In just a few short weeks the theatrics of election campaigning will be replaced, once more, with the theatrics of Parliamentary discourse. We have become familiar with the sometimes questionable behaviour of the House through televised debates. In the nineteenth century, Birmingham’s first returned MPs had something of a shock when they took their seats. At a Town Hall dinner in 1833, the two men, Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, gave some account of their first year’s experience. These were Birmingham men and Attwood in particular seemed to have, initially at least, felt some sense of awe at having found himself in the presence of the King. Although he couched his description in the language of reform, he was not shy at emphasising the ‘greatness’ of the company he had witnessed – dignitaries of the Church, others great officers who could fight in battles, a vast number skilled in law and many ladies of rank. However, Attwood questioned their ability to understand the difficulties of the ordinary people, adding that they looked down, as if from the altitude of a balloon, and consequently could scarcely see such a man as John Bull and his poor family travelling through all the hardships of trade and commerce. Attwood’s awe was tempered by his values.
Joshua Scholefield’s speech made no bones about his initial perception of the House, he could but not express his disappointment at the sort of company he had met with in the House of Commons. Scholefield said that he had hoped that the reformed Parliament would have comprised a set of men who wished to serve their country but declared that he had soon found them to be made up of the old leaven. Both men had been struck by the dress of the Members – there appears to have been no stuffy grey suits in the 1832 Parliament – they dressed in red and blue, with cocked hats and swords and exhibiting on the whole more the appearance of theatricals than senators collected to decide upon the destinies of a great nation. I often think the same about our recent Parliaments when they heckle like a lot of school children! Attwood’s revelation that the MPs appeared in all the colours of the rainbow met with much laughter. Scholefield stated that the Members appeared ludicrous, but their conduct was mischievous.
This apparent mischief was of far greater concern to the local Members, particularly the manner in which some of the MPs voted on important issues. Scholefield said that their servility to the ministry was shocking revealing that it was no unusual thing to see them coming into the House at twelve o’clock at night (dressed up as he described) for the sole purpose of voting for the ministers citing one occasion when twenty three of these members came in from a levee, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, just in time to vote in the majority. Scholefield claimed that he was often left ashamed at their conduct, saying that the man who talked of the wants of the country was looked upon as mad; and when distress was said to exist it was flatly denied or inattentively considered. Attwood himself, with his Birmingham accent and tendency to drag his speeches out over the course of hours, would come in for such contempt later in the decade as he called for an extension of voting rights to all working men.
It may be of some regret (or prudence!) that there are no longer any cocked hats and swords in the House. But there are some things that clearly have not changed.
The quotes in this post are taken from the Birmingham Journal, December 14th, 1833. Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge in the Local Studies Centre, fourth floor, Library of Birmingham – note that because of recent government cuts the library is no longer open on a Sunday. Please support our libraries and archives.