IV. The Changing Face of the House and Political Parties

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

St. Stephen’s Chapel accommodated the House virtually throughout this period. The conflagration of 16 Oct. 1834 which destroyed it, together with the Lords, might have taken place on 9 May 1792 but for the timely discovery of a pair of burning breeches, thought to be stuffed with combustibles, in a water-closet. A Jacobin incendiary plot was suspected by alarmists, but no evidence of it was forthcoming. The Commons chamber as it then appeared was featured by the Austrian-born artist Karl Anton Hickel in two pictures showing Pitt and Fox1 respectively addressing the House. The occasion was long supposed to be 1 Feb. 1793, on the opening of hostilities with France, but George Canning, who is included, took his seat on 21 Jan. 1794. Edmund Burke, who had by then left the opposition benches (to the left of the Speaker), insisted on being portrayed on them by Hickel, who made individual sketches of the faces he depicted. The work was exhibited in 1795.

In 1801 the size of the chamber was altered, for the first time since Sir Christopher Wren’s improvements, to accommodate the influx of 100 Irish Members. The architect James Wyatt, of the Office of Works, was authorized to take down the three-foot thick side walls and replace them with walls one foot thick, to provide an extra row of seats on either side. In November 1800 the Commons were removed to the Painted Chamber (the former Court of Star Chamber) behind the House of Lords while the alterations to St. Stephen’s Chapel took place. The Imperial Parliament was then accommodated in the Chapel when it met on 22 Jan. 1801. The lobby was enlarged a year later. Nothing came of suggestions that ‘a proper mansion’ be built: the House made do with a chamber not quite 50 feet long and 33 feet wide. There were on either side only four rows of benches, into which 342 Members might be crammed; another 150 could be fitted into the side galleries, but there was not even standing room for a full House. In 1791 the bench seats had been lowered, to the relief of short-legged Members like Michael Angelo Taylor, and covered with green morocco leather. Thermometers were also introduced to check the temperature and an ‘air machine’ installed in the attic above the flat roof of the Chamber to draw off the bad air. The discomfort suffered after late sessions in candle-light and in hot weather was frequently complained of by Members, who believed that their health was at risk, but various suggestions for improvement did not find enough support.

Over 50 distinguished strangers might view the proceedings of the House from seats under the gallery, with the Speaker’s authorization. Royalty, peers and their heirs, judges and diplomats were thus admitted, and, on relevant days, the principal officials of government departments whose business was before the House (but no private secretaries). The side galleries of the House (added by Wren) were occupied by Members on crowded days or by royal visitors, such as the Tsar on 20 June 1814; the gallery facing the Speaker was reserved for ‘strangers’. The latter was reduced in size to increase accommodation in the side galleries in 1800-1, and then lost its access gangway in the middle. Access remained from two doors, one at either end, reached from the lobby by a narrow staircase. Five benches accommodated 120 or more strangers. Since 1778 women had not been admitted except en travesti to the gallery: but they alone were permitted to peep through the ventilator hole in the attic. The appearance of Mary Anne Clarke, the Duke of York’s mistress, at the bar of the House in 1809 caused a sensation. There was sometimes frantic competition for places in the strangers’ gallery: visitors who did not have a Member’s permit were expected to tip the messengers half-a-crown at least. Newspaper reporters, who had their own entrance door from 1812, paid three guineas a year for their admission. On 24 Nov. 1795 strangers entered so noisily that the House cleared the gallery for an hour or so; on 25 Feb. 1813, when Catholic relief was to be debated, the Speaker secured quiet in the gallery by inviting its clearance. Sheridan’s bid on 6 Feb. 1810 to prevent the exclusion of strangers by standing order at the discretion of any one Member was defeated. Members’ access to the House had to be safeguarded, particularly on critical occasions. The crowd made way for Pitt when on 23 May 1803 there was a debate on the resumption of hostilities with France, but mishandled several junior ministers on 6 Mar. 1815 when the corn bill was under consideration—and went on to assail their private residences.

Charles Abbot, Speaker from 1802 until 1817, whose diaries and memoranda, next to the Commons Journals, form the most valuable record of the proceedings, noted that the ‘general business of the House transacted and entered in the Journals, was trebled in its annual amount between the years 1760 and 1801’. He added

Since the Union—viz—between 1801 and the end of 1813—it has increased further by two-thirds of its total amount in 1801—being now five times as much as in 1760 ... The hours of sitting upon an average in the last seven years have been 757 hours per session—in 120 sitting days. [In fact the average number of sitting days from 1805 to 1816, excepting 1807, was 114.]

The Speaker recalled his endurance: in 1808 he sat 111 days—829 hours in all, an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day; in 1810 he sat 97 days—802 hours in all, averaging eight hours 17 minutes a day; in 1809 in one five-day week he sat 59 3/4 hours. But in 1811, in 135 sitting days, the House sat 588 hours, an average of four hours 20 minutes a day; in 1812 in 137 days the House sat 856 hours, an average per day of six hours and a quarter. In 1813 the House sat 776 hours.

The Speaker also made notes on attendance. On 26 June 1807, on the address, 510 Members were present ‘being the largest attendance since the Union—the total number which had then taken the oaths in that new Parliament was 563 [out of 658]’. This attendance was the largest known since 1741, when 508 attended on the Silesian question: 489 Members had attended for Brand’s motion, 9 Apr. 1807; 409 for the Catholic question, 25 May 1808; 498 for the Duke of York’s case, 15 Mar. 1809, and 509 for the Walcheren expedition, 30 Mar. 1810. On 24 Apr. 1812, for the Catholic question, a record 520 Members attended (compared with 501 when the Catholic bill was defeated on 24 May 1813). There had been a call of the House, to which 580 Members had responded. This illustrates the impossibility of securing anything like a total attendance. Calls of the House were the subject of several divisions in this period, on 27 June and 12 Nov. 1800, for example. Their successful critics on those occasions stressed the futility of attempting a total muster. Leaves of absence were readily resorted to, though even they were sometimes challenged in a division and several times thwarted. From time to time Members were taken into custody by the serjeant-at-arms for defaulting on their summons; their discharge was more or less automatic—either they turned up or obtained leave of absence. There was no immunity—Pitt and Sheridan were among the custodial victims. On the other hand, there were days when neither call nor circular mustered Members, and not even a quorum of 40 Members was reached; on such days, sooner or later, the House was counted out. A bid to raise the quorum from 40 to 60 was unsuccessful, 18 Mar. 1801.

Tighter regulation of the business of the House was a steady aim of Speaker Abbot’s and he did much to achieve it. The most substantial threat to the programme of public business came from the growing volume of private business. The obvious way to circumvent this was to limit the time for the reception of private petitions, bills and reports. At Abbot’s suggestion, Viscount Howick, leader of the House, moved the implementation of this in December 1806. The establishment of a private bill office under the resolution of the House’s standing orders on the subject on 20 June 1810, revised in 1811, 1813 and 1814, was a further improvement. The number of private bills passed by the House had risen steadily from 68 in 1760 to 117 in 1790, 210 in 1800, 224 in 1805 and 268 in 1807. In 1808, 234 passed, and in 1809, 331. From 1807 petitions for private bills and the bills themselves were presented by the end of March. In the session of 1811 petitions totalled 371, in 1812, 313, and in 1813, 388—after which they fell away. Only two-thirds as many were presented in 1815. The decline in private enclosure bills was the obvious explanation. Petitions against election returns were another drain on the House’s time, though less so after Wynn’s Act of 1788. The 1790 petitions were not settled in some cases until 1793. The average number since the Grenville Act of 1770 had been 43 each parliament. By 1807 all but a few were settled in the session of presentation. Nothing significant was done, however, to limit the growth of petitions to the House in general. Their numbers rose from 880 in the period 1785-90 to 1,026 in the years 1800-5, to 4,498 in the years 1811-15; and by 1832 they stood at five times that number.

Public bills were likely to form no more than a third of the legislation passed in a session, if only because they were more likely to undergo many of the 18 potential questions on a bill; in 1809 for instance 129 public bills and 331 private bills were passed. From 1811 the government secured some precedence for its legislation by pre-empting certain days for its business. Expiring public bills were reviewed by a select committee; to streamline this process Speaker Abbot’s recommendation of 1803 that the expiry of statutes should be fixed for 25 Mar. of the year chosen was generally adopted. All other public bills were perpetual unless the House repealed them. In 1803 the Speaker secured the printing of public bills, with the contents of each clause noted in the margin and the adoption of a short explanatory title for each bill, distinguishing those (such as Irish measures) of regional application. In 1796 the House had accepted the recommendation that statutes be divided into their present categories: Public (General) Acts, Public (Local) Acts and Private Acts. The last remained unprinted until in 1814 provision was made for selective printing.

Such classification was the more necessary because the House, apart from its unremitting zeal for its primary purpose of supplying and controlling public revenue in an era of fiscal experiment provoked by the need to finance a lengthy war, was developing its legislative function. The scope and range of legislation widened perceptibly. Between 1801 and 1820, 7,279 Acts were passed, 2,690 of them Public (General) Acts. Contentious measures in the public sphere such as the bills of 1795 restricting civil liberty in wartime, the introduction of income tax in 1799, the defence bills of 1803 to 1806, the revision of the corn laws in 1815, and the six ‘gag’ Acts of 1819 intended to muzzle radical agitation, were time-consuming; but measures that could not count on ministerial sponsorship also became law. The abolition of the slave trade throughout the empire, debated since 1787 and sponsored chiefly by Wilberforce and his friends, was secured, admittedly with a nudge from the Grenville ministry, in 1807. Fox, in opposition, secured a vital revision of the law on libel in 1791. Henry Bankes, after a longer struggle, overcame ministerial resistance to sinecure reform by 1813, though in his case the resistance of the Lords remained a stumbling block. The same resistance thwarted Sir Samuel Romilly’s bids to reform the criminal law by reducing the scale of capital offences, begun in 1808, when only 67 Members voted on the issue: ‘I do think it strange’, was Romilly’s comment ‘that the Highgate archway or the Holloway water bills should obtain a fuller attendance than a measure of such vital importance’. Romilly had little to show for his efforts at his death, but his mantle was assumed by Sir James Mackintosh the proponent of revision of the laws on forgery, and Thomas Fowell Buxton, who in 1819 evoked public opinion in a fresh attempt to erode the regime of the gallows and the gibbet: constant dripping wore away the stone.2 On the other hand, the first steps towards a preventive police force were taken in the metropolis by the Westminster Police Act of 1792, which entailed the disfranchisement of the stipendiary magistrates it had created, and was reinforced in 1800 by the Thames Police Act. Another Act of 1792 had served much the same purpose in Manchester. The corollary of this was Bennet’s bill to curtail statutory rewards for information on lawbreakers in 1818. But in general the army, the militia and the yeomanry supplied the police force at that time, and their reinforcement after the Peterloo episode in 1819 illustrates this. Moral re-armament had its would-be legislators, but they had scant success except in the field of blasphemous libel. Bills to enforce Sunday observance, to penalize adultery and to prevent cruelty to animals failed. Equally unsuccessful was Sheridan’s bid to liberalize the licensing laws in 1807.

The importance attached to laissez-faire in the economic sphere minimized government intervention, but in wartime it could not be ruled out. Trading with the enemy and the marketing of provisions in seasons of scarcity were fit subjects for legislation. The exigencies of war made the Convoy Act of 1798 necessary and the introduction of a national census in 1801 palatable. Trade unions were intended to be discouraged by the rather ineffectual Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, and the House would not swallow the principle of a minimum wage for the working classes, and legislated severely against machine-breakers in the Midlands. Mercantile opposition to the licensing of foreign trade introduced by order in council to combat Buonaparte’s continental embargo from 1807 to 1812 at length prevailed, but popular opposition to the protection of corn growers’ prices was subsequently muzzled. It was not until 1818 that an effective start was made to regulate conditions of work in factories, with particular reference to child labour. Not until 1819 did the government cede to pressure to resume cash payments by the Bank of England, stopped since 1797. Three issues that provoked repeated bids to legislate without effective result were the revision of the poor laws, the game laws and the bankruptcy laws, though some progress was made with the last mentioned. The abuses of the two former were readily conceded by the House. Thomas Gilbert’s Act of 1782 which opened the door to poor relief outside the workhouse led to the system of supplementing the wages of the able-bodied out of the poor rates called the Speenhamland system, sanctioned by the House in 1796. In 1817, 1818 and 1819 the reports of select committees of the House ushered in the select vestry system. Such remedies proved contentious, not least when they were extended by Whitbread and by Brougham to raise the question of popular education and the abuse of charities.

In the sphere of local and private legislation,3 a climax was reached in the multiplication of Acts for enclosures, canals and turnpike trusts. In the case of enclosures, 1,532 Acts having been passed between 1760 and 1797, 342 of them since 1790, the crucial step was Sir John Sinclair’s Act (41 Geo. III, c.109) which served as a consolidation Act for private enclosures. Between 1797 and 1820 over 1,750 further Enclosure Acts were passed, but the tide was receding. The same process was observable in the case of Turnpike Acts, which were also subject to regulating statutes. The first railway bill appeared in 1801, sponsored by the Surrey Iron Railway Company, the first Tunnel Act in 1805, the first Gaslight Act in 1810. A Waterworks Act had already been passed at the instigation of a Lambeth company in 1785: in this period it was followed by nine or ten others regulating water supply for London and the home counties. Contentious bills authorizing the provision of docks for the port of London were passed in 1799, 1800, 1803 and 1810. The chartered monopoly of the London and Royal Exchange insurance companies was formally maintained against the Globe company, which did not secure a charter and also failed to topple Lloyds’ monopoly of marine insurance—though the end of the latter was foreshadowed by the report of a select committee in 1810. Estate, divorce and naturalization bills were on the increase.

Speaker Abbot’s campaign to rationalize the work of the House was further made manifest in his institution of ‘a shorter mode of printing the votes’ (1803). By 1810 they were ‘compressed’, saving £1,000 p.a. He also secured an abridgement of entries in the Commons Journals. He instigated (in 1803) a reprinting of all the early volumes of the Journals (first printed from 1742) and continued the separate series of House of Commons reports. In 1813 John Rickman, Abbot’s secretary, indexed the Journals from 1801 to 1812. Abbot was also responsible for a collection and arrangement of all printed sessional papers in four volumes under the separate heads of Bills, Reports, Finance and Miscellaneous Accounts, for the use of the House and government departments. In the Speaker’s house, which was rebuilt (he moved in in January 1806) he formed a library of parliamentary books and a collection of portraits of past Speakers. He secured two extra messengers to assist him in his duties. In 1804 when the House of Commons was ‘refurnished’, reference books were placed in the gallery at his instigation for the use of Members. In 1815 the committee rooms (it was a mark of their growing importance that five had been added in 1811) were furnished with a complete set of the Journals and parliamentary papers and statutes.

The procedure of the House was governed as far as possible by precedent. The only systematic account of it in this period was provided by Romilly for the guidance of the French parliamentarians in 1789 and published by Mirabeau in Reglemens observés dans la Chambre des Communes pour débattre les mati‘res et pour voter. It was no more heeded in France than Jeremy Bentham’s subtle Essay on political tactics, also intended for French guidance, part of which was published in England in 1791. Neither had domestic authority. That was reserved for Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons, compiled by John Hatsell, chief clerk of the House from 1768 to 1820, in four volumes published between 1781 and 1796. In 1816 John Rickman, then second clerk assistant to the House, undertook a new edition with Hatsell’s blessing: it incorporated Speaker Abbot’s marginalia and was published in 1818. In the same year Rickman indexed the statutes for the benefit of the House. Hatsell himself retired from the table of the House in 1797, appointing John Ley the clerk assistant (like himself appointed in 1768) as his deputy. Hatsell, however, retained his office and privileges until his death in 1820. In 1814 Jeremiah Dyson junior, John Ley’s successor as clerk assistant, became Hatsell’s deputy. It was Dyson’s successor as clerk assistant, John Henry Ley—nephew of John Ley—who was to replace Hatsell as clerk of the House in 1820. From 1768 until 1919 there was a member of the Ley family on the clerical establishment of the House. John Henry Ley’s career began in 1801 when he received the new, salaried appointment of second clerk assistant making ‘three at table’, to cope with the extra business engendered by the Irish union. He was succeeded in 1814 by John Rickman (the Speaker’s private secretary). Until 1800 the clerks relied on fees, rather than salaries: Hatsell received more than the Speaker. The Act of 39 and 40 Geo. III, c.92, inspired by Speaker Addington, provided after Hatsell’s tenure for a salaried clerk who was to have £3,000 p.a., rising to £3,500 p.a. after five years. The clerk assistant’s salary was then fixed at £1,500. A further Act of 1812 (52 Geo. III, c.11), devised by the Speaker and Spencer Perceval, raised the clerk assistant’s salary to £2,500 (apart from the fees from election petitions he had retained since 1788), and the second clerk assistant’s to £1,500, rising to £2,000; it also confirmed a fee fund, adumbrated in the Act of 1800, to finance the clerical organization.4

The clerk of the House was responsible for the Journals, the clerk assistant for making the votes (decisions) of the House available to Members. In 1794 the cost of the Journals, which were not printed directly after the proceedings until 1833, was £1,800 per session, of the votes over £1,000. Also in the clerks’ department were a clerk of the committees of privileges and elections, acting by deputy in the latter; four clerks ‘without doors’ to attend committees, each with a deputy (until 1833); two ingrossing clerks, fees clerks and a clerk custodian of journals and papers. To these were added writing clerks. From 1813 a shorthand writer (W. B. Gurney) was introduced into committees, a step first authorized by 42 Geo. III, c. 84, s.8. The private bill office established in 1811 was provided with three clerks. Until then the fees from private bills went to the clerk of the fees (John Rosier and John Dorington in this period), and they also, unofficially, took agency fees. It was only after the establishment of the private bill office that ‘outdoor’ parliamentary agencies began to take over the draughting of bills from clerks, such as George White junior (d. 1813) and William Ley. Samuel Gunnell had admittedly cornered the Irish agency in 1801, but he had clerical connexions in the House. The pioneer agencies otherwise were those of J. Bramwell and Charles Thomas Ellis.5

Hatsell’s Precedents took no account of a business timetable for the House. It was still possible for days to elapse without public business, but on such days there might be no question or no quorum. There was no longer any overlap between committees and proceedings in the House, the committees meeting in the morning and the House in the afternoon. Late sittings were not infrequent and there were many divisions on the question of adjournment. Inconvenient questions were disposed of by dividing in favour of the orders of the day. Divisions did not in themselves decide the fate of governments, only of questions. It is true however that Addington’s resignation in April 1804 followed two critical divisions on defence in which there was a substantial and consolidated minority against him, and prevented another such division in the Lords which was expected to damage his credit further. The Speaker, reporting this, wrote, ‘The budget opened by Mr A. upon the day of his resignation met with no opposition whatever’. Addington had, incidentally, rejected the King’s offer to dissolve Parliament. The Speaker’s casting vote on 8 Apr. 1805 carried Whitbread’s censure of Lord Melville’s conduct: it sanctioned proceedings against Melville, but did not overthrow Pitt’s government, which had its way over the impeachment. The defeat of Perceval in two divisions on Lord Chatham’s conduct, 23 Feb., 5 Mar. 1810 was answered by Chatham’s resignation, not Perceval’s. The Liverpool government averted the potential embarrassment of defeat on the question of Catholic relief by neutralizing the issue after 1812: Perceval had been prepared to stake the continuance of his administration on it. Stuart Wortley’s successful motion of 21 May 1812 for a stronger administration produced the resignation of the newly-formed Liverpool ministry, but failed to replace it. When the government was defeated on the renewal of the property tax, 18 Mar. 1816, they merely dropped the tax, and took measures to avoid such a humiliation in future. Apart from the usual circulars from the joint secretary to the Treasury to whip in Members, Lord Liverpool resorted to meetings and dinners. Of the meetings, those of 17 Feb. 1817 and 13 Apr. 1818 mustering independent Members generally favourable to government were the most notable. Even so the latter, in defence of the royal dukes’ marriage grants, failed in its purpose: it was a question on which the government had already been defeated on 3 July 1815. George Ponsonby, while leader of the Whig opposition, occasionally harangued them, disunited as they often were, before a division; he thereby got through to Members who might not choose to attend party meetings out of doors. But the choice of Ponsonby as leader was a conjuring trick by the Whig grandees: George Tierney, chosen to lead the party in 1818 by circular signature, was in a much stronger position, not least because the notion of a shadow cabinet was as yet out of the question.

Apart from drama, there was ceremony. Enthusiasm for it varied. Being sworn in cost a Member two shillings. The anniversary of King Charles the Martyr, in commemoration of which the chaplain to the House preached at St. Margaret’s on 30 Jan., was attended in 1808 only by the Speaker, Spencer Perceval, Richard Wharton and one Irish Member on behalf of the House; in 1810 the House sat that day for the first time since 1759; in 1812, the Speaker reported that the House simply did not go to church that year. The daily prayers, a preliminary to the House’s afternoon proceedings were also ill-attended, and there was no question time to stimulate an early muster. Desultory discussion might precede the arrival of a minister responsible for business. It was usually halted by the Speaker’s reminder that there was no question before the House.

Members’ inquiries had received the Speaker’s sanction in 1783, but there was for many years afterwards no specific time fixed for such questions. Despite this there were some interesting developments in their range and scope.6 By 1807 a Member, William Dickinson, was told by Speaker Abbot that he had no need to apologize for questioning a minister. The motives and consequences of Members’ questions were various. Sheridan used a question about the proceedings of the committee on sedition, 16 June 1794, as a means of vindicating the activities of the Association of the Friends of the People. Two questions by Fox and Whitbread on the naval mutiny on 1 May 1797 were followed up by a censure motion. On 28 Nov. 1803 Alderman Combe had two unrelated queries to make. In the ensuing session Earl Temple introduced a question because he had failed to get satisfaction from correspondence with the secretary at War, and followed it up with a formal motion for information. Philip Francis in 1805 asked for information on India, and three weeks later introduced a critical motion. Walter Spencer Stanhope queried the inclusion of Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough in the cabinet in 1806, and his subsequent unsuccessful motion, echoed in the Lords, was thwarted by the argument that the cabinet had no constitutional existence. The answers given by ministers to questions were as yet unrehearsed. Viscount Mahon in 1810 was given an opinion by Spencer Perceval in answer to a question, but Perceval did his homework and answered him later. The same thing happened in 1814 when the secretary at War knew nothing of the subject in question. The answer came four days later. Some questions were unanswerable for want of information, whence no doubt the practice of giving notice of questions, which was more likely, also, to secure the attendance of a minister to answer the question. James Stuart Wortley gave notice of his question about the state of negotiations for a new administration in 1812. By 1814 government were prepared to answer five questions in one day.

Some questions were ruled out. Fox in 1806 was told by the Speaker that he need not answer a question about a statement he had made in a former debate. A Member was rebuked by the Speaker in 1811 for asking a question about proceedings at a meeting of the Missionary Society involving Members of the House. The Speaker was not prepared to allow supplementary questions either, as Tierney discovered in a brush with him in 1808. But a debate arising out of a question was permissible. In April 1810 the Speaker allowed this when a riot in Piccadilly was the subject of inquiry, and Whitbread was permitted to bring in a motion on the subject without notice.

The most effective questions after 1802 were those that prefaced the exposure of departmental and other abuses. The mistreatment of detainees at Coldbath Fields was the theme of questions that brought Sir Francis Burdett to prominence; later the administration of Chelsea Hospital was another. Sir John Newport, Member for Waterford, made a speciality of awkward questions about Irish civil servants. By 1815 questions were becoming a tool in the hands of reformers. Curwen started the debate on poor law reform from 1816 onwards with a query as to whether ministers were prepared to shoulder it—which they were not. Henry Grey Bennet questioned the treatment of individuals, whether flogged soldiers or detainees under the suspension of habeas corpus, as a means of raising general issues. By drawing public attention to abuses, such questions provided ammunition for public petitions to the House.

During this period the Speaker annexed the role of the House’s spokesman in giving thanks to officers for military and naval victories: Charles Abbot’s speeches to this effect from 1808 to 1816 were afterwards published by him. The final vote of thanks to the Duke of Wellington was the most impressive of these occasions, and not left to the Speaker alone. Other ceremonies engendered by war were the visit of the allied sovereigns on 20 June 1814 and the House’s attendance on the Prince Regent when he went to St. Paul’s to give thanks for victory. A delegation of Members attended Whitbread to St. James’s with his prayer to the King for proceedings against Lord Melville in 1805. Speaker Abbot also made a meal of his customary prorogation speeches. That of 22 July 1813, seeming to express the Regent’s approval of the House’s rejection of Catholic relief, provoked something like a censure, and he was more cautious thereafter. Even before he was Speaker, he had overstepped the mark: on 18 Mar. 1796, ‘Popham, an old MP, represented to me that I was disorderly in wearing my spurs in the House as none but county Members were entitled to that privilege’.

Owing to the vagaries of George III’s health, the Speaker’s levees best catered for the social needs of the House. In 1802 he held eight, attended by 256 Members and 41 peers; in 1803 he held seven, attended by 351 Members and 51 peers; in 1804, seven, attended by 293 Members and 40 peers, and in 1811 seven, attended by 228 Members and 45 peers. He also gave parliamentary dinners, beginning each session with one for the ministerial side followed by another for the opposition. In 1803 he gave 14 of them, attended by 326 Members (108 excused themselves); in 1804 again 14, attended by 358 (72 excused themselves); in 1805 he gave 17, attended by 394 Members (141 excused themselves); in 1806 he gave 15, attended by 328 Members (131 excused themselves); in 1807 he gave 17 attended by 424 Members (108 excused themselves); in 1808 he gave 16, attended by 364 Members (104 excused themselves); and in 1810 he gave 12, attended by 275 Members (108 excused themselves). There were also ministerial dinners and occasionally opposition dinners. Windham, launching his ‘third party’ in 1793, soon saw the need for a dining club. Canning organized dinners to promote the return to power of Pitt in 1803, and the Prince of Wales for his political ends in 1804. The opposition, casting about for a leader after Ponsonby’s death in 1817, contemplated a ‘dining head’, even if he did not wield effective political leadership. The grand opposition dinner after the election of 1807 was a political demonstration. By 1818 the Liverpool administration was using dinner parties as a means of enticing independent or wavering Members. A year later Robert Peel was suspected by Charles Arbuthnot at the Treasury of building up a following of his own through assiduous dinner parties.

The dignity of the House was occasionally ruffled by public disturbance, if only because the public was fighting for seats in the gallery. The House’s attempt in 1810 to stand by its privileges against Sir Francis Burdett attracted the attention of the ‘mob’, as did, with more serious consequences, the unpopularity of the Corn Law alterations on 6 Mar. 1815, when military protection for Members approaching the House was conjured up. The mob’s frustration was vented on the windows of the town houses of leading supporters of the measure. The assassination of Spencer Perceval by a deranged businessman took place in the lobby of the House on 11 May 1812: the confused scene that ensued was a pointer to the need for greater security in the precincts. In 1820 there was a foiled conspiracy to assassinate the entire cabinet at dinner at Lord Harrowby’s town house.

The conduct of Sir Francis Burdett was adjudicated in a court of law, much to the indignation of the Speaker, whom Burdett sued. In other respects the House was able to discipline its Members without great difficulty, though not without much debate. In the case of Lord Cochrane in 1814, as in that of Benjamin Walsh in 1812, there was a division over his expulsion; his re-election, like that of John Fenton Cawthorne previously, was bound to provoke debate. The only Member who was taken into custody for misconduct in the House, however, was the drunken John Fuller, the Sussex county Member, 27 Feb. 1810. More gentlemanly drunkards, like Sheridan, could command the attention of the House for their speeches, though the inebriation was privately deplored. Even Pitt on occasion displayed it; Addington resorted to alcohol to fortify his spirits as his credibility waned, and during late sittings (for instance on 1 Mar. 1792) there might be a minor contagion of tipsiness. On 25 May 1811, it was claimed, all the Irish Members were drunk for the debate on Catholic relief. Impeachment as a punitive instrument resorted to by the House was much discredited by the protracted and expensive trial of Warren Hastings (1787-94), and Lord Melville’s in 1806, itself a ministerial concession, only made future impeachments less likely. Lord Cochrane’s erratic bid to impeach Lord Ellenborough, 5 Mar. 1816, was actually expunged from the House’s records.

As long as there were votes to be won by it, oratory swayed the House. It is arguable that it reached its apogee at this time, when its practitioners were ready to devote immense labour to the preparation of their speeches. Sheridan did, and his celebrated speech of February 1787 against Warren Hastings (the ‘Begum’ speech), over five hours long, set the tone for this period. Such speeches were intended for publication and were no doubt more polished in printed form than in their delivery in the House. Experienced debaters, like Fox, might venture on an impromptu tirade, but this could be rash, as Brougham discovered when he got carried away on 20 Mar. 1816 and did damage to his case. Pitt excelled, appropriately for an experienced minister, in composite replies to his critics, countering each of their arguments in turn. Ambitious young Members of Canning’s generation set great store by a promising debut, as if their future careers depended upon it. Canning’s later success was not matched by others who made a good start, such as Richard Pemberton Milnes, and in many cases studied maiden speeches, such as those on the address, were politely applauded but proved to be theatrical exercises without any follow-up. Robert Percy Smith, a mature novice, made the mistake of attempting an impromptu maiden speech. Some Members such as the Hon. Frederick North, never recovered their confidence after initial failure: an exception was Sir Robert Thomas Wilson. Major debates were in any case monopolized by a few voices: back-benchers often could not get a word in, or if they did, were heard with impatience amid calls for a division. In a debate on the Walcheren expedition in March 1810 the first four speeches lasted 14 hours. Few backbenchers who cast a contrary vote had the opportunity to justify it in debate.

The numbers of Members in this period actually credited with contributions to debate by Debrett and Cobbett, whose record is not comprehensive, are indicated in the following table. It is a count of first speeches by Members in each Parliament, specifying in which session they gave utterance. By-elected Members are of course included, and the last two sessions of the Parliament of 1796 featured 42 speakers among the Irish recruits under the Act of Union.




Only the Parliaments of 1802, 1807 and 1812 heard speeches by half or more of the Members, allowing for by-elected Members in the potential aggregate. Of more than 9,000 contributions to debate in the Parliament of 1790, made by 307 Members, over 5,100 (nearly 57 per cent) were made by 19 leading speakers (Pitt, Fox, Sheridan, Henry Dundas, Speaker Addington, Grey, Windham, Richard Smith, Wilberforce, Burke, Francis, Hussey, Michael Angelo Taylor, Rose, Maitland, William Smith, Dudley Ryder, Whitbread and Tarleton, in that order) all of whom spoke more than a hundred times. Another 65 apparently made one speech only; 25 made two speeches; 21 made three, and 22 made four. An analysis of reported debates in the Parliament of 1768, shows 303 Members speaking, 62 of them only once, and 132 (over 43 per cent) more than a dozen times.7 In the Parliament of 1790, comparable for length and the number of speakers, only 100 spoke more than a dozen times. The back-benchers were finding fewer opportunities to articulate, or if they did, they spoke for minutes compared with the hours of the top men. In the Parliament of 1812, in which the highest percentage of Members spoke, 175 of the 440 spoke more than a dozen times, less than 40% of them. In that Parliament, however, 37 Members made more than 100 contributions to debate—there was more room at the top since the giants’ departure.

Evidence on discussion in select committees is necessarily thin. It is compensated for by the wealth of information available in the select committees’ reports, incorporating, as it so often did, the evidence of expert witnesses (some of them Members) summoned to give evidence.

Debates in this period sometimes became ordeals for their audience. Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury, on his retirement in 1812, blamed ‘the fatiguing length of modern speeches’. Exasperation was shown by survivors in various ways. Slumber was a time-honoured reaction; coughing was a frequent ploy to combat tedium or prolixity though some of its victims were not so easily intimidated. Some Members habitually bored the House, or spoke too long. Edmund Burke himself was an offender in the latter respect, and Sir John Coxe Hippisley in the former. When such a bore rose to speak he might expect an exodus to the refreshment rooms run by the deputy housekeeper, John Bellamy. New Members had to learn to come to terms with their stomachs: others brought in snacks or fruit, or became hardened tipplers. Wilberforce, and possibly Canning, took opium and Lord Castlereagh ether, but the latter insisted on volubility at the expense of comprehensibility. There were occasional protests at protracted speeches, but no remedy was found. Just before the end of this period the new generation of young Members, headed by Robert Peel, was reacting against the inflated oratory, replete with quotations from Greek and Latin authors, and so often accompanied by theatrical gesticulation, which it had encountered in the House under the sway of Pitt and Fox. Even Henry Grattan, the doyen of the Irish house of commons, when he took his seat at Westminster in 1805 narrowly escaped ridicule for his florid language and gestures. Gesticulation endangered one’s neighbour’s hat, for it was customary for Members to be covered in the House. Peel made a conscious effort to cultivate plain and unadorned statement, an augury of future form. This development, inevitably, engendered a charge of declining standards. The reading of speeches was frowned upon—the Speaker reminded the House of this on 14 May 1806—but an indisposed Member, Cochrane Johnstone, was given leave to read one on 24 Mar. 1813. On 12 June 1806, William Wickham, unable to stand for long on his feet, was allowed to speak seated. Personal abuse of an opponent in debate was not acceptable. Members who risked it were liable to have their words taken down unless they retracted. There was uproar when Sir Joseph Yorke called Samuel Whitbread ‘a brewer of bad porter’, 28 Mar. 1810.

Laughter was the House’s safety valve in debate. It could be used to stop the pretensions of the verbose and the tedious as well as the ridiculous. Errors of fact and infelicities of expression were not spared; the tired jokes and far-fetched puns of such would-be wits as John Courtenay and Joseph Jekyll provided light relief; genuine wit, of which Sheridan was a past master, convulsed the House, and thereby spurred him on. Vocal encouragement punctuated speeches approved by their audience, and applause marked their peroration. Even long speeches, if delivered by Pitt on the slave trade, might command respectful attention for their eloquence. Bathos was not sure of success, but Members who broke down generally received sympathy, and Spencer Perceval’s fate was tearfully deplored. On one occasion the House was reported to have burst into song: on 10 Nov. 1797 after ‘a spirited motion for an address was supported by a most spirited speech of Pitt’s ... all the House sang in chorus to “Britons, strike home”’.

In the introductory survey to the 1754-90 volumes of the History, ‘the growth of party’ was assessed. In the background was the decay, by the time of George III’s accession, of ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’ as meaningful terms to differentiate parties. Personal parties were substituted, but from their very nature did not survive ‘the natural or political death of their leader’. After 1770, during Lord North’s administration, a dichotomy of government and opposition emerged, evidenced by their sitting on opposite sides of the House, and reinforced by the crisis of the American revolt and its domestic repercussions. The last survivors of the ‘personal parties’, the Rockingham group, who called themselves Whigs and their opponents Tories, formed the nucleus of opposition, but there were other, smaller groups increasingly inclined to act on the same side. Of these only the few radicals wooed constituency opinion, aspiring to be delegates rather than representatives. The King, impelled to resort to two opposition leaders in turn when North resigned in 1782, eventually placed his confidence in Pitt the younger, who ousted a coalition of North and his former Whig enemies, now led by the Duke of Portland, who was, however, overshadowed by Charles James Fox.

The circumstances of Pitt’s taking the helm in 1783 were the pretext for an intensification of the opposition to the government, led by Fox in the House. It was in 1784 that the Whig Club was founded, and it was to become the instrument of Fox’s influence over the opposition. It was not, however, countered by a Tory Club. The word ‘Tory’, applied, as far as is known, by only one Member to himself in the period 1754-90, was still used chiefly as a term of Whig abuse in this period. Only towards the end of George III’s reign was it gradually being accepted by those to whom it was applied, and not without recourse to an alternative label: a Conservative Association was formed at Gloucester in 1818. Pitt did not regard himself as a party leader, though there were Pittites. There was still an appreciable number of independent Members, as was inevitable in the absence of country-wide party organization. Thus, in 1788, when the advocates of a ‘third party’ analyzed the House (of 558 Members) they reported as follows: party of the Crown 186; Pitt 52; detached parties supporting administration (four of them) 43; independents 108; Fox 138 and North 17; absentees and neutrals 14. Pitt’s support is seen to be derived largely from the ‘party of the Crown’, which included Members dependent on the Treasury for their seats, offices or prospects, and those inclined to support the government of the day against what they decried as ‘factious opposition’. They were the ‘ministerial’ Members, the ‘friends of government’. The ‘independents’, not numerous enough to hold the balance, were foremost in deploring ‘party’ in general, though this disclaimer continued to be a badge of virtue in every quarter of the House, ‘Pittites’ and ‘Foxites’ included. Nevertheless, the heart of the matter was that Fox challenged Pitt for power after 1783 on behalf of what Lord Carlisle described in 1792 as ‘an opposing party, driving at the old object, viz. the overthrow of the administration, with the fair intention of replacing it by our own forces’. No administration therefore was conceivable that excluded both Fox and Pitt (‘Pompey and Caesar’, as Lord Sheffield dubbed them); but the goal of including both in one cabinet proved elusive—nor, believed Lord Auckland, would ‘John Bull’ have tolerated it.

Their failure to come to power under the aegis of the Prince of Wales during the Regency crisis of 1788-9 left the opposition a prey to their internal dissensions. Conflicting reactions towards the French Revolution completed their débâcle. From 1792 onwards the more conservative wing of the party moved towards cooperation with, and eventually (1794) junction with government. The bridge to this, in view of the Duke of Portland’s reluctance to part company with Fox, was a ‘third party’ promoted by Windham in 1793. This proved to be a pressure group, not a party, but its purpose, frustrated at the time, was achieved when Portland and his friends took office. Fox was left with an opposition rump to lead, but one in which his personal friends predominated, and in which he could therefore hold the radicals at bay. Canning, in 1806, remonstrated with Lord Granville Leveson Gower about the latter’s supposition that private friendship need not be affected by political differences:

As if the internal history of this country since the Revolution [1688] were not a continued series of instances of political connections founded on private friendship, and reciprocally aiding, and often controlling each other! As if the party which you have joined, the Foxite party, had not always made it a boast that their whole fabric rested on this foundation!

Indeed, it was personal affection for Fox that made it so difficult for Portland to dissociate himself from him, but this is what Fox’s nephew, the young Lord Holland, told his sister in November 1792:

I thoroughly approve of the scheme of a Whig party—at once the terror of Tories and of democrats ... What then you will say is it that I disapprove of in our present Whig party? It is this, the idea that any family or families have any particular influence in this party. The Duke of Por[tland] may be in opposition, may be a sensible man, may call and think himself a Whig and yet be a Tory. I do not speak at all from supposing him so, I am sure he is fundamentally an excellent Whig—but I mean that it is not any particular families that make a party a Whig party but it is the Whiggism of the particular men that makes me respect them. If the D. of P. thinks like a Whig—his estate, his talents, his title ought to point him out as the ostensible chief, but his family would with me go a very very little way, only because it might carry a little opinion with it.

‘Whiggism’—what Brougham was in 1812 to describe as ‘the re-establishment of the ancient intercourse between the Whigs and the people’—was thus dissociated by Lord Holland from the aristocratic trappings given it by the Rockingham party who first revived it in the 1760s. While they were in opposition in the 1780s, the Whigs were a popular party in embryo: through clubs, newspapers, propaganda and party funds they had nationwide aspirations. It is true that the attempt to win seats in the House, the climax of any such organization, was far from effective in the 1790 general election, but it has been shown that peripheral pressures were not wanting then; managerial direction was what was lacking, and Portland and his advisers could not cope. Fox himself, after the Whig schism, had ‘the world to begin anew’, despite his friends’ loyalty, for the young lions of the rump he commanded were advocates of parliamentary reform, to which he had remained indifferent, and the setting up of a club for Friends of the People in 1792 to create a ‘party’ for reform had precipitated the schism. Fox would have preferred, as he told Thomas Pelham, 6 Jan. 1794, the larger party with all its tensions, which

in such a situation would for a time, perhaps a long time, have been very weak and inefficient, but it would have been a body ready for better times, and you would not have incurred the reproach of abandoning all the principles of your former political life, I mean particularly that of keeping up a regular and systematic opposition to a Tory and unconstitutional ministry even tho’ some particular acts of it may deserve applause.

A contemporary epigram was applicable to Fox in this frame of mind:

I am out—and you are in,
O fatal hour! O flagrant sin!
And I will rail, and make a rout,
’Till I am in, and you are out.

Seeking a crumb of comfort, 25 Mar. 1794, Fox reported: ‘It is said, I know not with what truth, that there are upwards of a hundred Members who have not voted this year. Certain it is that many of the minister’s friends are ill inclined to go all lengths with him.’ In July of that year, however, his nephew complained that ‘public affairs are become such subject of discussion and a source of calamity to the most inoffensive and inactive people. Once some were Pittites, others Foxites ... but the greater part of the country were neither the one nor the other.’ Now, it would seem, the politics of conviction galvanized ‘every man’. John Thomas Stanley complained in debate, 26 Nov. 1795:

a melancholy deviation from true honest English sentiment has been driving men to the extreme of toryism and democracy, while the deserted Whig, who had fondly fancied himself, as to political opinion, in full sympathy, at least, with the majority of his countrymen, has in vain been looking round for the coincidence of mind which he had taught himself to expect from every quarter.

The failure of the French Revolution to match the bloodless achievement of its English precursor a century before, and to secure sufficient support in England when the conservative European powers proposed a crusade against it, spelt the doom of Fox’s hopes. If ‘Whiggism’ was activated by response to popular opinion, that opinion was not favourable to Fox; he could not safely appeal to ‘the people’, and opposition was effectively gagged. The logical outcome of this was his secession in 1797, a year after an election which had confirmed his party’s weakness. Secession, which took place after the failure of an ‘armed neutrality’ of Members ‘violent against Pitt, though they vote with him’, to launch a third party as an alternative to the Foxites for future government, might irritate the ministry when it was based on the premise of the hopelessness of a House which only reform could render representative, but it could scarcely promote party growth. The 100 Irish Members who were introduced in January 1801 were, at first anyway, no asset to opposition, which had decried the swamping of the House with such a large contingent likely to reinforce the majority. It was Pitt’s resignation soon afterwards that opened up fresh prospects.

The fall of Pitt proved to be a prelude to a decade of party political confusion. Addington, who succeeded Pitt with his blessing, was disavowed by the ex-minister’s most talented adherents. When the new ministry made peace with France, a ‘new opposition’ came into being, since Fox and the ‘old opposition’ welcomed the armistice. Lord Granville Leveson Gower reported in November 1801: ‘Parties are at this moment so strangely chequered and confused that I think I never knew a time when it was so necessary to retain the power of voting in one’s own hands’; and in December 1802, after a general election, ‘the confusion of the state of parties greater than ever, the whole House of Commons seems to be individualised’. This was echoed by George Tierney, writing on 26 Dec. 1802: ‘it certainly is a very oddly composed House of Commons, and there is a vast weight of talents over which ministers have no control, but it will take some time to bring them together and to organize them into anything like a regular and formidable body’. We glimpse a Member suffering from this state of affairs on the question of the Prince of Wales’s debts, 4 Mar. 1803, when he is heard muttering to himself ‘A very awkward business this, one must disoblige Addington or the P[rince]’. As Lord Archibald Hamilton wrote on 26 Jan. 1803:

In the present state of the House of Commons ’tis difficult to say who are with or who against. ’Tis really a curious kind of chaos in which every man may find in each subdivision of party some he hates and some he likes, and thus having a ready excuse for joining or supporting any one—’tis the finest opening for rascallity [sic] I ever saw, and I dare say nothing prevents a plentiful harvest but the small prospect there is anywhere of any permanent fruit. I fear nothing but war (which God forbid) or the King’s death (in which God’s will be done) can, I think, separate the husk from the grain, the plausible from the honest.

Another Whig, Richard Fitzpatrick, wrote despairingly a month later, ‘whether we call the ministry either the weakest or the strongest of which there is any example, we shall speak with equal correctness’.

The resumption of hostilities with France in June 1803 at first did nothing to remedy the party political jumble: witness Caroline Fox, who wrote on 2 June, ‘nothing is so whimsical as the state of parties’; and Lord Henry Petty, 6 June, who remarked on the ‘strange confusion of parties and opinions’. But war alienated the Foxites, and Fox set about winning back his ‘authority ... for the conduct proper to be pursued by those who had not confidence in his Majesty’s servants’, which he had lost to the ‘new opposition’, the modest pack led by Lord Grenville and William Windham. At length co-operation between these two parties was achieved, and reinforced by the Prince of Wales’s support. (Fox’s dream was to put him at the head of the merger, and benefit from the undoubted attraction for straggling Members of the Prince’s ‘reversionary interest’.) Pitt hung back, but was at length drawn into the campaign of opposition which in the event was to place him at the helm, as some of Fox’s disgruntled supporters had predicted. Eschewing ‘factious opposition’ to the King’s choice of minister, Pitt was restored to power in 1804 without any precondition of alliance with the ‘old’ and ‘new’ oppositions, which in their turn refused to be divided for his benefit. The notion of a comprehensive or broad-bottomed administration was sunk, and Pitt was left, in the end, to seek assistance from the discredited Addington (now Lord Sidmouth) and his cohort. It was apropos of this that Lord Harrowby wrote:

At a time when strong measures must be proposed, it was also felt that the existence of a third party, under which (however inconsiderable in its own numbers) all the shabby and the wavering might range themselves, was incompatible with the stability of a government against which such a powerful phalanx was decidedly ranged.

In terms of majority, Pitt’s second ministry was precarious, and rendered more so by the brevity of his honeymoon with Addington.

‘Personal parties’ had usually died with their leaders, but Pitt, at his death in power in 1806, left a circle of friends and disciples which was not so easily dispersed. The decision of Lord Grenville (Pitt’s cousin) and Fox, to whom the King fatalistically turned to furnish a ministry, to exclude Pitt’s friends (and include Lord Sidmouth) soon provoked them into concert of a sort. In a ministry supposed to unite ‘all the talents’, those of Pitt’s friends were ignored: decrying ‘factious opposition’, and hoping that Grenville would ditch Fox in their favour, they played a waiting game. On 8 Aug. 1806, George Rose, one of them, wrote ‘there are at least 200 Members who did not vote last session, most of them from an unwillingness to oppose government, and in the hope of a stronger one being formed ... but it is not numbers of which the government stand in need so much as of men of business and debaters’. Grenville did not succeed in efforts to detach them individually; his nephew Lord Temple commented, ‘I fear we have cemented them as a party by excluding them as a party’. The King’s supposed dislike of his new ministers was their trump card, and although he granted Grenville a dissolution to consolidate the ministry’s numerical position, the King’s stand against Catholic relief a few months later provided the opportunity for an upheaval.

The ‘Church and King’ cry heard during the 1807 election was to the friends of the dismissed administration the ‘triumph of bigotry and Toryism’; the Duke of Bedford wrote: ‘the parties are engaged in a guerre à mort, and Bedfordshire is become a field of battle for Whig and Tory politics’. But the new ministers headed by the Duke of Portland were not euphoric. Spencer Perceval wrote, 14 May:

before we took the determination of dissolving Parliament, we made the best calculation we could as to the probable result of the dissolution—and upon the prospect of that probable result determined our measures. The returns as far as they have gone have rather improved upon our expectations than failed them. And this is I think as much as we could have hoped for.

In the first divisions of the Parliament of 1807 only the Fox and Grenville parties were in opposition, and government supporters were joined by the Sidmouthites (though out of office), the ‘Saints’ led by Wilberforce as a pious pressure group, and by the Prince of Wales’s coterie. These allies of the ministry could not be depended on indefinitely, and there were also dissatisfied friends (notably Lord Melville’s clan and following in Scotland) to be placated. What redressed the balance in favour of ministers was the growing disarray of opposition. As Tierney wrote to Earl Grey, 10 Feb. 1809, ‘Indeed nothing could keep the present ministers in their places a week but the state of the opposition’. The death of Fox in 1806, followed by the wafting to the Lords of his successor Grey a year later, had produced a vacuum in the leadership. George Ponsonby, who was nudged into it by Grey, could not control the frondeurs: Whitbread found himself encouraged to lead a ‘Mountain’ of Whig dissidents. So on both sides there were deficiencies:

Both parties have been lowered in public estimation by their mutual recriminations. The opinion that all public men are destitute of probity and consistency unhappily gains ground—and leads people who believe in it ... either lamely to acquiesce in any ministry whom the Crown may nominate or to look to some violent remedy inconsistent with the maintenance of the constitution.

The latter course was indeed a possibility when in 1809 the public integrity both of the royal family and of ministers was impugned, and the issues linked by Whig extremists with the need for reform. The development of extra-parliamentary agitation induced moderate politicians to fear mob rule.

The state of parties was further complicated by the collapse of Portland’s administration in September 1809 following a public quarrel—in fact a duel—between two of his ministers, Canning and Castlereagh. Perceval, the new premier, was left to cast about for allies, and the duelling banjos being out of the question, had to resort to the opposition leaders, only to be rebuffed. His patched-up administration owed most to his personal charisma, and when the Whigs analyzed the House six months after he had taken the helm, they gave him a dozen followers of his own; but they also awarded a personal following to Canning and Castlereagh. For the rest they adopted the categories of ‘thick and thin’ friends of theirs; ‘doubtful’; ‘against the Opposition’; and ‘Government’, the last consisting of supporters of any government in power. They also found room in their analysis for a half dozen ‘No party’ men, i.e. radicals headed by Sir Francis Burdett. The latter was the obvious candidate for leadership in the mob rule envisaged the previous year, and his publicity stunts divided the other parties just at the time when they were aligning themselves on the critical question of the failure of the Scheldt expedition. The best the House could do against the threat from ‘out of doors’ was to avoid making a martyr of Burdett, who proved not to be the man to sustain the role prepared for him.

George III’s final lapse into insanity in 1810 raised opposition hopes, but the Regency proved a snare and a delusion to them. The Prince Regent did not change his government when he might have done so—nor did he ‘increase his own personal party’, if that was his expectation. Opposition had been encouraged by the failure of Perceval to enlist the leaders of the ‘flying squadrons’ in the House, ‘the scattered particles of Pitt’s friends’, for his ministry. But he was confident that no ‘other set of men’ could replace him, and shortly before his assassination he succeeded in his aim. Castlereagh and Sidmouth returned to the fold. Canning did not, but he eschewed alliance with the Whigs, and teamed up with Lord Wellesley, a disillusioned reject from the cabinet. Although Lord Liverpool could not command a majority in the House as Perceval’s successor, it transpired that the opposition could not supply his place in attempted coalition with the ‘middle party’ or ‘armed neutrality’, or as Canning put it ‘the isthmus between the two parties’ where he himself had kept his balance for the last three years. So it was Liverpool, after all, who took the reins in the summer of 1812. Of the subsequent general election Lord Holland, for the Whigs, remarked ‘there never was so much indifference shown by a party as by ours in the late election’.

In the Parliament of 1812 the government, having neutralized the controversial issue of Catholic relief, had sufficient supporters not to seek recruits in numbers. Even an analysis of voting loyalties, made, apparently, by a supporter inclined to minimize the ‘ministerial’ legion in 1813, awarded them 383 supporters as against just over 200 for opposition, 36 Canningites and 29 ‘no party’. When Canning’s party was dissolved the same year, Charles Ellis wrote, ‘we have never been of sufficient importance to deserve the name of a party’, thereby deflating Lord Grenville’s jaundiced reaction:

I am only sorry for the discredit the event must throw generally on all party principle, and the countenance it gives to the vulgar, and I am sorry to say popular prejudice against all such associations, a doctrine too convenient to all [royal] courts not to be propagated with great industry wherever there appears the least opening for its introduction.

Emancipated from his associates, Canning now opened the door for reconciliation, and a year later joined the government, taking what crumbs he could get for his ‘little senate’. In 1815, too, the Grenvillite opposition ceased to trouble ministers, gratis, as did Whitbread, who committed suicide. It was the problems of peace after 1815 that shook the ministry. The growth of dissidence among their erstwhile supporters on critical questions ended their safe majorities. Even so, the conscientious objectors who deserted them could be flattered by consultation or hospitality, and had no wish to see the government overthrown, so the opposition could derive little comfort. George Tierney had informed Earl Grey, 19 Oct. 1812:

Do not believe there is any party zeal, for depend upon it none at this moment exists. If indeed to have a dislike in common were a sufficient bond of union, we should to be sure be strong enough, for we have but one opinion of the present ministers; but unfortunately as it is necessary that there should be cordial attachments, similarity of views, and mutual confidence in each other to constitute an efficient opposition, I cannot conceive how any gentlemen can have less pretensions to be considered as such a body than those who sit on the left hand of the Speaker ... At any rate you would be more efficient with fifty adherents heartily united than all the show of numbers which the motley crew we have for some years mixed with has occasionally displayed.

(Contrast this with Fox’s despondence, quoted previously, about being reduced to the leadership of a rump in 1794!) Tierney had to admit that such a tightly-knit party implied ‘a sort of test of political allegiance’, which was not a prudent proposition; and perhaps he was over impressed with the Canning-Wellesley party (said by them to amount to ‘above forty’ Members) whose ‘importance’ he then thought ‘much increased’ in ‘public estimation’. He had no time for any other ‘cossacks and voltigeurs’ who might sometimes muster with the opposition, or distract it from its own chosen exertions to test the ministry.

Tierney’s ‘grumbling and croaking’ turned on the opposition’s failure to be ‘called for out of doors’ as an alternative to the ministry. On 10 Jan. 1817 he reported: ‘The government people give out that it is not improbable that they may be beat on some question of retrenchment, but they declare it is determined not to resign until some distinct vote in Parliament is pointed against their continuance in office’. But the opposition alone could not bring about any such vote. A few days before he had

gone through the list of the H of C as cautiously as possible, and the result is that I find 161 in unequivocal, undisguised opposition, of which 21 are either abroad or from circumstances of illness, etc. incapable of attending ... In addition to this list I make out another consisting of those who by their votes on different occasions in the last two sessions have shown that they are not connected with ministers. These amount to 68, of which it is a moderate calculation to say 25 may be relied upon on all popular questions. If I were to set down 35 I should be much nearer as I think to the truth.

The death of George Ponsonby in July 1817 left the opposition leaderless in the House for a year. Tierney reported, 11 Apr. 1818, by which time the defection of the Grenvillites was apparent:

After deducting all our late losses, and even considering some as gone who are possibly not so, I make out a list of 149 who I am satisfied may every one of them be relied upon as far as relates to steady adherence to the principles they have professed; but, till some arrangement be made by which a chief can be found, I doubt exceedingly whether one half of this number will ever, unless some great event takes place, be mustered.

When, after the 1818 election, he was offered the leadership of opposition in the House by some 110 Members, Tierney reacted:

I must either accept the situation, or disoblige all those with whom I act, and prevent those exertions which the increase of numbers obtained by the general election enables them, as they think, to make ... I reckon our positive numbers at 175, exclusive of a very considerable body which—to say the least of it—is unconnected with government. With such a force we ought to do a great deal, but all our exertions must be unavailing, unless we can satisfy others that we are as able to build as we are willing to pull down, and that if they help us to overthrow the present administration we can at once supply them with another.

A measure of the difficulty is suggested in a letter written by David Ricardo, an aspirant to Membership, on 22 Mar. 1818: ‘I should neither be Whig nor Tory but should be anxiously desirous of promoting every measure which could give us a chance of good government. This I think [will] never be obtained without a reform in Parliament.’ Of this attitude Henry Gally Knight (who was only echoing the views expressed by Francis Jeffrey in his Short remarks on the state of parties at the close of the year 1809) wrote, 24 June 1818:

The Mountain declares itself generally hostile to Whigs and Tories. What can be so dangerous to the state? and what is more to be deprecated than any increase of strength or credit to these ultras? England is between Scylla and Charybdis—despotism and democracy. All who seriously reflect, and really wish well to liberty and their country, must desire to see the moderate Whigs increased in number and in strength.

On hearing the election results soon afterwards, William Huskisson, a member of the government, wrote (3 July): ‘I cannot be indifferent to what the opposition (not the Whigs but the high popular party) will consider as a triumph in so many populous indications of their strength. It is a bad symptom.’ Yet the Whigs kept the radicals at bay, and Tierney was complacent by February 1819: ‘to have voted 168 is considered a great party triumph, as it really is, and accordingly all our friends are in the highest spirits. We had 34 of our own people absent.’ Two weeks later he wrote, ‘our strength is more respected, which with many is the same thing as our merits’.

The ministry had less need of the Grenvillite ‘third party’ in 1818 than of Canning in 1812: it took three more years for them to infiltrate the government. The Marquess of Buckingham chafed. His ‘personal party’ had eschewed mere neutrality to rally to ministers against the ‘reformists’. He commented: ‘In no part of our history has a [neutral] party ... been formed, that has not been the dupe of the ministry or the opposition, or both. I utterly disclaim it, and will not be a party to the passing my whole political life in so vain a pursuit.’ But these were not times for charismatic leadership either: Henry Brougham was snubbed by the Whigs in so far as he staked his claim to it. This led to his jaundiced redefinition of ‘party’ as ‘a dupery of sixty or seventy people who don’t reflect, for the benefit of two or three sly characters who go about earwigging the powerful ones for their own purposes’. But this was written in pique: in July 1818 he informed Lord Holland, ‘I have been ... drawing up a dissertation on the state of parties and an argument in favour of party generally for the E[dinburgh] Review’—it did not appear. Holland assured Tierney, 24 July 1818:

As to a leader who is more than the mere instrument and agent of the general opinion of his party, that is whose authority shall create for them the opinions they espouse, it is a phenomenon which whether desirable or not will never occur again in our days and I believe is hardly adapted to the state of society in which we live.

What Holland remarked with pride was that ‘there is more jealousy about what I consider constitutional liberty than I ever remember in my own time or than I believe has ever existed since the end of the American war’. Tierney, ‘something like a captain without an admiral’, was thus acceptable, if unheroic. So, after all, was his counterpart, Lord Liverpool: the heroes of the age were Nelson and Wellington. Yet, on 18 May 1819, Tierney went so far as to challenge ministers in a censure motion, and in November, when the Peterloo massacre raised the question of positive steps against radicalism, ‘the minority exceeded expectation, and astounded the ministers’. A month before Huskisson had reported from Chichester that ‘the mayor, the corporation and the magistrates, all rank Tories, are so loud against the government that they go to the length of almost wishing that ministers were turned out’. The death of the old King on 29 Jan. 1820 was no signal, however, for political change, and the ensuing general election found the opposition deficient in preparation and resources. Tierney, who nevertheless claimed that ministers had ‘certainly lost on the balance of returns at least six’, added ‘Government people are much discomposed by the result of the elections, and it is the fashion to call it the triumph of the Radicals’.

Whether this ‘fashion’ had any basis in reality is beyond the scope of this section of the History, though it may be remarked with what scant accuracy William Cobbett had whined about the ‘triumph of Jacobinism’ in 1802. Within a month of Tierney’s allegation, Arthur Thistlewood and four other radicals were put to death for conspiring against the lives of the cabinet ministers. Resort to such desperate remedies on their part was hardly a mark of triumph, and it underlines the extent to which radicalism was a matter of ‘noises off’ the parliamentary stage throughout this period. Although a slender thread linked the radicals of the Wilkes era with those emerging in the 1790s, the latter already drew their chief inspiration from the French Revolution, a sandy foundation for their political ambitions. From the government’s point of view this was treasonable once war was joined, and the fears of dispossession provoked by the revolutionaries were sufficient to unite most men of property against foreign example. As parliamentary reform was the one issue on which the various radicals chiefly found common ground, it is instructive to see the House’s reaction to the principal general reform motions in this period as reflected in its votes. (It will be recalled that Pitt’s reform motion of 1785 was defeated by 248 votes to 174, when he failed to make it a government question.)

7 May 1793 (Grey’s motion)28241
26 May 1797 (Grey’s motion)25691
25 Apr. 1800 (Grey’s motion)17634
1 June 1809 (Burdett’s motion)7415
21 May 1810 (Brand’s motion)234115
8 May 1812 (Brand’s motion)21588
20 May 1817 (Burdett’s motion)26577
2 June 1818 (Burdett’s motion)1060
1 July 1819 (Burdett’s motion)15358


The long and short of this was that Grey could not draw much support outside his party, nor win over all of its members; the same applied to Brand, who was actively opposed by influential members of his party; and the radical Burdett, with far less support than these two Whigs, could only make a respectable showing when some of them voted for his motions. Nor was there any question of the Whigs as a whole adopting the radical platform. They were more partial to piecemeal reform, but efforts to achieve that met with a mixed reception. All bids to eliminate corrupt practices in elections in this period failed, except Curwen’s bill of 1809, but that was admitted to be a dead letter, even when confined to an attempt to prohibit MPs from obtaining votes by purchase or patronage. As for disfranchisement, the House declined to reform Stockbridge in 1793; extended the vote at Aylesbury in 1804, but in the same way as it had done at New Shoreham in 1770 and Cricklade in 1782; gave up the attempt to reform Helston in the 1812 Parliament in the face of opposition from the Lords, and, with several choices, at length selected Grampound, 14 Dec. 1819, as ripe for disfranchisement and replacement by a more deserving constituency. That innovation was left for the next Parliament. Meanwhile Sir Robert Heron’s specific bid to substitute triennial for septennial parliaments had been defeated, 19 May 1818, by 117 votes to 42. Moreover, Birmingham’s step, in July 1819, of electing its own legislative attorney had brought defiance out of doors to a head. It was Manchester’s inclination to follow this example which inspired the meeting at Peterloo, with its disastrous outcome, provoking repressive legislation as a further shield for the government’s crumbling authority. The transition from general alarm to acceptance of the case for parliamentary reform was to take another 12 years.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

End Notes

  • 1. See Frontispiece.
  • 2. L. Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its Administration from 1750.
  • 3. F. Clifford, History of Private Bill Legislation.
  • 4. O.C. Williams, The Clerical Organization of the House of Commons 1661-1850.
  • 5. D.L. Rydz, The Parliamentary Agents.
  • 6. P. Howarth, Questions in the House (1956), chs. iv. and v.
  • 7. P.D.G. Thomas, The House of Commons in the 18th Cent.