690 the day of the apolitical Speaker was still far off. Every occupant of the Chair in this period was a prominent political figure, and two in particular, Paul Foley I (1695-8) and Robert Harley (1701-5) could be described as party leaders. Sir John Trevor (1690-5) had been Speaker since 1685 and master of the rolls. Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt. (1698-1700) was a front-bench Whig who served the Junto ministry of 1694-1700 in the Treasury commission, and the treasurership of the Navy; as was John Smith I (1705-8), who had not only held a post in the Treasury but had also been chancellor of the Exchequer, for all the Tory protests at the time of his election to the Chair that he was ‘a man of very small abilities’. Although Smith’s successor Sir Richard Onslow, 3rd Bt. (1708-10), had also been in office in the 1690s, he had subsequently refashioned his political reputation as a ‘patriot’—earning the nickname ‘stiff Dick’ for his rigorous devotion to principle—and had been one of the foremost Country Whigs in the parliamentary campaigns of 1705-8. Finally, there were the two Tories, William Bromley II (1710-13), who had come to prominence during the debates over occasional conformity in 1702-4 as a spokesman for the ‘High Church’ interest, and who was so valuable to the Tory administration that after his term as Speaker he was elevated in 1713 to a Secretaryship of State; and (Sir) Thomas Hanmer II (4th Bt.) (1714), the incorruptible ‘Hanoverian’ Tory who had helped defeat the French commercial treaty in June 1713, and for his efforts on behalf of the Protestant succession was to be offered a Cabinet position by George I.

For politicians of this calibre, election to the Chair did not constitute a retirement from the maelstrom of party politics; far from it. As Speaker, Littleton continued to enjoy his place on the ‘Treasury bench’; Smith gave direction to the ‘Lord Treasurer’s Whigs’ in the Commons; Bromley shepherded Tory back-benchers on behalf of the administration; while Hanmer directed his own `squadron’ of followers in the Commons in defence of the interests of the house of Hanover. The most remarkable example was Robert Harley, who in the Parliament of February 1701, and again after 1702, combined the Speakership with management of the Court interest in the lower House, even retaining the office for a session after his appointment to a Cabinet post as Secretary of State (despite muttered protests from some back-benchers). His predecessors Trevor and Littleton had also held important places in government while occupying the Commons Chair, which in Littleton’s case did raise objections among ‘Country’ Members to his election, answered only indirectly in debate in the House by testimonials to the ‘candour and probity’ he had shown in his trusteeship of public money. Foley and Hanmer each ostentatiously refused offers from the court, Foley even declining the Speaker’s traditional place on the Privy Council, but neither ceased active engagement in politics while occupying the Chair. Foley continued as a member of the commission of public accounts, described by some historians as ‘the front bench of the Country opposition’;34 and for a time after his election as Speaker tried to set himself up as a financial manager to the crown, keeping in regular contact with the ‘undertakers’, Sunderland and Portland, and proposing various schemes for the raising of revenue, which culminated in the disastrous Land Bank experiment of 1696. 

Despite the ‘toil and difficulties’ arising from tenure of the Speakership,35 the office was highly sought after. On only three occasions was there a single declared candidate, and no talk of opposition: in 1702, when Harley was re-elected; 1710, when the massive Tory majority chose Bromley; and 1714, when the ‘Hanoverian’ Tory Hanmer was able to unite all shades of opinion. No less than five times (out of a possible 11) the House was actually brought to a division.

King William took a personal interest in the Commons’ choice. In March 1695, after Trevor had been expelled for corruption, the unsuccessful nomination of Sir Thomas Littleton was managed on behalf of the Court Whig by Comptroller Wharton (Hon. Thomas) in such a way as to imply a direct recommendation from the throne, Wharton having proposed Littleton immediately after he had delivered to the House the King’s message commanding the election of a Speaker. The tactic backfired, and Foley was chosen. In December 1701 the King’s pleasure was made known more directly, even if not in the House itself: a meeting of Whig Members prior to the opening of the session was told that William favoured Littleton against the outgoing Speaker, Harley. Once more, however, the House preferred their own choice and Harley kept his place. In between, William’s interventions had been more successful, largely because he was working with the grain of the majority party in the House. In November 1695 and again in January 1701 he persuaded the Court Whig Littleton to stay away from the House on the day of election in order to clear the path, first for Foley, whom the King was obliged to accept as Speaker faute de mieux, and second for Harley, whom he expected to act the part of a Court ‘undertaker’ in the 1701 Parliament. There was, nevertheless, some back-bench resentment at what was perceived as royal infringement of the privileges of Parliament: in 1701 some Whigs called attention to rumours that Sir Thomas Littleton ‘was spoken to absent himself’, and forced the question to a division.36

Queen Anne, by contrast, did not involve herself in any Speakership contest, though it was usually clear to Members which candidate her ministers supported: Harley in 1702, Smith in 1705, Onslow in 1708, and Bromley in 1710 were all nominated by office-holders, or by leading members of the Court party. The fact that Smith’s candidacy had actually been announced, albeit informally, by Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney) to a meeting of placemen in the summer of 1705, gave rise to comment in the House, although it did not prevent Smith’s election.

The attractions of the office were not primarily financial. Apart from the equipage grant of £1,000 made on his election, and small allowances for entertainment and administrative expenses (wine and stationery), the Speaker’s official income was made up from a daily payment of £5 from the Exchequer (amounting therefore to £1,825 a year) and fees for the passage of bills (probably in the region of £400-£600 p.a.).37 There were also small profits to be gleaned from the publication of the Votes.38 Harley insisted that he had derived no monetary advantage from the office, but this was part of a careful accounting up of his gains and losses in public life, designed to show that he had suffered rather than benefited from serving his country. In any case, while Harley had refused bribes to favour bills and petitions, Trevor for one had obviously succumbed, and other Speakers may not have been excessively scrupulous in this regard (excepting of course Trevor’s immediate successor, Foley, who in his disabling speech had made a point of saying that ‘whatever his failings might be, he would still preserve clean hands’).39

What Harley’s massive private archive also shows to good effect is the amount of patronage available to the Speaker, which went some way towards offsetting inadequacies in financial remuneration: the right to appoint clerks and chaplains, as well as the printer of the Votes; and the power to facilitate or frustrate business before the House, the presentation and examination of petitions, the management of legislation, or the hearing of election cases; and not least, to judge by the number of letters received on the subject, to protect chronic absentees from censure when the roll of the Membership of the House was called.

Once a Speaker had been elected, there were all kinds of ways in which he could use the position to benefit his friends and his party; or so contemporaries assumed. Accusations of partiality were common. Trevor was a particular target, partly because expulsion tainted his reputation so profoundly that he was easily credited in retrospect with any kind of corruption; partly because his squint made him an obvious target for humour, being used to explain his having called more speakers from Court than opposition. Occasionally he had even been subject to open accusations of partiality, as on 23 Feb. 1693, when he rephrased a motion to go into ways and means the following day in terms that the Country opposition did not like, and found himself ‘checked very severely’ for acting ‘contrary to the duty of the Chair’.40 For different reasons, Harley also aroused back-bench suspicions. His devious character and mysterious manner encouraged hostile observers to assume the worst of him, while his apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of procedure did not so much reassure his listeners as to the correctness of his decisions as leave them with an uneasy feeling that they had been the victims of parliamentary legerdemain. To Bishop Burnet, for example, Harley was ‘a man of great industry and application, [who] knew the forms and records of Parliament so well that he was capable both of lengthening out and of perplexing debates’; ‘no man understands more the management of that Chair to the advantage of his party; nor knows better all the tricks of the House’. The parliamentary diarist Sir Richard Cocks recorded how ‘the crafty Speaker’ would sometimes refuse to notice Members, or pre-empt motions from others, and on one occasion exploited a momentary confusion in the House, when a Member was struck down with apoplexy, to close a committee prematurely by resuming the Chair without an order.

Other Speakers, although generally more trusted, were also accused of bending the rules in favour of their own side. Paul Foley, bowed down as he was by the weight of his own rectitude, interfered with the official record of the debate of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade, so that the defeated motion would not be reported in full in the Votes, in case its anti-Jacobite language exposed to criticism those of his Tory allies who had voted it down. In the Fenwick case, Foley ‘did his part’ in the protection of his friend the Duke of Shrewsbury and other ministers; and in January 1697 he antagonized some Country Whigs, by stepping in to prevent a tack of the landed qualification bill to the capitation bill. Secretary James Vernon I* reported that Foley ‘did very good service today against the tacking clause ... under pretence of speaking to order [he] answered all their precedents, and declared the like never was in Parliament’. The charge levelled at Sir Thomas Littleton was that his frequent bouts of illness were a contrivance in order to secure adjournments favourable to ministers. In February 1700, for instance, as the opposition mounted attacks against Lord Chancellor Somers (Sir John*) and Charles Montagu*, the adjournment of the House for two days on the 19th, after the Speaker had been once more laid low by a ‘fit of the stone’, afforded government a valuable breathing-space. Both Smith and Bromley fell foul of the Scots, Smith attempting to prevent a division in December 1707 on a Court amendment to a resolution on the Scottish commission of the peace, until the question ‘was seconded with such a shout that it was not in the Speaker’s power to delay it’, and Bromley being accused by George Lockhart* of more systematic obstruction of Scottish business and even of showing ‘an unwillingness’ to call Scottish Members. Not even Hanmer escaped, though the occasion on which he was supposed to have acted partially, in giving his casting vote against the tobacco drawback bill, to the anger of the ministry, was in fact an example of strict adherence to the rules of the House.

Of course, there was nothing to prevent a Speaker showing his party colours in committee, when someone else was in the Chair, and few were shy of expressing themselves in this arena, the possible exceptions being Littleton and Onslow, although the absence of parliamentary diaries for the years of Onslow’s Speakership makes the point difficult to demonstrate in his case. Certainly Harley and Foley were frequent contributors to committee debates, especially in supply and ways and means, as were Smith and Bromley, while Hanmer made several major speeches on the issues of the peace and the succession in committees of the whole.

Every Speaker in this period could claim some qualification for the Chair as an experienced parliamentarian, beyond a prominence in party politics. Trevor had already been Speaker in the Parliaments of 1685 and 1689; Littleton had served as chairman of the committees of supply and ways and means; Bromley in the chair of the committee of privileges; while Foley, Harley, Smith, Onslow, and Hanmer had all chaired major committees (select committees, on such subjects as the loyal Address, and committees of the whole). None was regarded as a surprise choice, and Littleton, Bromley, and Onslow had been already been considered as candidates in previous Speakership elections (Littleton in 1695, Onslow in February 1701, Bromley in 1705). Foley’s re-election in 1695, though undoubtedly unwelcome to the Court interest, was explained by one minister as a rational assessment of the respective qualities of the two main candidates, Foley’s experience of the House, dating back to the first Exclusion Parliament, being thought to outweigh Littleton’s, which had begun in the 1689 Convention.

In spite of their qualifications and experience, however, not every Speaker could look back on his tenure of the office with pleasure and satisfaction. Harley was probably the most successful. A master of procedure and precedent, ruling without contradiction (even occasionally exploiting his reputation for parliamentary learning to bamboozle the Members with spurious medieval precedents), and enjoying such confidence from the Members that when he fell ill in April 1701 the House adjourned from day to day rather than sit without him. Comparatively little is known of Onslow’s tenure of the office, but his nephew Arthur, the doyen of all 18th-century Speakers, later remarked that it was ‘a post that of all others the most suited his [Sir Richard] genius and which he sustained with great reputation’, and certainly one very favourable contemporary report was delivered by George Lockhart*, who contrasted the unsympathetic treatment the Scottish Members had received from Bromley with the way in which they had been ‘so very civilly, nay kindly, used’ by his predecessor.

Others were not so fortunate. Once again Trevor appears as the most unhappy, repeatedly losing face in the House as experienced Members corrected him in lapses from propriety. In 1690 he called a voice vote in favour of one side, then changed his mind as several Members of the opposite party entered the House, only to be reprimanded by that self-appointed parliamentary sage (and former Speaker) Sir Edward Seymour.41 When, in January 1692, Trevor sought to prevent John Arnold from reading the bill for the relief of prisoners for debt, Arnold told him in no uncertain terms that ‘he must not now think he was in Chancery but in the House of Commons to whom he was but a servant and that each Member had a liberty of speech in the House’. Often Trevor had only himself to blame for his embarrassments, for he was clearly in the wrong, and sometimes admitted as much in private.42 Surprisingly, Foley also fell into difficulties over procedure, and was proved to have been in error on more than one occasion. By the end of his Speakership he was in such low spirits that in January 1698, during a quarrel with John Smith I, over an incident in which Foley himself was probably in the wrong, he allowed Smith to get away with a gross affront to the Chair (highly inappropriate in a future Speaker), and pretended he had not heard Smith’s threat to pull the Speaker’s nose. Probably it was not only Foley’s ill-health which deterred him from standing for re-election to the Speakership at the beginning of the next Parliament, but also the knowledge that he had forfeited the respect of the House. Nor could Littleton’s brief period as Speaker be accounted a success. Certainly, the two sessions over which he presided, from 1698 to 1700, were difficult, and he found himself in an uncomfortable position, in seeking to preserve an image of impartiality while at the same time under pressure to promote the interests of the Whig ministry to which he belonged. Eventually, it would seem, party loyalty overcame conscience, or at least was assumed to have done, so that Littleton’s perennial excuse for adjournments, his problem with his bladder, made him something of a laughing-stock, much as Trevor had been before him.



A number of different types of committee had evolved by 1690, differentiated both by form and function.43 In terms of their appointment and composition, committees could be divided into three broad categories: committees of the whole House, ‘grand’ (or open) committees, and select (or ‘private’) committees. Committees of the whole House were precisely that, with every Member entitled to attend. This was also the case with grand committees, or others, such as the committee of privileges and elections, whose composition was left open. Select committees, on the other hand, were confined (in theory44) to those named when the committee was appointed, unless enlarged subsequently by a specific order of the House nominating additional Members. It was not unusual, however, for some kind of group nomination to be added to a select committee-list where appropriate: ‘all the Members of the long robe’ (lawyers) if legal expertise was particularly valued; ‘all the Members for Norfolk and Suffolk’ (or wherever), on a subject with a strong local interest.

Committees of the whole were held during daily business, and were indistinguishable from the plenary sessions of the House, except that the Speaker was replaced by a chairman elected before the House went into committee. Sittings of the committee began with the Speaker leaving the Chair (giving way to a temporary chairman whom the House itself had elected), and ended when he resumed his authority. Supply legislation was almost always entrusted to committees of the whole. The standing committees of supply and ways and means, which decided, respectively, on the sums to be raised and the methods by which this should be done, and the 2nd-reading committees on supply bills, all took this form. Other items of legislation which the House deemed to be of particular importance, or which had proved particularly contentious, were also passed to committees of the whole: the bill of 1713, for example, to give effect to the 8th and 9th articles of the treaty of commerce with France. But committees of the whole were not restricted to legislation. They were entrusted with consideration of a variety of major issues: in 1692, for example, the conduct of the war at sea (in a committee ‘on the state of the nation’), in 1699 the price of gold, in 1702 the ‘rights and privileges of the House’ (in relation to the controversy over the impeachments of the previous year), and in 1705 the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament on the question of union. In these examples, committees of the whole were giving Members’ opinions rather than clarifying facts. As defined by a later 18th-century authority on procedure, the difference between a select committee and a committee of the whole was that the former ‘cannot report an opinion on any matter unless they are authorized to do it, and the latter never reports anything else but opinion, for they never state evidence nor facts but resolutions only’.45

‘Grand’ committees were also open to every Member, but met when the House itself was not sitting, often in the morning, and were not obliged to convene within the chamber itself, though for reasons of space most did so. The ‘usual orders’ at the beginning of each session appointed each of the four traditional ‘grand committees’, for religion, grievances, trade, and the courts of justice, to meet weekly, but the evidence of the Journals suggests little serious activity. The only report received from any of these ‘grand committees’ during the period was delivered in March 1708, from the committee for the courts of justice, in response to a petition from a Welsh Tory, Richard Bulkeley*, 4th Lord Bulkeley [I], against the behaviour of the Whig judge, John Hooke, on circuit at Beaumaris.46

There were other committees which, though not ‘grand committees’ by designation, were in practice much the same, namely those select committees after whose appointment the House added the following order, ‘and all that come are to have voices’. The best known is the committee for privileges and elections, which met in the chamber after the adjournment of the House, and was often as well (if not better) attended than the previous sitting of the House. In fact the committee for privileges was only one instance among many in which this ‘open access’ policy was followed: committees on such matters as the qualification of Members, the relief of the poor, Anglo-Irish trade and the disposal of Irish forfeitures; and bills of a similar general interest, on vagrancy, the jury system, tithes, the coinage, the payment of servants’ wages, and the repair of the highways.

Last, there were select committees, whose composition was deliberately restricted by the House to a certain number of named individuals. Most committee-business was undertaken in this way. Select committees were appointed to investigate claims made in petitions, to inquire into matters which had been brought to the attention of the House in order to report the facts, to receive proposals which might lead to legislation (on such subjects as the reform of the coinage, the disposal of forfeited estates, or more generally on the revival of ‘expiring laws’), to supervise ballots, prepare addresses and representations, undertake conferences with the upper House, and manage the proceedings on impeachments. They also played a highly significant role in legislation. The preparation and presentation of bills, including supply bills, was usually undertaken by a small select committee (though this was not always the case, for occasionally the duty might be entrusted to a single Member), and the majority of bills were sent after their second reading to a select committee rather than a committee of the whole House.

The research for this section of the History has discovered little direct evidence of the methods by which committee-members were selected, though it seems reasonable to assume that the informal procedure which obtained later in the century was already established, with Members calling out nominations to the Speaker. (Secret committees, elected by ballot, did not feature in this period; nor did sub-committees). An important letter of December 1705, from the Cumbrian James Lowther*, a former Member, relating to the Parton harbour bill, appears to show that, at least on bills of a specifically local nature, additions to the committee could be made subsequently, at the discretion of the Clerk.47 But how far this practice extended to major public bills is unclear. By the rules of the House only those present at the debate could be nominated, and no one who had opposed a motion could serve on the resulting committee.48 Again we cannot tell how consistently these criteria were applied. Some 2nd-reading committee lists contain the names of Members whose speeches and writings imply that they would have been opposed on principle to the measure in question: a good example would be the bill of 1696/7 for the regulation of the press, the committee for which included three Whig intellectuals, the philosopher Lord Ashley (Anthony), and the pamphleteers Robert Molesworth and Walter Moyle, all of whom believed passionately in a free press. It is possible, however, that in these circumstances Members may deliberately have refrained from outright opposition on the floor of the House in order to reserve the opportunity to sabotage the bill in committee.49 Once offered, a nomination was accepted as a matter of course. It was bad form to oppose. Sir Joseph Williamson’s notes on parliamentary procedure, compiled during King William’s reign, record that

in the naming of a committee in the House, if too many be named, and the work to be done require a smaller number, as to draw a bill etc., in that case the expedient is to order that the first five or seven of those named shall make a committee; and if any person be proposed to be added, and a contest or debate arise, it must be decided by a question, whether A.B. shall be added to the committee. But it being an odious thing to put a negative upon any Member, in such case it is ever endeavoured to avoid such a question and the Member is usually agreed to be added.50

Although there were no other rules governing nominations, certain conventions seem to have been observed. The Member named first was customarily the proposer of the motion on which the committee was grounded, and subsequently (though not inevitably) took the chair of the committee, as demonstrated by his having reported back to the House. Hence the superficially eccentric choice of Sir John Bolles, 4th Bt., the mentally unstable Lincolnshire Tory, as the first Member of the 2nd-reading committee on the bill of settlement in March 1701, a decision that Whigs interpreted as a calculated insult to the Hanoverian family, was in fact no more than a proper adherence to procedure, since Bolles had been the first to name the Electress Sophia as successor, in the debate.51 Similarly, where the evidence permits, we can often identify the Member named second to a committee with the seconder of the motion.52 These arrangements did not apply to the committee of privileges, however, since it was in effect a standing committee, and elected its own chairman at its first meeting (as, presumably, did the four ‘grand committees’), not infrequently after a contest and even a division, as happened in November 1705, when the Court Whig Spencer Compton, defeated the High Tory Sir Gilbert Dolben.

Unfortunately, the evidence of the Journals on the composition of committees is not wholly reliable. Manuscript committee lists surviving in the private papers of individual Members occasionally differ from the Journals (as in the case of the 2nd-reading committee on the corporations bill of 31 Oct. 1691, for which the papers of William Brockman* contain a more extensive list than the printed version).53 Lowther’s evidence on the Parton harbour bill mentions his having ‘added to the committee about 16 of my particular friends’ after the nomination in the House. Examples can also be found of Members whom the Journals first include in the original committee-list and then add in subsequently (as happened to Robert Walpole II in 1709-10 in the case of the committee managing the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell). Finally, there is further evidence of the fluidity of committee-membership in correspondence on the drafting of bills, which shows opinions being sought outside the confines of the named committee.54

Select committees varied greatly in size. Drafting committees were usually quite small, and examples comprising no more than two or three Members were not uncommon. The average was probably five. Nevertheless the preparation of bills might be undertaken by a very large committee, presumably where the proposed legislation attracted widespread enthusiasm or concern: the press regulation bill of 1695 had a drafting committee of as many as 31 Members. Committees on petitions, and to receive proposals, might also involve relatively large numbers. Those entrusted with preparing addresses nearly always did: the most important, the committee to prepare the loyal Address, had an average of 45 Members during the reign of Queen Anne, reaching its highest point of 68 in November 1705.55 The rules provided no set figure for a quorum; instead, the House would stipulate the number where this was felt to be necessary. However, there seems to have been a convention that, unless otherwise stated, a drafting committee would have a quorum of 5, and that ‘at private committees five are enough to adjourn and eight must be to proceed’.56 The Journals record some 82 decisions in this period in which the size of a quorum was fixed for an individual committee (the majority taken in the first half of the period): most frequently for a minimum of five Members (51 times)57, rather less often for three (29 times)58, and only once for the higher numbers of seven and eight Members respectively (in 1690, on a private petition, and in 1700, in a committee appointed to examine the Journals for precedents of action taken to promote woollen manufactures).59



When the Speaker put a question to the House it was first decided by ‘collective voice’, that is to say the Speaker would declare the result on the basis of the relative volume of noise produced by the Ayes and Noes. He might do so decisively, as in ‘the Ayes have it’, or more cautiously, ‘I think the Ayes have it’. Whichever form was used, any Member could then force a division by disputing his decision, with the words, ‘the contrary voice has the question’. ‘The old rule, and practice too’, wrote John Hatsell (Clerk of the House 1768-1820), ‘ were that the House should be divided only when the Speaker’s determination upon the voice was wrong, or doubtful.’61 But in reality the determining factor was usually political calculation. Parliamentary managers, of whichever party, would not risk a division they were sure to lose, unless some other, indirect, advantage was to be gained from it. There are numerous examples of important and controversial issues resolved, nem. con., when the disparity was obvious enough to the losing side; equally, the Journals record many divisions on apparently trivial questions, used as a means of testing the state of the parties in the House. In the debate in March 1714 on whether to endorse the Lords’ address on the peace, one Tory wrote,

We did not trouble ourselves ... to say much, for we had done our numbers, and so did the Whigs, for after all their violent speeches, they did not divide upon the question, but ’twas carried nem. con., which when I wondered at, a Member told me he saw it would be so because he saw none of (Sir) Thomas Hanmer [II]’s* squadron speak against it, and the Whigs would not divide to show how weak they were. A moderate Whig told me ’twas never designed to have a division, but only to show the Queen she was not well served, and as she had made the peace, would do nothing to disturb her.62

Occasionally, if Members were aware of possibilities for electoral propaganda, an unnecessary division might be forced in order to expose the minority. One such division had been contrived at the end of the highly-charged debate of 5 Feb. 1689, on the Lords’ amendments to the resolution on the vacancy of the throne. It was

thought by some that many of those who were hearty for the vote joined with others in the noes on purpose to sift them, as afterwards it did appear. For Mr Powle [Henry*] the Speaker stood up and desired them that were against standing by their vote, and for complying with the Lords in their amendments of it, to withdraw out of the House; whereupon 151 withdrew and 282 stayed, though it is believed had they known that there had been 131 on the other side more than theirs they had not half so many gone out as they did, they being heartily vexed that they had so unwittingly exposed themselves to the observation of others ...63

A list compiled of the minority in this division was then used as the basis for the ‘black list’ of supposed Jacobites circulated before the general election of 1690.

Once requested, a division had to proceed, unless the House was unanimous in agreeing to waive it. In 1702, the Tories were only saved from a repetition of their embarrassment over the vacancy of the throne by the quick thinking of one of their number, who intervened to prevent a vote in the debate on the proceedings on the impeachments on a question whose phrasing had dangerous implications. Various colleagues had insisted

that the previous question should be first put, but [Par]ker, who has more sense and temper than the whole party, made angry faces at those that insisted on it [?and] so they found their error; for had they divided the House upon the previous question it would have [?been] a worse list for them than the black list, viz. that they had been against the rights and liberties of the commons of England. Seymour [Sir Edward, 4th Bt.*] was very uneasy with himself for opposing this question, and looked out of humo[ur] and confessed at dinner that he was mistaken in speaking against it.64

Clearly, if no one had been quick enough, or the Speaker had been a Whig and not Robert Harley*, the question would have been put, and no amount of grimacing would have sufficed to lift the Tories off the hook on which they had impaled themselves.

The procedure in a division in the House (divisions in committee were conducted slightly differently) was for one side to ‘go out’ into the lobby, while the others remained seated. The principle applied by the Speaker to decide which side should leave and which remain was that those who were ‘for the preservation of the orders of the House’ should stay in, and those ‘introducing any new material or any alteration’ should go out. This principle was not always easy to apply, but over the years precedents accrued so that, for example, on a motion to adjourn, ‘if this question is put before four o’clock the Ayes go forth, because four o’clock is ... the regular hour at which the House may adjourn; but if it is after four o’clock the Noes go forth’.65 The Speaker appointed two tellers for each side (to count for their own side), presumably drawn from among those who had spoken in the debate and thus declared their position on the question. The Members who stayed in the House were counted first, where they sat; then the remainder were readmitted, and counted as they passed back through the lobby door.

In order to ensure that all Members present at the time the question was put should cast a vote, as they were obliged to do, and that no one should be able to participate in the division who had not been in the House,66 the rule was that the doors into the chamber were to be closed before the Speaker put any question. Performed correctly, the procedure involved first the shutting of the doors of the House itself, then the clearing of ‘strangers’ from the galleries and lobby, and finally the locking of the lobby doors. As defined for this purpose, ‘the House’ included all adjoining passages and staircases, though not the Speaker’s Withdrawing Room, or ‘Solomon’s Porch’. If a Member had been in either of these places at the time the question was put he was deemed not to have heard it, and might therefore stay where he was, effectively abstaining, although if he wished, he had the right to ask for the question to be stated to him, and then vote as he thought fit. It seems also to have been possible to abstain by going up to the galleries, which was not to be the case later in the century. The unseated MP for Kinross-shire, Mungo Graham, complained in February 1711 that he had lost his election because ‘several ... Scots people, who had been resolved to be against me, could not prevail with themselves to go to the length to vote against me, so they went up to the galleries and skulked there, as did a good many other of the English’.67

Evidently the rule that doors should be closed was not always enforced. In a division on the impeachments in 1701 it was strongly suspected that the Whig general Lord Cutts (John*) had not been sharp enough to ‘absent himself’ from the House before the question was put, but had been able to make his escape subsequently, an accusation he heatedly denied.68 On the other hand, once a division had been called, it was impossible to enter the immediate precincts of the Chamber. Secretary of the Treasury William Lowndes* discovered this to his political cost, and acute personal embarrassment, in 1714, when his temporary absence on a call of nature lost the ministry a crucial vote in favour of its tobacco drawbacks bill. ‘This matter was very nice’, reported Peter Wentworth, ‘for the votes being equal, the Speaker gave it against the Court, which he would not have had the opportunity of doing, if Mr Lowndes had not been obliged to go to the house of office, and he ran with his breeches in his hand, but they would not let him in’.69

The procedure for divisions in committee of the whole House ran along similar lines: the chairman of the committee (in lieu of the Speaker) first gave his judgment on a voice vote, then, if this was challenged, the committee divided. Members did not go out of the chamber, however. Instead they separated within the House itself, one side on the right of the Chair, the other on the left, and were counted bench by bench on each side in turn. Passing to the left of the Chair was the equivalent of leaving the chamber in a division in the House, and the same determining principle applied, except that the supporters of any declaratory resolution proposed in committee went to the right, ‘presumably because it was the purpose of committees to formulate such opinions’.70 Only one teller was nominated by the chairman for each side of the question, and, as the lobby was not used, the Sergeant would confine himself to clearing the galleries and passages, and closing the doors of the chamber. Voting in the election of a Speaker followed the procedure for divisions in committee of the whole, with the Clerk of the House putting the question, one teller nominated for each side, and Members dividing right and left of the Chair;71 while the election of a chairman of the committee of the whole, being an act of the House in full session, involved two tellers, and one side departing into the lobby. Little is known about divisions in select committees, or grand committees, such as the committee of privileges, which met outside the chamber itself. Most would presumably have been too small for formal divisions and votes, except the committee of privileges, which certainly divided quite frequently, and which could be attended by upwards of 300 Members.72 Since this committee met in the Commons chamber (from at least 1699), we may infer that the same procedure was followed as for divisions in committee of the whole.73

Certain other features were common to divisions in the House itself and in committee. If a decision affected a Member personally he would be expected to withdraw before the question was put. The fact that Hon. John Granville ‘stayed in [the House] and voted for himself’ in the election of a chairman of the committee of supply in March 1702 was regarded by Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, as ‘pretty extraordinary’.74 More appropriate was the conduct of Richard Steele* in the great debate in March 1714 on his expulsion from the House. Steele made a speech in his own defence and promptly left the chamber.75 This was indubitably incorrect form in election cases, as Hatsell’s observation, though dating from much later in the century, makes clear:76

The rule ... is not, in many cases, sufficiently observed. It was always attended to in questions relative to the seat of the Member ... and has been strictly observed in cases of very great moment: but in matters of lesser importance, yet where the private interest of the Member has been essentially concerned, it has been entirely neglected.

Not even Sir Rowland Gwynne*, who was shameless enough to have spoken from the floor in the committee of privileges in 1690 in his own behalf on the New Radnor Boroughs election, could bring himself to vote as well, and when the petition against him was reported he was not present to add to the single vote cast in his favour.

In the unusual event of the numbers in a division being equal, the Speaker (or chairman of the committee) would give a casting vote. There was no formal rule of the House as to how this privilege should be exercised, judgment being left to the Speaker’s discretion, though the House expected to be told ‘the reasons which induce him to it’.77 These were not copied into the

Journals until the session of 1714, but were being stated to the House as early as 1702.78 During this period the Speaker’s casting vote was exercised in nine divisions: once by Sir John Trevor, on 7 Feb. 1695, in favour of an amendment to the engrossed land tax bill; once by Sir Thomas Littleton, on 23 Jan. 1700, in favour of granting leave for a bill to prolong the prohibition on the export of corn; three times by Robert Harley, on 26 and 30 Apr. 1702, against allowing relief bills in relation to the Irish forfeitures, and on 15 Nov. 1703 to read the order of the day for taking into consideration the Queen’s Speech; once by John Smith I, on 25 Feb. 1708, against an instruction to the committee on the Equivalent bill; once by William Bromley II, on 16 Apr. 1712, for agreeing with the committee on an amendment to the Greenwich Hospital bill; and twice by (Sir) Thomas Hanmer, on 19 Apr. 1714, to agree with a committee amendment to the tobacco drawbacks bill (the occasion of William Lowndes’s discomfiture), and on 7 May 1714, to commit the aliens’ goods bill. In some of these decisions it is possible to detect the operation of general principles. Agreement to a motion for committal was justified by Hanmer in 1714 in that it afforded an opportunity to Members to reconsider the measure, a precursor of the modern practice of avoiding a final decision: ‘in regard, if it was a good bill, it would be lost unless it was committed, and if anything was bad in it, it might be amended by the committee’.79 Reluctance to tie down the House to a particular course of action would also have provided a rationale for Smith’s decision in 1708 to veto an instruction to the Equivalent bill. A rather different approach was evident in Harley’s refusal of a proposed relief bill for Sir John Dillon in 1702, grounded on the fact that ‘if the petition was allowed it [w]ould repeal two Acts of Parliament’.80 A similar argument presumably underpinned the decision four days later to reject a second such relief bill. It is possible to see some consistency of another kind in two contrasting judgments on financial questions, Bromley’s acceptance of the amendment to the Greenwich Hospital bill, and Hanmer’s denial of an amendment to the Tobacco Drawbacks bill, the principle in this instance being not to impose taxation where a majority of the House had not supported it.81 But of course almost every one of these decisions could be explained in a different way, in terms of political expediency. As Peter Wentworth described it, Lowndes’s unfortunate absence in 1714 gave the ‘whimsical’ Hanmer the chance to give a judgment ‘against the Court’.82

Ballotting was used in the House to elect the Members of parliamentary commissions, each Member making out a list of his own choice and handing this to the Clerk of the House or Clerk Assistant as they made they way along the benches. Party managers circularized their followers with the details of a pre-arranged slate of favoured candidates, but there would be no official list of candidates and Members were not obliged to restrict their choice unless the relevant legislation had included specifications about the composition of the commission; that it must, or must not, include sitting Members, for example. The final list of nominations for trustees under the Irish Forfeitures Resumption Act of 1700 ran to the extraordinary total of 133 names (for 13 available places), no less than 44 of whom received a single vote, and 84 less than 10 votes.83 In the event of a tie for the last available place in the ballot the Speaker once again enjoyed had a casting vote, which Sir John Trevor was able to exercise in 1694 in deciding the seventh commissioner of accounts, in preferring the Court Whig financier Sir James Houblon* to the politically less important bureaucrat John Pasc(h)all, one of the commissioners for prizes.

The 1707-8 session witnessed an abortive attempt, on the part of Country Whig activists, to introduce a system of ballotting to decide divisions in the House over election cases. The committee appointed to consider what methods might be taken to improve (and to speed up) the adjudication of election petitions recommended on 18 Feb. 1708 that for the future all decisions should be determined by ballot. A further resolution of the committee was adopted three days later, prescribing the use of a ‘ballotting box’ and balls, and the involvement of the Clerk and Clerk Assistant, supervised by one representative from each side of the question. Each Member voting was to ‘take a ball in his bare hand, and hold it up between his finger and thumb, before he put it into the box’. On 26 Feb. these arrangements came into operation for the first time, in the trial of the petition for Ashburton. The cumbersome nature of the system immediately became apparent:

the ballotting was prepared according to the orders of the House for that purpose; and Sir Godfrey Copley [2nd Bt.]* and Mr [Anthony] Henley* were appointed by the Speaker to attend the box: and the Clerk, and the Clerk Assistant, went with the box, and balls, and the said two Members with them, round the several benches of the House; and the Members sitting in their places took the balls and put them into the box: after which the box was carried to the clerks’ table; and, after counting the balls at the table by the clerks, in the presence of the two said Members (who stood one at each end of the table), the two Members went to the bar, and came up to the table (as usual, on other occasions of reporting), and reported to the Speaker, that the Yeas were 189, and the Noes 148.

The whole exercise took over an hour to complete, and to make matters worse, the rules of the ballot stated that ‘nobody must move in that time, whatever the occasion may be’, which made it an endurance test for the Members. Because ballotting in this manner was such a slow and laborious business, and perhaps also because party managers ‘disliked this move towards impartiality’, it was effectively abandoned. No further election petition was heard that session, and in the following November an attempt to reintroduce the system was defeated (though by no more than nine votes). It was revived again in December 1710, in a House of Commons full of young and politically inexperienced ‘Country’ Tories but was defeated once more, this time by the crushing majority of 247 votes to 39.84


Procedural Changes 1690-1715

The greater frequency of parliamentary sessions after 1688, and the greater volume of business transacted in the Commons, resulted in a significant number of changes in procedure during this period, some recorded officially, in the form of new standing orders, others adopted informally through the establishment of precedents.

In a few cases these changes arose directly from constitutional developments embodied in statute: alterations to the oaths of allegiance and supremacy in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent imposition on all Members in 1702 of a compulsory oath of Abjuration; the exclusion of office-holders under the various Place Acts, culminating in the Regency Act of 1706, which obliged anyone taking office during the sitting of a Parliament to resign his seat, with the opportunity of re-election; and the new arrangements consequent upon the Union with Scotland.

The Parliaments of 1690-1715 also saw the adoption of 32 new standing orders by the House, seven of which (all arising from the adoption in 1708 of a system of balloting to decide the outcome of election petitions) were subsequently vacated or rescinded.85 Taken as a whole, these new orders may be seen to reflect the increased importance of Parliament after the Revolution, since they were responding in different ways to heavier demands on the parliamentary timetable, stronger public interest in the day-to-day business of the Commons, and the greater number of disputed elections issuing in petitions. Seven orders (adopted between 1690 and 1708) related to private bills. In 1699 some attempt was made to introduce system into this area of legislation, when it was provided that each reading of a private bill be separated by at least three clear days; that the chairman of the 2nd-reading committee inform the House as to whether the allegations in the bill had been properly examined and the parties involved had given consent; and that no committee on a private bill sit without having given a week’s public notice. Subsequently the House insisted that all private bills be printed before their 1st reading (1705) and the required delay between 1st and 2nd reading was extended to 30 days (1708).86 There was also a special provision for private bills relating to Ireland, insisting that a term’s public notice be given in the four courts in Dublin of the applicant’s intention to bring in a bill at Westminster (6 Feb. 1708); an indication of how far this area of parliamentary business had expanded in recent years. Four orders related to questions of privilege, six to the clearing of ‘strangers’ from the precincts of the chamber,87 nine to the hearing of election petitions (all but one of which was connected with the abortive balloting scheme), and two more to the preservation of the privacy in proceedings: on 25 Mar. 1699 it was ordered that no Member ‘do take a paper, or the minute-books, from off the table, to transcribe in the House’;88 and on 25 Feb. 1703, that ‘no Votes of the House shall be printed without the particular order of the House’.89

Most of the new precedents recorded in this period90 were concerned with settling the arrangements for conferences between the two Houses of Parliament, which became a regular feature of parliamentary sessions (and not just over such major issues as the impeachments of the Whig ministers in 1701 or the case of Ashby v. White in 1703-5), and with the process of legislation. The successive changes to the rule preventing late motions, pushing back the deadline from noon to 2 p.m., is an indication of the increasing pressure on parliamentary time.91 Other significant innovations had the effect of speeding up business, or facilitating management: the admission of adjournment motions during debate on another question;92 and various expedients to enable the ministry to force through its legislative programme in spite of minor setbacks.93 Ministers were consistently pushing back the boundaries of legitimate practice, especially in relation to supply. In January 1694, for example, Charles Montagu* and other Court Whigs argued strongly that amendments could be received to a bill after engrossment, in this case to remove an appropriating clause to a money bill.94 Technically, once a bill had been rejected it could not be reintroduced in the same session, though Speaker Onslow (Arthur) recalled various exceptions, including the bill against hawkers in 1691-2.95 The usual form, when the House disliked a particular measure but wished to leave the way open for a similar bill to the same general purpose, was to allow the original bill ‘to lie on the table’.96 During Anne’s reign several new expedients were adopted to circumvent (or simply override) this rule, usually in matters of supply. The proceedings on the land tax bill in December 1706 allowed a clause which had been rejected at the report stage to be reintroduced (this time successfully) two days later at the 3rd reading, and in 1712 the House went further when the rejected leather duty bill reappeared under another name. Less flagrant examples, tending in the same direction, occurred in April 1707, when a short prorogation was specifically designed to enable the introduction into the Commons of a new bill, similar in scope to one defeated in the Lords, concerning the importation of foreign goods into Scotland;97 in February 1709, when the House ordered the preparation of a bill designed to explain an Act passed in that same session on the export of coin; and in April 1711, when a mistake was made by the Treasury bench in a supply bill, resulting in the insertion of the wrong rate for the coal duty, whereupon an instruction was given to the 2nd-reading committee on another bill to insert a clause to put matters right. Difficulties might also arise in supply debates when duties voted in ways and means were altered, removed or appropriated. A failed attempt by the administration in January 1698 to increase the amount voted for the army establishment by instructing the committee to consider the maintenance of ‘guards and garrisons’ was cited as a precedent in a subsequent session by Members wishing to extend the scope of the deficiencies bill to provide for the debts due to army clothiers.98 Previously instructions had been used by the Country opposition to amend supply bills in committee so as to appropriate revenues, or to remove particular duties, and in 1707 the ministry succeeded, without even resorting to the device of an ‘instruction’, in reintroducing into the annuities bill ‘additional impositions’ which had been discussed but voted down in ways and means. So in April 1712, when an instruction was proposed to the soap duty bill to leave out the duties on bricks and other building materials, the House debated the proper method of proceeding, and agreed that it would be best to bring in a new bill, and to substitute this for the original.99

General observations on the behaviour of Members tended to assert a recent decline in parliamentary manners. Sir Richard Cocks described the House as ‘a bear garden’. ‘There is such a noise’, he wrote, ‘one can scarce hear or mind what is said’; in particular, at committee sittings on elections ‘some of the Members come in drunk, some sleep and some [are] tumultuous’.100 Such comments may in part at least be ascribed to prudishness, and Cocks did have the grace to admit that, although at first his experiences ‘bred in me a melancholy fear lest this age had degenerated, but this fear vanished upon reading the Journals of the happy times of Queen Elizabeth; there I found they complained of the same things, of the noise and tumults worse than ever’. However, Cocks’s diary offers many glimpses of the ways in which a House containing large numbers of inexperienced Members could fall off from the strict observance of parliamentary rules, to the disgust of old hands like Sir Edward Seymour, who gave it as his solemn opinion on one particularly trying occasion that ‘the not observing of orders was very dangerous’.101 Seymour (a self-appointed parliamentary sage whose own record of adherence to procedure had not always been without blemish) was infuriated when ignorance, and even adherence to fashion in dress, undermined the dignity of the House. Cocks reported on 2 April 1702 that

Sir Edward Seymour, after an harangue complaining of the disorders of the House, and speaking to order, gave it down for a rule and for orders that there ought not to be more than one uncovered in the House at one time, and said that gentlemen were come to such a beauishness in their perrukes that they were afraid to put on their hats for fear of disturbing their periwigs, and that that beau had not his hat on this fortnight, pointing to somebody; this made him cover his head and the House laugh. Just after came in Mr Vice-Chamberlain Bertie [Hon. Peregrine II], and he knew nothing of what had passed, and he sat without his hat, and they called to order and he did not know what had passed, but at last he was told and was forced to make an impression upon his fine periwig by putting on his hat. That was no sooner over but he cried to order, because some[one else’s hat] was off; and after these fooleries were over we went upon the adjourned report …102



The Palace of Westminster was a busy and often teeming place, open to all kinds of people: those with business to transact in either House of Parliament, or in the courts and offices; those in attendance, servants, footmen, and chairmen; and the merely curious. On one occasion Swift recorded that he had gone ‘to see the Parliament meet, but only saw a great crowd’.104 In particular, the immediate environs of the Commons chamber were usually crowded when the House was in session. MPs might find the presence of the public in the lobby a nuisance, or at least certain elements of the public.105 In 1698 a thief broke open ‘the boxes at the lobby door’ and stole hundreds of ‘post-letters directed to Members at the House’. Worse still, at least twice in this period angry mobs appeared in the precincts of Parliament and the magistrates had to be summoned: in 1696, when ‘hundreds’ of London silk-weavers petitioned against East Indian imports,106 and in 1700, when a crowd of disbanded soldiers demanded their arrears of pay,.107 But little could be done to restrict access to the Palace. From time to time, to ease congestion, the Sergeant-at-arms would be ordered to clear loitering footmen from the stairs and passages (on the grounds of their ‘rudeness’ to Members), and chairmen from the vicinity of Westminster Hall. Otherwise, those who did not loiter habitually were free to come and go as they pleased.108

It was a different matter with the House itself. In theory ‘strangers’ were not permitted. In April 1690 the Sergeant was ordered to ‘attend the House from time to time’ and ‘take into his custody any stranger or strangers that he shall see, or be informed of to be, in the House or gallery, while the House, or any committee of the whole House, is sitting’. The same form of words was repeated at the beginning of the 1705/6 session, and turned into a standing order, accompanied by a injunction to the Sergeant to ensure that the back door to the Speaker’s chamber was locked. In 1711 the further addition was made ‘that no Member of this House do presume to bring any stranger or strangers into the House or the gallery of, while the House is sitting’.109

The phrasing of these orders may have implied a blanket exclusion, but in fact ‘strangers’ were only removed on particular occasions: at every division, whether in the full House or in committee, according to rule; at times when the House made a specific reinforcing order, as happened in January 1694 and again in January 1710;110 and, after 1705, whenever any individual Member activated the standing order by taking notice of the presence of ‘strangers’, one instance of which triggered a general purge during the debate on 18 Mar. 1714 on the expulsion of Richard Steele.111 At other times the principle was ignored. Lord Strafford’s brother, Peter Wentworth, was a regular attender of debates in Queen Anne’s reign, sometimes for hours on end, and, even when obliged to leave at the putting of a question, was quick to return.112 Members of the Lords also frequented the Lower House, where their presence was sometimes noted in debate but never complained of. On the rare occasions on which an individual peer attended the Commons in his official capacity special arrangements would be made. The instances in this period were the Earl of Torrington (Arthur Herbert) on 12 Nov. 1690, the Duke of Leeds (Sir Thomas Osborne) on 27 Apr. 1695, and Lord Somers (Sir John*) on 14 Apr. 1701, each to make a statement in his own vindication in relation to judicial proceedings, in Torrington’s case a bill to clarify the powers of the Admiralty commissioners to court martial him, and for both Leeds and Somers an imminent impeachment; Lord Peterborough on 27 Jan. 1702 to ‘make his defence’ over his conduct during the Malmesbury election; and Bishop Nicolson, on 14 Mar. 1711, to give evidence (though not to be questioned, which was impermissible) on the disputed election for Carlisle. Each time the formalities were the same: ‘a chair set within the bar for my lord to sit down on’, and the mace resting on the table.113 Even then, some Members were unhappy: there was grumbling in Somers’s case and outright objections to Peterborough’s admission as ‘an invasion’ of the ‘rights’ of the Commons.114 Yet a lord who was simply listening to debates ‘incognito’ would not usually be interfered with. In December 1705, when MPs were occupied with the intricacies of the ‘Scotch Plot’ Sir Edward Seymour spotted ‘my Lord Wharton [Hon. Thomas*]’, and turned his discovery into a jest, remarking that ‘there was a noble lord there (nodding towards the place where he was), who could give them the best account of the mystery of proceedings in Scotland if he pleased’.115 Even more revealing was the easy acceptance by the House in December 1707 of the brooding presence of a band of Scottish peers to listen to what MPs had to say in successive debates in committee of the whole, and in the House itself, about the continuance of the privy council of Scotland.116 At a crucial point in the discussions on the report of the committee on 11 Dec., the Duke of Roxburghe ‘beckoned’ one of his followers, William Bennet*, to come up to him from the body of the House to receive instructions on how to proceed.117 It may well be that already in this period members of the House of Lords were regarded as privileged ‘strangers’, whose presence was tolerated in all but the most exceptional circumstances, a category that by mid-century also included the officers of the Upper House, and Members of either chamber of the Irish Parliament.118

The usual places for ‘strangers’ to perch were in the galleries, especially perhaps the gallery at the west end of the House, opposite the Chair, and on the benches underneath, between the door to the chamber and the bar of the House, the seats ‘below the bar’, which in due course became the recognized accommodation for visiting members of the House of Lords.119 However, contemporary references to the location of ‘strangers’ during debates are often imprecise. While the Scots peers in 1707 were looking down from ‘the gallery’, possibly the west gallery, Wharton in 1705 was said to have been ‘in one of the galleries’. Peter Wentworth’s reports sometimes note specifically that he had been ‘in the gallery’, but otherwise he uses the form, ‘I was in the House of Commons’, which could conceivably mean that he had actually penetrated to the floor of the chamber. In the turmoil of a full House (especially at the beginning of a new Parliament, with many unfamiliar faces120) anyone might slip in unobserved. One Suffolk squire up in town on holiday in 1714, and visiting the Palace of Westminster, found himself in the ranks of the Members listening to the Queen’s Speech. He had

had the good luck, without any assistance, to place himself so well at the door of the House of Lords, that when the usher of the Black Rod came with (Sir) Thomas Hanmer [II] * to the door, he clapped in before all the Members at Sir Thomas’s back, and with him to the bar of the Lords, and stood behind him while he made his speech to the Lord Chancellor.121

No example of confusion, however, could surpass the bizarre scene in 1694, when, during the reception of ex-Secretary of State Nottingham’s report concerning intelligence on the Brest fleet, ‘a Frenchman got privately into the House of Commons and sat down some time before he was discovered’ (and arrested).122

Particular problems arose from the practice of holding meetings of the committee of privileges in the evenings in the Commons chamber. Not only did large numbers of Members attend, in an obscurely lit room, but so did counsel and witnesses. The possibilities of ‘strangers’ slipping in unnoticed were multiplied considerably. Peter Wentworth for one, attended regularly, and the fact that Narcissus Luttrell’s* digest of news, compiled mainly from newsletters (the ‘Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs’) includes so many details of divisions in the committee suggests that the newsletter writers on whom he relied had had access either to the committee itself or to reliable witnesses, who may not always have been MPs. By 1699 infiltration into the chamber during sessions of the committee had become so worrying that a complaint was made to the House

that there have of late been such great numbers of strangers at the committee of privileges and elections, that the Members of the House have not been able to come into the House, and take their seats therein; and that ... there hath been such crowding in the passage, by witnesses and others, that the witnesses cannot have free passage into, and out of, the committee.

As a result it was ordered

that the Sergeant-at-arms ... do give order to the doorkeepers and messengers ... constantly to attend the committee or privileges and elections, and other committees sitting in the House; and take care that no persons do crowd, or sit, upon the seats of the House, either below, or above in the gallery, where the Members ought to sit ...123

The order was repeated two years later, and in 1705 merged in the comprehensive standing order to the Sergeant to clear strangers.124 Indeed, it may have been problems with committee proceedings that had focused the concerns of the House on the more general issue of access.


Parliamentary Printing and the Provision of Information

All Acts of Parliament and speeches from the throne were printed by the King’s or Queen’s printer (who was paid from Treasury funds).125 From 1689 the Votes of the House (comprising a bare account of proceedings, in the form of orders and resolutions) were also published on a regular basis, though the ‘usual order’ on which their publication was grounded did not become a standing order in this period.126 The source of the Votes may well have been minute-books kept for the purpose by the Clerk Assistant (this was certainly the case later in the century).127 The form of the ‘usual order’ required that the publishing of the Votes be supervised by the Speaker, who was himself to appoint the printer ( in practice the person named would often be a bookseller, who would himself employ the printer and then take responsibility for the distribution of the finished product). Copies were delivered to each Member free of charge, even into the country,128 and it seems to have been common practice for Members to supply further copies to their friends and constituents, especially borough representatives, for whom the duty of furnishing the corporation which had elected them with a regular supply of the Votes seems to have recognized as at least an implicit condition of their candidacy.129 Otherwise, publication was very much a commercial venture, and a successful one at that, the income from sales paying for the provision of free copies to M.P.s, and eventually turning a useful profit for the Speaker. By 1701 copies of the Votes were appearing with their price attached.130 Indeed, Defoe’s Legion Memorial in 1701 included the high cost among the grievances of the people of England against the House of Commons:

Your Speaker exacting the exorbitant rate of £10 per diem for the Votes, and giving the printer encouragement to raise it upon the people, by selling them at 4d. per sheet, is an illegal and arbitrary exaction, dishonourable to the House, and burdensome to the people.

The House ordered the printing of other materials on a less regular basis, the work again undertaken commercially. Those clergymen appointed to preach sermons before the Members were routinely requested to publish their text, as much out of politeness, one suspects, as in testimony to the power of their words. More substantially, a new order, beginning in November 1705, which achieved the status of a ‘usual order’ when reissued in 1706, 1708 and 1709, required that all private bills be available before their first reading in printed form, the cost to be borne by the beneficiaries.131 Public bills were only occasionally ordered to be printed. Again, the examples date from the second half of the period: the bills to regulate the Royal African Company, in 1709 and 1712, a bill to oblige Edward Whitaker to settle his accounts with the Treasury, introduced in March 1709, and a measure to establish a public registry of land in Berkshire, in 1710.132 Previously the House had required the printing of the successive Occasional Conformity Bills in 1703, 1704 and 1705, but in each case these orders had been issued after the passage of the bills through the House, as part of a politically-motivated propaganda campaign against the Lords, and not during the legislative process itself, for disinterested purposes of information.133 The first order to publish one of these bills had occurred in February 1703, when the Commons decided to publish all the proceedings relating to occasional conformity: its own bill, the Lords’ amendments, and the reports of the conferences between the two Houses.

But this in itself was not the first example of the House seeking to appeal to ‘the people’ by publishing official accounts of its proceedings. As early as 1696 the Country opposition had insisted on the inclusion in the Votes of details of the division on the resolution condemning those who had advised the King to veto the Elections Bill, and in May 1698 they went further, in securing the publication in extenso of the report of the committee of inquiry into the petition brought by the Royal Lustring Company in defence of its monopoly, an affair which Country Members wished to exploit in order to embarrass Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Montagu*.134 Country party leaders were also responsible for publishing in 1700 the report of the commissioners of inquiry into Irish forfeitures, and Tories became so enamoured of the tactic that at the end of the 1701 session they persuaded the House to order the publication of all the parliamentary proceedings concerning the impeachments. By this time the ‘paper war’ between the parties had reached new heights, and each side was acutely aware of the importance of public opinion, so much so that the contents of the Votes themselves were being manipulated for political ends. The Whig Sir Richard Cocks remarked disdainfully of one batch of resolutions passed on the subject of the impeachments at the end of May 1701, ‘all this was but a feint to amuse the people, for they [the Tories] knew there was nothing against the lords, and they were very uneasy to be pressed beyond what they intended, and to have this appear in their Votes to the people, who were too much incensed against them before’.135 It was not long before the printing of parliamentary proceedings had become a favourite Tory stratagem. In November 1702 they obtained the publication of the committee proceedings on the Worcestershire election, which recorded the details of the complaint made by the High Tory Sir John Pakington, 4th Bt.*, against the Whig Bishop Lloyd of Worcester.136 The following February they were responsible for the appearance not only of the full parliamentary history of the occasional conformity bill, but also the proceedings in the committee of accounts; in March 1704 it was occasional conformity again; and in 1705 not only the third instalment of the occasional conformity saga, but a full account of the proceedings in the infamous case of the ‘men of Aylesbury’ (Ashby v. White), in which both sides, Tory Commoners and Whig Lords, shamelessly constructed their parliamentary resolutions with the intention of influencing opinion out of doors.137 Interestingly, there is only one instance of a publication order during the brief period of Whig ascendancy in the lower House, from 1708 to 1710, the report of the bankruptcy of the Mines Adventurers’ Company, which served to embarrass the prominent Tory back-bencher Sir Humphrey Mackworth, and others of his party colleagues.138 But when the Tories recovered their dominance at the 1710 general election they were soon back to their old tricks, publishing the reports of inquiries into abuses in the imprest accounts, and in the victualling, and investigations of the commissioners of public accounts implicating the Duke of Marlborough, his secretary Adam de Cardonnel*, and the former secretary-at-war, Robert Walpole II*.139

While Members in general, and Tories in particular, were becoming habituated to the idea of occasionally authorizing the publication of details of politically-sensitive proceedings, far beyond the skeleton accounts provided in the Votes (and, at the same time, of deliberately enhancing phraseology of their resolutions and addresses with a view to their popular impact through the medium of the Votes), the House remained implacably hostile to the idea of unauthorized publication. An order of 1690 (subsequently reissued as a ‘usual order’ in 1694, 1695, 1697 and 1704) expressly forbade publication ‘without the particular order of the House’, after a debate in which reference had been made to ‘newsletters and other written papers’. Despite this prohibition, journalists and pamphleteers continued to publish from time to time even quite lengthy accounts of Commons proceedings, as in the Collection of Debates and Proceedings in 1694 and 1695 upon the Inquiry into the Late Briberies and Corrupt Practices (1695), or the History of the Trial of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. Individual speeches appeared as printed broadsides, often to appease the vanity of their authors.140 The publication of division-lists also became a minor growth industry despite occasional expressions of general disapproval, and the particular censures passed on Anthony Rowe* in 1690 (whose opportunistic Letter to a Friend purported to name all those Members who had voted in the Convention against declaring the throne vacant) and Henry Chivers* in 1699 (for distributing among the Wiltshire voters a list of ‘Courtiers’ who had opposed the disbanding bill). For a time there even flourished a genre of parliamentary news reporting in newsletter form, essentially a modified version of the Votes which abbreviated the more tedious matter and expanded the more interesting with the inclusion of some notes on debates.141

Evidence from the private papers of the Members themselves indicates that the bills, petitions, submissions from government offices and other materials laid before the House circulated in manuscript. Robert Harley’s personal archive, in particular, contains a vast array of such materials, items from which were then used as scrap paper on which Harley made notes of the arguments deployed in debates, or prepared his own contributions. Where handwritten, these documents were almost always been transcribed in a clerk’s hand. In many cases their origin is unknown, although petitioners (especially in election cases) were presumably responsible for preparing and distributing copies of their own cases; and indeed a substantial proportion were printed, usually on single sheets. Early drafts of public bills would circulate among Members of the select committee responsible for introducing the bill, and sometimes more widely, among interested parties whose advice was being sought.142 The clerks of the House prepared drafts of these public bills (private bills were probably farmed out to specialist attorneys), 143 and may have employed copying clerks in their turn. But it should be noted that in 1699 the House felt it necessary to make a standing order ‘that no Member of the House do take a paper, or the minute books from off the table, to transcribe in the House’, an order that was honoured thereafter in the breach as much as in the observance.144


Parliamentary Commissions

The recurrent parliamentary commissions of this period were far from being a constitutional innovation.145 Long before 1690 Members had debated, and occasionally even adopted, proposals to appoint standing commissioners, responsible to Parliament, to inquire into matters of public concern (particularly in the realm of finance) or to carry out the intentions of specific statutes. The Convention of 1660 had toyed with the idea of establishing commissioners ‘for the army and treasurers at war’, and commissioners of accounts (on both a national and local basis);146 and in 1667 the Cavalier Parliament had actually set up a commission of accounts (under the Act of 19 & 20 Car. II, c. 1), which lasted for three years.147 But the frequency with which Members (especially those inclined to opposition) resorted to the device of a parliamentary commission between 1690 and 1715 denotes a more sustained interest.

The first and most important of these commissions was the commission of public accounts, set up in 1690 and enjoying a more-or-less continuous existence, with some interruptions and very brief intervals, until 1697.148 A bill for this purpose was first attempted in the spring of 1690, but ran out of parliamentary time and was indefinitely adjourned at its 3rd reading, on the last day of that session. Nevertheless, the successful passage of the bill through committee in the Commons had set a precedent, and in resolutions at the committal the principle had been established that commissioners were to be selected by the House, and that sitting Members themselves should be eligible to serve.149 In the following autumn the measure was reintroduced, and quickly passed into law in January 1691 as the Act 2 Gul. et Mar., § 2, c. 11. The nine commissioners, chosen by ballot, were all MPs.150 Their initial term of office expired a year later, on 24 Jan. 1692, and although the ‘Country party’ majority in the Commons had fully intended to renew the commission in time, it was hindered by a quarrel between the two Houses of Parliament over the bill, engendered by the resolve of some Members to remove the two Admiralty lords, Robert Austen I* and Sir Robert Rich, 2nd Bt.* In consequence, the statutory powers of the commission lapsed briefly before being revived for a year from April 1692 by a clause tacked to the Poll Tax Act (3 Gul. et Mar., c. 6). The nine commissioners were maintained in office until April 1693, when a further continuing Act (4 Gul. et Mar., c. 10) did at last remove Austen and Rich, thus reducing the number to seven, where it remained. The annual renewal in April 1694 (under the statute 5 & 6 Gul. et Mar. c. 23) involved another ballot, and further replacements, as did those of 1695 (under 6 & 7 Gul. III, c. 9) and 1696 (under 7 & 8 Gul. III, c. 8). All but one of the newcomers were sitting M.P.s, the exception being Sir James Houblon* in 1694, an influential City financier who would in due course be returned to Parliament, in 1698, on the Whig interest. On 8 Apr. 1697 the commission came to an end.

In its early years the accounts commission played a powerful part in the campaign of the Country party to bring the actions of government under scrutiny. But in due course Courtiers were able to infiltrate its ranks. Four supporters of the Junto Whig ministry were successful in the 1694 ballot, the M.P.s Sir Edward Abney, Sir Thomas Pope Blount, 1st Bt., and Charles Hutchinson, as well as Sir James Houblon; and although there was some small improvement in the position of the Country party in the following year, with the election of Hon. Henry Boyle* in place of a Court Whig, and an almost complete recovery in 1696, when only one adherent of the Junto was chosen, the commission’s teeth were no longer as sharp as they had been.151 For example, the board did not meet once between October 1695 and April 1696, nor at all after December 1696.

Although leave was given in March 1699 for a bill which would have resurrected the defunct commission, nothing emerged from the drafting committee,152 and it was not until the following year that an accounts commission appeared, and then in a slightly different form. In the meantime Parliament had established another commission of inquiry, which, presumably because of its subject-matter, did not attract the ambitions of Members themselves to serve on it. Tacked to the Land Tax Act of May 1699 (10 Gul. III, c. 8) were two clauses (xciv-xcv) appointing commissioners ‘to take account of the grants of the Irish forfeitures’ which had arisen from the Jacobite war of 1689-91. Seven commissioners were chosen by ballot, of whom one was an Irish peer (Lord Drogheda), five were members of the Irish house of commons, and one, John Trenchard, was a prominent English political pamphleteer with Irish connexions (having been educated at Trinity College, Dublin).153 Their report, presented to the Commons on 15 Dec. 1699, prompted further action, and after a short debate the House voted to bring in a bill to resume all grants of Irish estates forfeited since the accession of William and Mary, and apply the proceeds to public funds. Political wrangling once again changed the form of the legislation, which eventually appeared in April 1700 incorporated into another Land Tax Act (11 Gul. III, c. 2, as clauses i-lxii). The task of recovering and disposing of the property was given to 13 trustees, again chosen by ballot.154 Partly because the resumption was unpopular among Protestants in Ireland, there were fewer Irishmen on this list than on the commission of inquiry. The vast majority of the trustees were in fact English, and although four were to be returned to the Westminster Parliament at some point during their lives, none were sitting Members at the time of their election, or during their subsequent service on the trust, between 1700 and 1703.

It may be coincidental that in February 1700 the Commons returned to the idea of establishing a commission of public accounts, but this time with a limited remit and including no current MPs. The Act ‘appointing commissioners to take, examine and determine the debts due to the army, Navy and transport service’ (11 Gul. III, c. 8) named five commissioners (previously selected by ballot), none of whom were sitting in Parliament, though William Farrer had served for Bedford prior to 1698 and would be elected again in November 1701, after the expiry of the commission, which was originally established for one year, and not renewed.155 The function of this new board was quite different from the earlier accounts commission; not to audit the government’s books but to establish the extent of arrears of pay and other debts due to individuals, and issue debentures to enable creditors to be reimbursed, in order to settle what had become a widespread and much-publicized grievance.

The following year saw an attempt to revive the first accounts commission, in the plenitude of its power, and, as originally intended, as an instrument for the scrutiny of all governmental expenditure. A bill to set up a commission of public accounts was introduced into the Commons in April 1701, and passed all its stages in the Lower House before becoming bogged down by a dispute between the two Houses, and falling a victim to the prorogation.156 There were to be seven commissioners, as in 1693-7, chosen by ballot, and none were to be excluded ab initio except those who had ‘any office of profit’ under the Crown or were ‘accountable to His Majesty’. (Seven High Tories were in fact elected while the bill was debated in committee.)157 In the very next session advocates of a commission tried again, this time with cross-party backing.158 In committee (of the whole) it was agreed that, as before, there should be seven commissioners, chosen by ballot, and none of them public office-holders or in any other way ‘accountable’ to the King. In addition, for the first time it was stipulated that the commissioners had to be ‘Members of this House’, that is to say sitting Members.159 The bill also made explicit the continuity between this commission and its predecessor of 1690-7. The Royal Assent was conferred after the accession of Queen Anne (as 1 Anne, c. 4), and the Act was renewed a year later (as 1 Anne § 2, c. 23) until 25 Mar. 1704, when it came to an unexpected conclusion.160 The second renewing bill, although it had passed the Commons on 2 Mar., ran into trouble in the Lords and failed to make its way through the legislative process before the session ended.161

When the Country Tories eventually regained a majority in the House of Commons, after the general election of 1710, one of their highest priorities was the re-establishment of a commission of public accounts.162 An Act passed in 1711, in the first session of the new Parliament, revived the commission of 1702-4, in the same terms: seven commissioners, to be chosen by ballot, none of whom might hold office under the Crown or be ‘accountable’ to the monarch in any other way. A significant difference was that the commissioners were no longer required to be M.P.s, though it was clearly anticipated that they would be, since, in order to circumvent the ‘place clause’ of the 1706 Regency Act, it was stated specifically that a place on the commission would not disqualify its holder from sitting in the House.163

And indeed all seven vacancies were filled by current Members. The Act was renewed, for two years, in March 1712 (by the statute 10 Anne, c. 11), and lapsed on 25 Mar. 1713. An attempt was made to revive it in the 1713 Parliament, but on that occasion, after passing through the Lower House, the bill foundered in the Lords.164

Tory back-benchers in the 1710 Parliament also sought to revive the scheme to resume crown grants made since the Revolution by means of a parliamentary commission, extending their ambitions from Ireland to include a resumption of grants made in England and Wales. Bills were put forward for this purpose in 1711 and 1712, both rejected in the Lords.165 They would have provided for a commission identical to the commission of accounts: seven commissioners, elected in just the same way, and with just the same qualifications.166

The commissions were all ‘offices of profit’, which is why they were specifically exempted from place legislation in Anne’s reign, although Country politicians like Robert Harley*, who was very keen to accept his seat on the commission of accounts in 1690, took pains to differentiate between this kind of public service and being recruited into the service of the Crown. It was a distinction which the majority of Members endorsed: their commissioners were not the same as placemen, since they depended for their appointment on statutory provision and a secret ballot of their parliamentary colleagues, and they were responsible, not to monarch and ministers, but to Parliament. However, commissioners were always paid, and sometimes rather well: the commissioners of public accounts in 1690-7, 1702-4 and 1711-13 received £500 p.a. each;167 the commissioners of army accounts 1700-1 £400;168 the Irish forfeiture inquiry commissioners of 1699 a lump sum of £1,000 each as ‘expenses’;169 and the resumption trustees the princely salary of £1,500 p.a.170 The money came out of the Treasury, which also paid the salaries of the staff whom the commissioners were obliged to employ, and the ‘incidental’ expenses incurred in maintaining an office. The size of the administrative apparatus depended on the amount of work the commissioners were expected to perform. The most heavily burdened were the accounts commissioners of 1690, who employed a secretary, assistant secretary, two book-keepers, a messenger, doorkeeper, porter, and various other clerks and functionaries;171 and the Irish forfeiture trustees, whose administrative costs totalled more than £100,000.172 Even the smaller commissions required a secretary and clerks (the herald and political arithmetician Gregory King serving as secretary to the accounts commissioners of Anne’s reign), and extensive office space.173 The simultaneous existence of more than one commission (as occurred between 1700 and 1703) would inevitably result in competition for accommodation. The reconstructed public accounts commission in 1702 found itself unable to use its former premises in York Buildings, which were still occupied by employees of the commissioners of army accounts, and had to meet instead at ‘the Queen’s Court at Westminster, near the Court of Request”.174 The Irish forfeiture trustees added insult to injury, as far as Irish public opinion was concerned, by taking over the Irish parliamentary building, Chichester House, in Dublin, during a prolonged interval between parliamentary sessions.

The provision of subordinate staff, in greater or lesser numbers, naturally offered opportunities for patronage. Harley’s extensive correspondence contains not only applications for jobs in the service of the first public accounts commission, to which he himself belonged, but later requests for his recommendation to, or ‘interest’ with, members of other commissions. It was to preserve their political integrity from the temptations offered by solicitations of this kind that the accounts commissioners of 1690 decided to fill the seven most important places on their staff by ballot.175 Their successors were not always so sensitive.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

End Notes

  • 1. Strathmore mss at Glamis Castle, box 70, folder 1, bdle. 1, newsletter, 29 Jan. 1701[/2]; Bull. IHR, lii. 37.
  • 2. Cocks Diary, 226.
  • 3. NLS, Advocates’ mss Wodrow letters Quarto VIII, f. 95.
  • 4. Cocks Diary, 23.
  • 5. O.C. Williams, ‘The Topography of the Old House of Commons’ (T/S in HLRO), p. 2. For what follows, see in general P.D.G. Thomas, H. of Commons in 18th Cent. 1-3; H.M. Colvin, Hist. King’s Works, v. 400-11; and the composite plan of the chamber and its immediate environs presented in Brit. Parlty. Lists, 1660-1800: A Reg. eds. Ditchfield, Hayton and Jones (1995), pp. 102-3.
  • 6. Hatton’s New View of London (1708), quoted in N. and Q. ccxiv (1969), p. 89.
  • 7. Hatsell, Precedents (1781), p. 56.
  • 8. Thomas, 131-2.
  • 9. J. Toland, The Art of Governing by Partys … (1701), p. 63, quoted in G. Holmes, Pols. in Age of Anne, 249, where evidence of seating arrangements is carefully reviewed.
  • 10. Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 344-5; Cocks Diary, 54, 57, 213.
  • 11. Evidence of the sitting of windows and lights is taken partly from the painting of the interior of the House of Commons in c. 1710 by Peter Tillemans (frontispiece to this volume).
  • 12. Cocks Diary, 80; CJ, xiii. 379.
  • 13. The Commons 1715-54, i. 3.
  • 14. Hatsell, 120.
  • 15. Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, i. 46.
  • 16. See, for example, HMC Portland, iii. 509; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), Lonsdale mss D/Lons/W2/2/3, James Lowther* to Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. I*, 16 Jan. 1699[/1700], 13 Apr. 1700; Cocks Diary, 94, 195; Swift Stella, ii. 466; Wentworth Pprs. 334.
  • 17. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 473; vi. 397, 520; Cumbria RO (Carlisle), D/Lons/W2/2/3, James to Sir John Lowther I, 16 Jan. 1699[/1700]; HMC Portland, iii. 615; Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 318
  • 18. Cocks Diary, 23.
  • 19. Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 493, 495.
  • 20. Luttrell, iv. 140-1; CJ, xi. 586-8.
  • 21. Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 318; CJ, xv. 520.
  • 22. Luttrell, vi. 398.
  • 23. See below, Appendix 7. Unless otherwise stated, this section is based on O.C. Williams, Clerical Organization of H. of Commons, ch. 3 and app. 2.
  • 24. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvii. 358.
  • 25. Cam. Misc. xx.
  • 26. J.C. Sainty and R.O. Bucholz, Officials of the R. Household: Pt. 1 (IHR, Office-Holders in Modern Britain, xi), 39.
  • 27. CJ, xx. 544.
  • 28. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 27; xxvii. 454.
  • 29. W.R. McKay, Clerks in H. of Commons (HLRO, Occ. Publn. No. 3, 1989).
  • 30. Foster, London Mar. Lic. 134; Shaw, Knights, ii. 253.
  • 31. Sainty and Bucholz, 39.
  • 32. Hist. Reg. 1717, Chron. p. 36.
  • 33. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiii. 27; xvi. 325; xvii. 430; xviii. 188; xix. 55, 205, 208; xxvii. 528; xxviii. 445; Mar. Lic. Vic.-Gen. (Harl. Soc. xxxi), 262.
  • 34. His election was challenged on the grounds that membership of the commission was incompatible with the Speakership, since the latter was an office of profit under the crown, but his supporters argued successfully that, while his salary as Speaker was paid from the Treasury, he was appointed by Parliament.
  • 35. The phrase was Hon. Thomas Wharton’s, in March 1695: CJ, ix. 272, quoted in Parlty. Hist. xvii. 203.
  • 36. Cocks Diary, 63.
  • 37. Thomas, 286-7; Parlty. Hist. xvii. 204.
  • 38. See below.
  • 39. Add. 70140, Harley to Edward Harley*, 25 July 1715; 70213, same to W. Brenand, 28 June 1707; 70079, autobiog. fragment, 11 Sept. 1723.
  • 40. Luttrell Diary, 445.
  • 41. Surrey RO (Guildford), Onslow mss 173/226.
  • 42. Luttrell Diary, 104, 115, 337, 457.
  • 43. For what follows, see in general Thomas, ch. 14.
  • 44. See below and The Business of the House.
  • 45. Quoted in The Commons 1715-54, i. 7.
  • 46. CJ, xv. 596.
  • 47. See The Business of the House.
  • 48. Orders … and Resolutions of the … H. of Commons (1747), p. 43. Sir Joseph Williamson* noted that although ‘a bill brought in may be appointed to be done by one who was even against the bill in debate, but a bill when committed, no one that was against such bill can be of that committee’ (SP 9/18, f. 23).
  • 49. Past and Present, no. 128, p. 70.
  • 50. SP 9/22, f. 26.
  • 51. Burnet, Own Time, iv. 499-500.
  • 52. E.g. Cocks Diary, 52.
  • 53. Add. 42952, f. 167; CJ, x. 554. Cf. Jnl. Mod. Hist. xliii. 207.
  • 54. See below and The Business of the House.
  • 55. CJ, xiv. 4, 212, 391; xv. 7-8, 201, 394; xvi. 210, 403; xvii. 2, 278, 475. A survey of the period as a whole reveals an overall (if irregular) increase in the numbers named to this committee, a tendency accelerated around the turn of the century, at which point the requirement of a quorum (of five) was also dropped. See CJ, x. 429, 540-1, 697; xi. 339; xii. 2; xiii. 8, 647. The figures are: 1690 - 15 (with a quorum of 3); 1691 – 18 (with a quorum of 5); 1692 – 20 (with a quorum of 5); 1695 – 14 (with a quorum of 5); 1697 – 27 (with a quorum of 5); 1699 – 32 (with a quorum of 5); Jan. 1702 – 48; Oct. 1702 – 23; 1703 – 51 (with a quorum of 5) ; 1704 – 50; 1705 – 68; 1706 – 43; 1707 – 52; 1709 – 32; 1710 – 46; 1711 – 42; 1713 – 35; 1714 – 53.
  • 56. SP 9/18, f. 71.
  • 57. CJ, x. 379-80, 394, 409, 415, 446, 465, 541, 544, 561, 621, 660, 692, 697, 701, 811; xi. 71, 119, 173, 202, 226, 228-9, 236, 355, 359, 391, 561, 589, 616; xii. 140, 244, 253, 257, 276, 444, 484; xiii. 6, 8, 279, 314, 338, 380, 776, 819, 873; xiv. 64, 69, 78, 103, 180; xvi. 594.
  • 58. CJ, x. 415, 423, 429, 447, 457, 545, 572, 583, 589, 606, 630-2, 745, 818; xi. 58, 95, 191, 255, 291, 357, 572, 733; xii. 12, 297, 359, 502; xiii. 870; xiv. 21, 414.
  • 59. CJ, x. 456; xiii. 98.
  • 60. Unless otherwise stated, this section is based upon the accounts given in Thomas, 242-63, 278-81; The Commons 1715-54, i. 2; and Brit. Parlty. Lists 1660-1800 eds Ditchfield, Hayton and Jones, 101-4.
  • 61. Hatsell, Precedents (1818), ii. 199, quoted in Thomas, 244.
  • 62. Wentworth Pprs. 379.
  • 63. Dr Williams’s Lib. Morrice ms Q, p. 459, quoted in Bull. IHR, lii. 38.
  • 64. Cocks Diary, 223.
  • 65. Hatsell (1781), ii. 94, quoted in The Commons 1715-54, i. 2.
  • 66. Hatsell (1781), ii. 129.
  • 67. SRO, Montrose mss GD 220/5/808/18, Graham to Duke of Montrose, 13 Feb. 1711.
  • 68. Cocks Diary, 95.
  • 69. Wentworth Pprs. 372.
  • 70. Thomas, 279.
  • 71. CJ, xi. 272; xii. 347; xiii. 325, 645; xv. 5.
  • 72. See e.g. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 477; v. 25, 27, 625; vi. 18, 19, 684; Party and Management in Parlt. ed. C. Jones, 109. A partial division-list survives for a vote in the committee in February 1706, on the Bewdley election: Bull. IHR, xlv. 48-49.
  • 73. Williams, Clerical Organization of H. of Commons, 215-16. It had previously met in the Exchequer Chamber.
  • 74. Cocks Diary, 244.
  • 75. Steele Corresp. ed. Blanchard, 91.
  • 76. Hatsell (1818), ii. 167-72, quoted in Thomas, 246-7.
  • 77. Hatsell (1781), ii. 162-3.
  • 78. Cocks Diary, 269.
  • 79. CJ, xvii. 619.
  • 80. Cocks Diary, 269.
  • 81. In the latter case, Hanmer declared simply that ‘he was against the retrospect’: CJ, xvii. 577.
  • 82. Wentworth Pprs. 372.
  • 83. Add.70036, f. 98.
  • 84. CJ, xv. 551, 559, 577; xvi. 7, 429; Party and Management in Parlt. ed. C. Jones, 110-11; Holmes, 145-6.
  • 85. They are conveniently listed in B. Kemp, Votes and Standing Orders of the House of Commons: The Beginning (H.C. Lib. Doc. No. 8), pp. 32-41.
  • 86. Kemp, 40-41; O.C. Williams, Hist. Development of Priv. Bill Procedure in H. of Commons, i. 26.
  • 87. See below.
  • 88. For an example of this order being infringed, with the result that a bill was mislaid, see Cocks Diary, 252.
  • 89. See below.
  • 90. For which see Hatsell, Precedents (1781), supplemented by other collections, published and unpublished, of which the most useful are W.R. McKay (ed), Observations, Rules and Orders of H. of Commons: An Early Procedural Collection (H.C. Lib. Doc. No. 17); HLRO, H.C. Lib, ms 12, Salwey Winnington’s* notes; Surrey RO (Guildford) Onslow mss 173/226, notes by Speaker Arthur Onslow† concerning parliamentary procedure; SP 9/18, notes by Sir Joseph Williamson concerning parliamentary affairs; SP 9/22, Williamson’s notebk.
  • 91. See above.
  • 92. Hatsell, Precedents (1781), p. 70.
  • 93. For what follows, see in general Hatsell, Precedents (1781), pp. 84-85.
  • 94. SP 9/18, f. 27.
  • 95. Onslow mss 173/226.
  • 96. See the discussion recorded by Williamson in SP 9/22, f. 17, relating to the hawkers bill of 1691-2.
  • 97. Burnet, v. 299.
  • 98. Cam. Misc. xxix. 357-60; Onslow mss 173/226.
  • 99. Onslow mss 173/226.
  • 100. Cocks Diary, 22-23.
  • 101. Ibid. 245.
  • 102. Ibid. 261-2.
  • 103. See in general Thomas, ch. 8. I am grateful to Dr Christopher Kyle and Dr Jason Peacey for making available to me their unpublished work on this subject.
  • 104. Swift Stella, i. 104.
  • 105. The Norfolk Tory Sir William Cook, 2nd Bt.*, observed with some distaste in 1699 that ‘the Quakers are every morning haunting the lobby and making Members their friends’: Suff. RO (Ipswich), Gurdon mss mic. M142(1), vol. 2, p. 39.
  • 106. Vernon-Shrewsbury Letters, i. 86; Luttrell, iv. 172, 174; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 16
  • 107. CJ, xii. 259-61, 287-8; Gurdon mss mic. M142(1), vol. 2, p. 103; HMC Portland, iii. 615.
  • 108. CJ, xi. 59, 367, 436; xv. 26.
  • 109. CJ, xi. 364; xv. 6, 201, 385, 395; xvi. 7, 211, 404; xvii. 3, 279, 476.
  • 110. CJ, xi. 70; xvi. 278.
  • 111. Wentworth Pprs. 365; CJ, xvii. 513.
  • 112. Wentworth Pprs. 69, 167, 334, 375.
  • 113. Hatsell, Precedents (1781), 102-3; Cocks Diary, 93-94, 194; Nicolson Diary ed. Jones and Holmes, 548, 559.
  • 114. Cocks Diary, 93-94, 194.
  • 115. SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD 124/15/259/2, William Cleland to Hon. James Erskine†, 6 Dec. 1705.
  • 116. Atholl mss at Blair Atholl, 45/7/190, James Murray to [Atholl], 5 Dec. 1707.
  • 117. Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 739, Bennet to Countess of Roxburghe, 16 Dec. 1707.
  • 118. Hatsell, (1818), ii. 182, quoted in Thomas, 150.
  • 119. Colvin, v. 400-4; Brit. Parlty. Lists 1660-1800 ed. Ditchfield, Hayton and Jones, 102-3; Thomas, 150.
  • 120. The Tory landslide at the 1710 election produced a scene so disorientating to one Whig, Hon. Harry Mordaunt*, that he ‘came into the House and aloud said, “I much [sic] go into the Court of Requests to try if I can meet a face I know, for by [God] I know none here”’: Clavering Corresp. ed. Dickinson (Surtees Soc. clxxviii), 106.
  • 121. East Anglian, n.s. v. 145.
  • 122. Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter, 14 Feb. 1694.
  • 123. CJ, xii. 425, quoted in Williams, Clerical Organization of H. of Commons, 215-16.
  • 124. CJ, xiii. 339; xv. 26.
  • 125. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 1931, 1945; xi. 386; xiii. 344; xv. 188-9; xx. 337-8; xxiii. 274; xxvi. 129, 227; xxvii. 339, 515.
  • 126. For what follows, see in general The Lib. ser. 5, xxiii. 25-27; Kemp, 16-31; and for the difference between standing orders and ‘usual orders’, Kemp, 2-16.
  • 127. Williams, Clerical Organization of H. of Commons, 122.
  • 128. Cal. Treas. Bks. xii. 216; xx. 255; xxiv. 348.
  • 129. See, for example, York City Archs. E/85, Andrew Perrott to Robert Waller*, 2 Dec. 1693.
  • 130. Kemp, 25.
  • 131. CJ, xv. 18, 212; xvi. 51, 229; S. Lambert, Bills and Acts, 13.
  • 132. CJ, xvi. 156, 167, 299; xvii. 181.
  • 133. CJ, xiv. 209, 386, 481.
  • 134. CJ, xii. 266.
  • 135. Cocks Diary, 156-7.
  • 136. CJ, xiv. 46; The Evidence Given at the Bar of the House of Commons, upon the Complaint of Sir John Pakington, against William, Lord Bishop of Worcester … (1702).
  • 137. CJ, xiv. 209, 386, 481, 575-6; Party and Management in Parl. ed. C. Jones, 95-103.
  • 138. CJ, xvi. 391.
  • 139. CJ, xvi. 525, 617; xvii. 97.
  • 140. See Sources.
  • 141. BL, Trumbull add. ms 130 contains a set of these newsletters.