Thursday, March 7, 2013

A dignified Speaker

John Evelyn Denison, Viscount Ossington, died 140 years ago today. He was an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he held the office of Speaker in the House of Commons and kept a diary record of his 14 years in the post. Often dry and procedural, the diary comes alive when Denison writes about his own decisions being praised by others, not least the future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Denison also hands down occasional pearls of wisdom such as when the House was unexpectedly in a ‘a touchy, irritable state’ - ‘such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

Denison was born in 1800 at Ossington, Nottinghamshire, the eldest son of a wool merchant. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and in 1820 on the death of his father inherited the Ossington estates with much land. He was said to be a progressive landlord, interested in agricultural improvements; and, later, he was president of the Royal Agricultural Society. In 1823, he became a Whig MP, and in 1827, he married Charlotte, daughter of William, Duke of Portland, but they had no children.

Throughout his life, Denison sat in Parliament for various constituencies, including Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hastings, South and North Nottinghamshire, and Malton. In 1857, he was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons, a position he retained until 1872, when he resigned and was created Viscount Ossington. He died a few months later, on 7 March 1873. A little further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Nottingham University’s website for manuscripts and special collections.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (log-in required) on Denison says he was fairly well regarded as speaker: ‘A consolidator rather than an innovator (he prevented, for example, the introduction of printed notice of questions to ministers), he none the less defended the financial rights of the Commons against the Lords, deploring the latter’s action in rejecting the bill of 1860 repealing the paper duty, and opposing the Lords’ introduction of a financial provision into a divorce bill. The tories in 1862 hoped he might be encouraged to retire and be replaced by Spencer Walpole. Denison was the last speaker to speak and vote in committee, and he voted against the government on the budget on 9 June 1870. He was a dignified speaker but was thought by contemporaries sometimes lacking in firmness.’

For the 14 years that he held the post of Speaker, Denison kept a diary record of his duties and decisions. This journal was found in a box many years later. Considered initially too technical for public interest, it was only printed for private circulation. However, in 1900, John Murray decided it might sell to a wider audience and so published it as Notes from My Journal when Speaker of the House of Commons. This edition is freely available at Internet Archive.

The published diary is often dense with the detail of Parliamentary procedure, nevertheless Denison did a fair job of keeping it interesting with lucid explanations of issues that were, perhaps, out of the ordinary or worth setting down. And though he must have meant it to be a dry and official record, Denison does sometimes write about his personal feelings, especially when others have praised him for decisions! Here are several extracts.

30 April 1862
‘I have been named by the Queen as one of the Commissioners to represent Her Majesty on the occasion of opening the International Exhibition. I wrote to Lord Eversley to ask him how I should go dressed on such an occasion. He answered, in plain black gown and wig. I forwarded this opinion to the Lord Chancellor, who repelled the idea in a very amusing letter, and said he had settled to go in his gold gown; he saw no necessary connection between the gold gown and the gold coach. I have decided against the lumbering gold coach for many reasons: 1) I should probably stick fast in the new granite; 2) I should have to go at a foot’s pace while in company with others who could and would trot; 3) I could not bear to drag all the officers of the House and my servants on foot such a long distance. I am not going to Court to pay my respects to the Queen; I am not going with the House of Commons as a body, and at their head.’

1 May 1862
‘The opening of the International Exhibition took place this day at one o’clock. The House of Commons adjourned from Wednesday to six o’clock on Thursday to allow the attendance of the Ministers, of myself, and of the members generally at the ceremony. I had decided to go in my gold gown, but not in the lumbering gold coach. I borrowed a good London coach of Lord Chesham. I put my coachman and two footmen in their State liveries. I added good cloths, and bows of ribbon to my horses’ furniture.

At twelve, I set off to Buckingham Palace, taking Lord Charles Russell and the mace and my trainbearer in the coach. Arrived at Buckingham Palace they desired me to drive forward near the gate, as I was to lead the procession. Royal processions move in the inverse order of precedency, the lowest in rank going first. So my carriage was first, then Lord Palmerston, then Lord Derby, I think, Lord Sydney, the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prince Oscar of Sweden, the Crown Prince of Prussia, the Duke of Cambridge.

We were not ready till a quarter to one. We were to be at the Exhibition Buildings at one. I led the way at a fair trot. (Where should I have been in my gold coach - leading the way at a foot’s pace?)

We arrived at the building at one. The rest of the procession was arranged in the building, waiting for the Royal Commissioners to complete the line. I was to walk first (as I had led the way in my carriage). Lord Palmerston was desired to walk by my side. He said: “No, the Speaker should walk alone; I will follow”. I said: “Of course, as you please, but I should think it a great honour if we might proceed together”. Lord Palmerston said: “Oh, if you wish it, certainly”. [. . .]

As we walked along I could gauge the popularity of Lord Palmerston. The moment he came in sight, throughout the whole building, men and women, young and old, at once were struck as by an electric shock. “Lord Palmerston! Here is Lord Palmerston! Bravo! Hurrah! Lord Palmerston for ever!” And so it went on through the whole building. One voice: “I wish you may be Minister for the next twenty years”. “ Well, not unlikely,” said Lord Taunton, “he would only be a little more than a hundred.” ’

10 March 1863
‘We went in a special train from Paddington to Windsor, leaving 10:30, and being an hour on the road. Carriages were ready to take us to the chapel. Lady C posted down in her own carriage, leaving 8:30, reaching St. George’s Chapel at a quarter past eleven; she escaped much cold and draughts by this, and greatly preferred it. I went in my black velvet suit. The Lord Chamberlain said that was the proper dress. He told this to the Lord Chancellor, who, however, would go in his gold gown and his wig. The Lord Chamberlain said: We had no function to perform; we had no part to play in the ceremony, we were invited guests like others. I followed the advice of the Lord Chamberlain; the Lord Chancellor went in his gold gown. The seat allotted to me was the dean’s seat, close by the door. It was a very magnificent sight - rich, gorgeous and imposing. I don’t know how I could say enough about the magnificence of the spectacle. The pageant was admirably got up, and was well performed throughout. Beautiful women were arrayed in the richest attire, in bright colours, blue, purple, red, and covered with diamonds and jewels. Grandmothers looked beautiful: Lady Abercom, Lady Westminster, Lady Shaftesbury. Among the young, Lady Spencer, Lady Castlereagh, Lady Carmarthen, were most bright and brilliant. The Knights of the Garter in their robes looked each of them a fine picture - Lord Russell looked like a hero who could have walked into the castle court and have slain a giant. The Queen sat in her closet on the left hand side of the altar, looking up the chapel and high above it. But she did not affect any concealment. She looked constantly out of the window of her closet and sometimes leaned over, with her body half out of the window, to take a survey down the church. She was dressed in plain black up to the throat, with the blue ribbon over her shoulder, and a sort of plain mob cap.

As each of the royal persons with their attendants walked up the chapel, at a certain point each stopped and made an obeisance to the Queen: the Princess Mary, the Duchess of Cambridge, the Princess of Prussia, the Princess Alice of Hesse, the Princess Helena, the Princess Christian, etc.: each in turn formed a complete scene. The Princess Alexandra with her bridesmaids made the last and the most beautiful scene. The Princess looked beautiful, and very graceful in her manner and demeanour. When her eyes are cast down she has a wonderful power of flashing a kind of sidelong look.’

4 June 1863
‘Mr. Tollemache wishing to make a personal explanation as to some observations of Mr. Gladstone’s about the Committee on the Holyhead packet - Then rose Colonel Douglas Pennant - Mr. Gladstone explained - Then rose Mr. H. Herbert - I had to interfere. Mr. Herbert moved that the House do adjourn. Then Mr. Hennessey spoke, all attacking Mr. Gladstone - I had again to interfere. Then Lord Robert Cecil tried to get a stronger expression from me about Mr. Gladstone’s words, but without success. The whole thing was verging on great irregularity, reference to past debates, etc. Still a personal explanation could hardly be permitted, and so the thing grew in dimensions, always growing more irregular as it went on.

The House was in a touchy, irritable state; the slightest step on my part might have raised a storm. It was a flare up all in a moment. But such is always the case with the sharpest hurricanes. The barometer gives no notice.’

26 July 1866 [The Reform League had been established a year earlier to press for manhood suffrage and the ballot in Great Britain. It campaigned unsuccessfully for the Reform Bill in 1866, and successfully for the Rerform Act in 1867. This diary entry is dated three days after the so-called ‘Hyde Park Railings Affair’.]
‘Great anxiety prevailed about the condition of things between the Secretary of State, Mr. Walpole, and the Reform League. The parks had been invaded, the iron railings torn down. There had been an interview between Mr. Beales, the Chairman of the League, and Mr. Walpole, and Mr. Beales had posted placards to say that Mr. Walpole had given way, and that a meeting would be held in the park on Monday. There was a feeling that Mr. Walpole had displayed great weakness.

At the morning sitting of Thursday, 26th July, Mr. Disraeli came to me and spoke of the state of affairs, and asked me what I thought of an Address to the Crown, asking the Crown to grant the use of the park for the purposes of general recreation, but not for meetings on political or religious subjects. I said that on the first blush such a course seemed to me to be open to the greatest objection. Mr. Walpole had spoken positively as to the law of the case, without doubt or reservation. Sir George Grey had concurred with him, and had supported him. The House accepted the statement without question. They had therefore already all they could obtain by a fresh answer from the Crown to an Address. To show hesitation or doubt at such a moment would be ruinous. It would justify doubt on the other side, and so give colour to the pretensions of the League. To open the question by an Address to the Crown would bring forth stormy remonstrances from the Radicals, and counter propositions.

I urged the Government to stand firmly on the ground that had been taken. All that the public required was a show of firmness on the part of the Government; at present an impression prevailed that great weakness had been exhibited.

The Government stood to their declarations, and there was a satisfactory debate in the House of Commons in the evening. I congratulated Mr. Disraeli on the result. He said to me: “It has turned out very well. I followed your advice exactly.” ’

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