“Name that Member!”: weird (but wonderful) British parliamentary customs

Today, something a little different, to celebrate the 4th anniversary of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and the publication of their second anthology of articles: Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, volume II. For further information and links, including how to link to other posts in the CCK Blog Hop, see the bottom of this post!

My background is in political history. I love British politics, current and not so current. I wrote my high school dissertation on an the 1784 general election (think “Blackadder the Third” … startlingly accurate), chose political options as an undergraduate whenever possible, and studied 18th century political discourse for my PhD. Unsurprisingly, my career path has also taken me close to politics. Although I am a librarian by training, I spent a year working in a government department, and one of my duties was to compile daily lists of parliamentary debates.


Hansard, from here

Ah, Hansard… Hansard, since 1803(ish) the official record of British parliamentary goings-on. If it’s not in Hansard, it didn’t happen. Modern Hansard comes in densely-typed A4 packets, sewn together to form a booklet from about a centimetre to a centimetre and a half in thickness (depending on how verbose members are feeling on any particular day). Dull, you say? Anything but. My Hansard perusals were the highlight of my day.

You see, Britain’s Parliament has been around for a good long while — its history goes all the way back to Magna Carta (if you’ve been living in a cave for the past year of 800th-anniversary celebrations, that was signed in 1215) and the 13th century. Simon de Montfort summoned the first “proper” parliament in 1265, incuding representatives from all around England. That’s 750 years of (sort of) regular parliaments, and 750 years’ worth of weird and wonderful customs and traditions. Because if there’s one thing we Brits love, it’s a weird and wonderful custom.

So, ever wondered why poor old Black Rod gets a door slammed in his face every time Parliament is opened? Or why the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack? Or all this fancy politeness of only referring to other members as “the honourable Member for [insert random constituency here]”? Wonder no more….

1. That Black Rod thing

… is really quite simple. It’s a statement of the Commons’ independence from the Crown. It goes back to the 17th century, when Charles I came into the House of Commons in 1642 to arrest five MPs. They had been forewarned and escaped, but it was the last time a monarch was allowed to enter the Lower Chamber. After all, if the Civil War proved one thing, it was that even the monarch was not above British law.

Nowadays Black Rod (the person in charge of Westminster security — so named because he carries a black staff as a symbol of his office) summons the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech whenever she opens Parliament. Because he represents the royal authority, the door of the House of Commons is slammed in his face as he arrives, and he has to knock three times to gain admittance.

Yes, that is the political equivalent of “We’re the kings of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”.[1]


2. Why does the Lord Chancellor sit on a Woolsack?

This one is also quite simple: because wool was one of England’s most important products and exports. Edward III made it compulsory for his Lord Chancellor to preside over the Grand Council on a bale of wool. The current Woolsack is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth.[2]

The Woolsack, from here

The Woolsack, from here

3. “Naming” a member

I’ve actually come across a few examples of this occurring in my research. “Naming a Member” is a disciplinary procedure in the House of Commons. Using an MP’s name is forbidden: only the Speaker can do it, when he /she calls on a member to speak in debate. Otherwise, it’s all “the honourable Member for” whichever borough elected them in the first place. Thus David Cameron (if he weren’t prime minister) would be “The honourable member for Witney”, and George Osborne (if he weren’t Chancellor of the Exchequer) “the honourable member for Tatton”, etc.

However, if an MP is especially naughty — maybe they might accuse another member of telling a direct lie[*] — the Speaker might “name” them, by saying “I name the Honourable Member for Mouldy-in-the-Hills, Ms Winterbottle, for disregarding the authority of the Chair”. Big deal? Maybe, but the named MP is then suspended for five days. If Ms Winterbottle is named again during the same session, she is suspended for twenty days. If she does it a third time, she might not sit again for the remainder of the session.[3]

[*] See below

4. … Speaking of lying in the House…

Accusing another MP of lying is an example of “unparliamentary language”. (Euphemisms are allowed: Winston Churchill once accused another member of “terminological inexactitude”). Swearing and general insults are also not allowed. According to a House of Commons Factsheet on traditions of the House, “Among the words to which Speakers have objected over the years have been blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hoolian, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor”.[4]

MPs can apologise for unparliamentary language by “withdrawing” it. Otherwise, if the language is not withdrawn, then the Speaker may order the MP to withdraw instead.

Occasionally, refusals to withdraw “unparliamentary language” have led to arguments been taken, as it were, outside. In 1798, the prime minister, Pitt the Younger, accused an opponent, George Tierney, of deliberately obstructing a government measure. When Pitt refused to withdraw his comments, Tierney challenged him to a duel. Both escaped unhurt.

5. Dragging the Speaker

The Speaker [or chairperson] of the House of Commons is elected each session by the MPs. Traditionally, the Speaker Elect is not supposed to be happy at all with the honour. On the contrary, they should be physically dragged to the chair. (Extra points are, presumably, given for kicking and screaming on the way.)

Why? Because in centuries past, the Speaker would lay the advice of the Commons before the monarch. If the monarch didn’t like it… the Speaker could be imprisoned, or even executed. It doesn’t happen any more, of course, but still![5]


6. … And some other examples of weird and wonderful customs

  • The Mace: sits on a table in front of the Speaker in the House of Commons, and is carried in and out in procession each day. It represents the Royal authority and, unless it is present, Commons decisions are not binding. It is occasionally a focus for parliamentary protests, therefore: any MPs who so much as touch it are “named” and suspended for five days. John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, was suspended in January 2009 for trying to carry it off in protest during a debate on Heathrow Airport.[6]


  • Hats: MPs used to be required to wear them, unless speaking in debate. Until 1998 they were still required to wear one while raising a Point of Order (i.e., challenging whether a breach of House rules has occurred). Two top hats were kept in the Commons for precisely this purpose (although some MPs, to save time, put their copies of Hansard on their heads instead). The rule was (unfortunately) abolished in 1998. Male MPs are still forbidden from addressing the House in a hat. (Women are allowed.)
  • Swords: MPs used to wear them, and in the 18th century government members were still required to wear Court dress — which included a dress sword. Nowadays, as a Commons Factsheet puts it, “It is not now permitted to carry arms of any kind into debate”. There are still sword hangers in the cloakroom, though, and the Treasury and Opposition benches are still two sword lengths apart …… just in case.
  • Armour: Also not allowed: since 30 October 1313, it seems. If you were wondering, yes, it’s specifically forbidden.
  • Snuff: Smoking, obviously, is forbidden, and has been since 1693. Snuff on the other hand, would you believe, is provided at public expense for MPs, and still kept in the doorkeepers’ box. “Very few Members take snuff nowadays,” reports a Commons factsheet. Which implies that some do……[4]

There are, of course, many more British parliamentary customs: this is but a flavour. It’s worth checking out the House of Commons factsheet on the subject, and also the following sources:

  • An article from the Daily Telegraph on the subject
  • A Listverse article entitled “10 Oddities of the British Parliament”
  • The UK Parliament website page on traditions
  • A History Today article on the 750th anniversary of Parliament


[1] For more on Black Rod’s duties, see this site

[2] For the Woolsack, see the online UK Parliament glossary

[3] See here

[4] UK Parliament guidance on unparliamentary language; House of Commons Information Office Factsheet G7, “Some Traditions and Customs of the House”: found here

[5] See here

[6] BBC article on McDonnell’s suspension


New Release!

CC&KII Cover

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2
Edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard

An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.

Purchase links:

Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Castles-Customs-Kings-English-Historical/dp/0996264817
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Castles-Customs-Kings-English-Historical/dp/0996264817


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Click here to view the other posts in the CC&K Volume II Blog Hop!


Lord Chatham’s aides-de-camp at Walcheren, 1809

I’ve been reading the Monthly Army Lists recently. I know, I know… as a friend already told me, “Who reads the Army Lists, other than officers keen on getting promoted?” The answer is, “Historians who want to find out what district their subject was attached to during the Napoleonic Wars, and who their staff were”.


I will give out no prizes for anyone who guesses which army officer I’ve been tracking through the army lists. In the 1790s Britain and Ireland were partitioned up into military districts, and each appointed a commander-in-chief with his own staff. Lord Chatham (YES! you guessed it!) spent most of his time attached to the Southern District, where he served under Sir David Dundas, before being promoted in 1806 to the command of the Eastern District.

His aides-de-camp have awfully familiar names:

  • Captain Bradford (October 1806 – December 1808)
  • Captain Hon. W. Gardner (as of June 1807)
  • Captain Hadden (as of January 1809)
  • Captain Falla (as of January 1809)


Another familiar name that crops up is that of Lt. Col. Cary, who appears for the first time as Assistant Adjutant General in June 1807.

Why do I say “familiar”? Because check out this list, printed in The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany (71), 623, of Chatham’s aides-de-camp at Walcheren:

  • Major Bradford (11th Foot)
  • Hon. Captain Gardner, RA
  • Captain Haddon [sic], 6th Dragoons
  • Major Linsingen, 1st Light Dragoons, KGL
  • Captain Felix, 36th Foot
  • Major Lord Charles Manners and Captain Lord Robert Manners, extra ADCs
  • Lt-Col. Carey, 3rd Foot Guards, Military Secretary

“Captain Felix” of the 36th is something of a mystery, not appearing in the Monthly Army List for 1809 or 1810 in that regiment. But note that the Tradesman, or Commercial Magazine (vol 3, 1809), 168 leaves Felix out and in his place is a certain “Capt. Falla, 25th Foot”.

Leaving out Major Linsingen, and the Manners brothers (both of them sons of Charles, 4th Duke of Rutland, Chatham’s old buddy), who were these men? Chatham would have known them well from the Eastern District, and was obviously inclined to trust them. Conversely, they would have known Chatham well and, presumably, been accustomed to his way of doing business (by which I mean his habit of getting up about 12 o’clock noon).

Below is some of the information I’ve managed to find on Chatham’s chosen men. They were not, after all, merely names in the Army Gazette, but real men with their own lives and stories to tell.

1. Sir Henry Hollis Bradford (1781-1816)

Bradford (with the 11th Foot in 1809) was the youngest son of Thomas Bradford of Ashdown Park, Sussex. He was born on 25 June 1781. He was Chatham’s longest-serving ADC in the Eastern District, although also the first to leave him, at the end of 1808, when he was sent out with Sir John Moore to Corunna. He had already previously served at Copenhagen in 1807.

He survived the retreat, and Chatham remembered him fondly enough to appoint him First Aide-de-Camp at Walcheren. Bradford was tasked with bringing home Chatham’s official dispatch reporting the fall of Flushing in August 1809, and received a reward of £500 for the job. After Walcheren he went back to the Peninsula, where he saw action as Assistant Adjutant-General at Salamanca and Vittoria, and Nivelles and Toulouse, among others. As a result he was created a Knight of the Bath in January 1815.


Monument to Sir Henry Hollis Bradford, from here

He fought at Waterloo, but was badly wounded during the course of the battle. Unfortunately he never recovered, and died on 17 December 1816 at Lilliers, in France, as a result of the wound he had received over a year earlier. He reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.[1]

2. Hon. William Henry Gardner (1774 – 1856)

Gardner was the son of Admiral Alan, Lord Gardner, who had been Lord Chatham’s friend and colleague on the Board of Admiralty during Chatham’s tenure as First Lord. William Henry was thus also the brother of Alan Hyde, Lord Gardner, who commanded one of the naval divisions during the expedition to Walcheren. His connections to the Walcheren high command did not end there: in 1805 he had married Elizabeth Lydia Fyers, the daughter of William Fyers, who had served as Chief Engineer during the expedition.

He was born on 6 October 1774 and died 15 December 1856. He reached the rank of General.[2]

3. William Frederick Hadden (1789 – 1821)

Hadden was the son of James Murray Hadden, Chatham’s Surveyor-General of the Ordnance (and close friend). Hadden was in the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons in 1809, as a Captain: interestingly, he appears in May 1814 as a Lieutenant in the 4th.

One reason for this demotion may have been his odd behaviour. According to anecdote, he was drummed out of the army for asking Queen Adelaide to dance without an introduction, but this doesn’t match up with his lifespan and I have not found any evidence of it. According to a website on the history of Harpenden in Hertfordshire, where his family had a house, Hadden threatened to muder his friend the Dean of Liverpool as a result of a vision and was subsequently locked away in a lunatic asylum. Whether the story is true or not is unclear, but like Bradford he certainly died young.[3]

4. Daniel Falla (1778 – 1851)

Falla came from an established Jersey family. His brother, Thomas, was also in the army, but killed at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799. He was in Egypt in 1801 before joining Chatham’s staff, and would follow Chatham to Gibraltar, where Chatham had him appointed Town Major in 1822.

Falla remained Town Major for twenty-five years: he retired in 1847, twelve years after Chatham himself had died. Falla then returned to his native Jersey, where he died at St Helier, on 14 March 1851. He reached the rank of Colonel.[4]

5. Thomas Carey (1778 – 1825)

Like Falla, Carey was a native of the Channel Islands — of Guernsey, to be precise. He was by far the most active of all the aides, and thus the easiest one to track in the records. He was the sixth son of a local magnate, and entered the army as an ensign in the 3rd Foot Guards (Chatham’s old regiment) in January 1794. He participated in the disastrous Flanders campaign of 1794-5. He was at the Helder in 1799, where he served as Adjutant for his regiment. Carey earned himself a reputation for hard work: a Horseguards official said, “Carey is one of the most zealous and efficient adjutants I ever knew: there is no nonsense about him; however irksome may be the orders he receives, he sets to work, and executes them on the instant with cheerfulness and alacrity, never starting or thinking of a difficulty”.

He was in Egypt in 1801, where he contracted the eye disease opthalmia and nearly lost his sight. Following his recovery, he accompanied the abortive British expedition to North Germany in 1805 as assistant adjutant general to the forces. He was also at Copenhagen in 1807.

Like Bradford, he served in the Peninsula in 1808 and 1809, and was present at both Vimeiro (where he was wounded) and Corunna. Although he joined Chatham’s staff on the Eastern District officially in 1807, he claimed to have been familiar with him since 1804, although in what capacity I have not been able to identify. By 1809, however, when Carey went with Chatham to Walcheren, the two men were close: as a short biography of Carey in the History of Guernsey put it, he and Chatham “enjoyed the most intimate and lasting friendship”. Carey was certainly devoted to Chatham: “The more I see of him, the more I am convinced that in understanding few equal him, & in Honor or Integrity He cannot be excelled”.[5]

Carey was militant in the defence of his commander after the end of the Walcheren campaign. He interceded on Chatham’s behalf with various political and military figures, but to no avail. Carey remained, apparently by choice, with Chatham in the Eastern District until 1814, when he was promoted to the rank of Major-General. Unfortunately at this time an old illness recurred (malaria, perhaps, from Walcheren?) and he was forced to leave the army. He was not, therefore, able to participate in the Waterloo campaign.

His health gradually failed until he died in London on 9 November 1825. I would very much like to know what Chatham’s reaction was to his death, for of all his aides Carey had been the most faithful.[6]


[1] Henry Hollis Bradford: London Gazette, 4 January 1815; Journals of the House of Commons LXV, 558; www.geni.com page on H.H. Bradford; Burke and Burke, The Knightage of Great Britain and Ireland (London 1841), 217; The New Monthly Magazine, VII (1817), 69; http://glosters.tripod.com/WInf.htm

[2] William Henry Gardner: J. Burke, A General and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire (London, 1832), I, 505-6; geni.com page on William Henry Gardner; genealogical page on the Gardner family

[3] William Frederick Hadden: article on the Haddens of Harpenden

[4] Daniel Falla: Gentleman’s Magazine, July 1851, 328; page on the Falla family monument; Annual Register (1851), 271

[5] Thomas Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, British Library Huskisson MSS BL Add MSS 38738 f 26

[6] Thomas Carey: Gentleman’s Magazine, vol XIX (July 1824), 563; Jonathan Duncan, The History of Guernsey, with occasional notices of Jersey, Alderney, and Sark (London, 1841), pp. 613-15

Guest Posts for Other Blogs

I regularly post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, and have also posted for Madame Gilflurt and others. A list of my guest posts can be found below:

For English Historical Fiction Authors:

And a joint post with Stephenie Woolterton of The Private Life of Pitt fame:

For Madame Gilflurt:

For Mariana Gabrielle:

And a quick post for the Bluestocking Belles’ Teatime Tattler:

  • A fictionalised look at the interruption by “Mad Jack” Fuller of the Walcheren inquiry

“As honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country”: the Walcheren command

In mid-May 1809, the British government was pretty sure it was going to be sending a sizeable expedition to the Scheldt basin to reduce the island of Walcheren and destroy the dockyards of Antwerp. Horseguards was busily preparing a force of thirty thousand men (the number would later rise to nearly 40,000); the Admiralty was putting together a flotilla of over six hundred vessels, from the 80-gun HMS Caesar to a vast fleet of transports and flatboats. At this point, however, the military and naval commanders had not yet been appointed.

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Lord Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War, had been thinking about an expedition to the Scheldt for months. When he had first considered it, he had intended the command to go to Sir John Moore, but Moore had been killed at Coruña in January. For a while there was a rumour that Sir John Hope would take the command, as he was one of the more senior generals attached to the expedition, and there were other rumours that Sir Harry Burrard and even the Duke of York were considered,[1] In fact the job went to John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, then a cabinet member as Master-General of the Ordnance.

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after  John Hoppner

Lord Chatham, engraved by Charles Turner, after John Hoppner

Why Chatham was chosen mystified contemporaries, and historians since. Chatham had joined the army in 1773, but, although a reasonably senior Lieutenant-General by 1809, had not served abroad since 1799. He had in fact not been militarily active at all between 1784 and 1798. There were the usual conspiracy theories – the King had nominated him; George Canning wanted Chatham to succeed so he could prop him up as a figurehead Prime Minister; Chatham needed the cash – and of course after the whole deal went wrong everyone at Horseguards and the War Office was busily accusing everyone else for the appointment.

From the evidence that wasn’t drawn from gossip, however, Chatham seems to have been Castlereagh’s own choice. Maybe Castlereagh remembered how Chatham had been leapfrogged for the Peninsular command the previous year. Maybe Castlereagh thought that, since the expedition was sure to succeed, a Cabinet member in command could only reflect glory on the rest of the government. Who knows? But on 18 May 1809 Castlereagh wrote the following letter to Chatham, who was ill at the time:

“Private & Confidential

Downing Street

18 May 1809

My Dear Lord

I am anxious to have the great Question on which we conversed yesterday put in a course of proper Investigation. The Admiralty are naturally pressing upon it, and Commodore Owen is come to Town for the purpose of giving his Assistance.

I do not conceive, that any Effectual progress can be made, till we have come to a decision, Who is to be Entrusted with the Execution of the Operation, if it should be determin’d on, nor indeed till this is fixed, can any of the Departamental [sic] Arrangements be satisfactorily proceded [sic] on.

Under these Impressions, and in the hope that the result may prove as honorable to the Commander, as advantageous to the Country, allow me to propose it for your acceptance. In Expressing my own wishes, that it may be confided to you, I am authorized to add the Duke of Portland’s, and I have no doubt those of all our Colleagues.

Until I am possess’d of your Sentiments, I shall not feel myself authoriz’d to mention the Subject to His Majesty, nor indeed can I well take any measures at the Horseguards in furtherance of our purpose.

Believe me my Dear Lord

Very Truly Yours


Chatham’s response to Castlereagh’s offer didn’t exactly burn with enthusiasm:


Hill Street

May 18 1809

My Dear Lord,

I received your letter of this morning, and feel sensibly the kind manner, in which you have proposed to me, the command of the Expedition, now under consideration, and I am much gratified by the concurrence in your sentiments, expressed by the Duke of Portland. Of course, I shou’d be at all times, ready when called upon to obey His Majesty’s Commands, but considering this proposal, as an Option given to me, confidentially on your part, I can only say, that I shou’d be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on this subject, before I venture to give any decided answer to it. I am better, but still confined. I shou’d therefore be happy if you wou’d have the goodness to call here at any time most convenient to you.

Believe me,

My Dear Lord,

Yours Most Truly


Perhaps Chatham already had a premonition of what was to come. If so, I imagine both he and Castlereagh had reason to rue the day he overcame his reluctance and accepted the command of the Walcheren expedition.


[1] Henry Brougham to Lord Grey, 30 June 1809, from The Life and Times of Henry, Lord Brougham I, 439-40 (London, 1872)

[2] National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/366 ff 58-9

[3] PRONI, Castlereagh MSS D3030/3087