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Reports of debates in the House of Commons, 1790-1820
The following collections of debates were published during this period:
The Parliamentary Register (John Debrett), commencing as a continuation of John Almon’s in 1780, was a standard source until 1803. Taken over by John Stockdale, who had published Debates for the Parliament of 1784, it survived until 1812, but was no competitor for Cobbett.
The New Parliamentary Register compiled by William ‘Memory’ Woodfall, the Morning Chronicle reporter, was already under way in 1781. His Impartial Report of the Debates, 1794-1803, was in 33 volumes.
The Senator: or Parliamentary Chronicle appeared in 28 volumes from 1790 until 1801.
Jordan’s Parliamentary Journal beginning on 13 Dec. 1792 was apparently still extant three years later, though the British Library has only one volume, ending 14 Feb. 1793.
The Parliamentary History (to 1803) compiled retrospectively from 1806 onwards in 36 volumes by William Cobbett, was preceded by his Parliamentary Debates, dating from the session of 1803-4. The printer was Thomas Curson Hansard (son of Luke Hansard, printer of the Commons Journals since 1774) who took over from Cobbett in 1812. Cobbett had since 1802 produced a Weekly Political Register in which debates also featured, and this he continued. He was himself a radical candidate for Parliament in this period.
Bell’s Parliamentary Debates (John Bell) was extant in 1807.
Dolby’s Parliamentary Register commenced in January 1819.
These collections of debates, issued periodically, relied chiefly, though not entirely, on reports in the newspapers, which if possible informed their readers of parliamentary proceedings next day, following the example of William Woodfall in his short-lived Diary (1789). In this period the most notable were the Morning Chronicle, The Times and the Courier, to a lesser extent the Sun, the Oracle and the Morning Post. Provincial newspapers copied from the London ones. The reporters sat in the back row of the Commons gallery— in 1819 Peter Finnerty, for the Morning Chronicle, was sent to Newgate after reporting ostentatiously in the front row. They were newspaper reporters, though occasionally joined by reporters for the above-listed publications, such as John Wright, Cobbett’s assistant editor. Not until 1908 did Hansard become the official record of debates. Since 1771 the House had not insisted on its privilege of banning reports of its proceedings, though note-taking by reporters seems to have been vetoed until 1783. From time to time ‘strangers’ were excluded on the motion of any one Member, under a standing order which survived until 1875, and the gallery was always cleared during divisions until 1853. Reports of debates were therefore incomplete. The clearing of the gallery was sometimes resented, as for instance when Charles Philip Yorke procured it during the debate on the Scheldt expedition and a bid by Sheridan to thwart it was defeated by 166 votes to 80, 6 Feb. 1810. Interested Members might supply the press with information on speeches delivered in the absence of reporters: this was necessary on 23 May 1803 when Members crowded the gallery for the debate on the resumption of hostilities with France, and no reporter could get a seat. On 5 Mar. 1813, when the Princess of Wales’s plight was debated during the exclusion of strangers, Thomas Creevey made notes of the speeches. Reporters did not command space enough in the newspapers, until 1825, to reproduce speeches verbatim, though Members often supplied improved versions of their speeches to replace first reports of them. (Members also published their more studied speeches in pamphlet form.) In doing so, they might incur the displeasure of the House, as Thomas Creevey discovered in 1813 when he was fined for a libel in a speech he published. From time to time the House took action against editors or publishers whose reports contained wilful misrepresentations; but more often Members’ complaints were designed to correct rather than to punish erroneous reports. Members who cultivated the press were better reported for it; William Windham was boycotted by the reporters for several months in 1810 because of his animosity towards the licentiousness of the press, though he had cultivated Cobbett assiduously some years before. Reporters described Members as ‘inaudible’ not only because they were so.
Reports of debates by individual Members having become confined to occasions when strangers were excluded, the parliamentary diaries compiled by Members in former periods were a vanishing phenomenon. Members still kept diaries of their attendance at the House, but seldom reported debates in detail. Their private correspondence nevertheless brings many a notable debate to life, supplying the stage directions and the drama which the reporters only occasionally interjected.