Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 2 - The Opening of Parliament

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IT HAS been charged that Americans take their pleasures seriously. However true this may be, there is nothing in the national temperament approaching the solemnity which invests all affairs in England that may be classified under the bead of sport. On the sixth of August, 1895, therefore, the great London newspapers differed only in the degree of respect which was shown this important date. The Liberal newspapers headed their list of "To-day's Arrangements" with "Grouse Shooting Begins," endeavoring to tone down the bitterness of their recent defeat with the promise of better things at hand. The Conservative organs, on the contrary, celebrated their triumph boldly by leading off with "Meeting of Parliament," referring to the fact that grouse shooting had begun, as a secondary consideration.
    Through the courtesy of a distinguished Liberal member I received a card of admission to the opening ceremonies of the House of Lords which were fixed for two o'clock on Monday afternoon - the auspicious, or inauspicious, day according to one's political predilections. Compared to the very general attendance permitted the public at the sessions of Congress in Washington, admission to the House of Lords or the Commons appears to be very difficult to secure. One is informed that invitations are awarded by ballot upon the application of the members, and must be promptly accepted or declined, so that, in the latter case, the card may be given to some other friend by [-13-] the fortunate member to whom the privilege has fallen. The card of admission, by its modest hint, "morning dress," in the comfortable and sensible English fashion, designated the proper costume for the occasion, an important consideration to the visiting stranger.
    I took a cab and was deposited at the Peers' entrance of the Parliament building over which a flag was flying, to indicate that the machinery of government was about to be set in motion. The curbstones along the adjacent streets were crowded with throngs of people watching the arrival of notables whom the British public appear to know quite well by sight, and whom they greet with observations which, even in my own democratic Country, would be considered frank. At the entrance of the House of Peers were two polite policemen who scrupulously examined my card, and passed me on to successive functionaries in scarlet coats and hats of ancient hereditary pattern covered with gold lace. These in turn passed me on to other policemen and functionaries, all wearing the royal badge of office and stationed at regular intervals along a splendid corridor lighted with stained glass windows and lined with statuary. Up stairs and down I ascended and descended, until I was shown my place in what, for the subjects of the Queen, is the court of the last appeal.
    As it was an unusual occasion the ladies present were assigned to the sacred scarlet benches upon what I was informed was the "opposition side." Several were very plainly dressed, while others wore broad-brimmed hats covered with flowers and lace, and gowns of light silk, which were also profusely trimmed with lace. In front of the vacant throne which was a dais with curtains of scarlet hanging from a canopy and furnished with two stately coroneted armchairs, was a cushioned bench reserved for the Lords Commissioners. In the peeresses' gallery was a small and unobstrusive party talking qui-[-14-]etly among themselves. My neighbor was an exceedingly agreeable woman, certainly not so stiff and reserved as an American woman would have been in the gallery of the Senate. She asked several questions which I was unable to answer, and when I explained that I was an American, immediately pointed out the celebrities and described the splendors of the peeresses' gallery during some great night debate when the flower of the realm were there in state, wearing their coronets and jewels. Finally she said very modestly and with an apologetic air for having mentioned it at all:
    "My niece is a peeress;" but of her own evident high station she gave no hint.
    Presently two clerks in wig and gown arrived and began arranging papers upon a table in the middle of the chamber. At the door in the rear a group of bishops, their lawn sleeves making patches of whiteness in the background, were evidently chaffing each other with much animation, while a great deal of fraternal hob-nobbing went on among the reporters in the gallery just over the big clock and facing the throne. One of the representatives of the press talked with especial emphasis, so that his conversation was distinctly audible from where we sat. Then the bishops entered from the door about which they had been standing for some time, and took their seats, still chaffing each other - cracking ministerial jokes, no doubt, after the manner of the cloth, irrespective of creed or rank.
    Immediately afterward the peers came straggling in, singly and in groups, all charmingly dressed and wearing their hats, which, with but one exception, they at once removed. The exception was tall, dark and commonplace in bearing and appearance, and he retained his hat for a few minutes, as if to satisfy the demands of official prerogative - a very strange one to democratic eyes; but presently he yielded to the force of example, removed it and [-15-] held it on his knee. Many of the faces were interesting, and a few were strikingly handsome, high-bred and refined.
    Promptly at two o'clock the Lords Commissioners entered wearing their robes of office-voluminous garments trimmed in ermine-the Lord High Chancellor, Lord Halsbury, Viscount Cross, the Earl of Coventry, the Earl of Limerick, and Lord Balfour. The sword and mace were borne before them and deposited upon a velvet cushion, after which the Commissioners seated themselves and put on their three-cornered hats. This ceremony concluded, the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod was directed to repair to the House of Commons and summon the members to hear the reading of the Royal Commission. As the House of Commons was near at hand, there was no very lengthy interval of waiting; the gate separating the corridor and the floor of the House of Peers was closed and almost immediately the commons arrived, the newly elected Conservatives in force, all crowded into a very narrow space, standing huddled together in uncomfortably close quarters, overflowing into the upper galleries. They were led by the Clerk of the House and took the matter anything but seriously; those who wore monocles adjusted them and much joking and inaudible laughing went on among them. After the confusion had somewhat subsided the Chancellor who remained seated said:
    "My Lords and Gentlemen of the House of Commons: Her Majesty not thinking fit to be present here to-day in her royal person, hath been pleased in order to the opening and holding of this Parliament, to cause letters patent to be issued under the great seal, constituting us and several other lords therein named her commissioners to do all things in her Majesty's name, on her part necessary to be performed in this Parliament, and this will more fully ap-[16-]pear in the letters patent themselves, which will now be read."
    These were read accordingly, by one of the clerks, but so rapidly and indistinctly that, although I sat quite near the reader, I caught but half a dozen words - the name of the Prince of Wales and a statement to the effect that the double sheet of parchment which the reader held in both hands had been signed by her Majesty, Queen Victoria.
    After this brief formality the Lord Chancellor, still sitting, spoke again and said:
    "My Lords and Gentlemen: We have it in command from her Majesty to let you know that her Majesty will, as soon as the members of your houses shall be sworn, declare the causes of calling this Parliament: and it being necessary that a Speaker of the House of Commons shall be first chosen, it is her Majesty's pleasure that you, Gentlemen of the House of Commons, repair to the place where you are to sit and there proceed to the choice of some proper person to be your speaker, and that you shall, present such person when you shall so choose here to-morrow at twelve o'clock for her Majesty's royal approbation."
    The members of the House of Commons then departed to their chamber and the Lords Commissioners also withdrew. As the Lords Commissioners filed by, some plebeian person got in the way, whereupon the Usher cried sonorously: "Make way for the Lord Chancellor;" and I felt like rubbing my eyes, and would not have been surprised at all to have seen about me heralds with their bannered trumpets, and Knights in armor with their retinues; it gave me a very mixed feeling; reverence for custom of historic origin that had survived the wreck of empires; and, on the other hand, a confused impression that I had spent half an hour with Alice in Wonderland.
    The ceremony in the House of Peers being concluded, [-17-] those present adjourned to the House of Commons, where the transaction of official business was much less picturesque and a good deal more animated. Many of the Tory members had been returned three years before, subsequently defeated and returned again, in the election that had just been held, and they could be identified to a man by their subdued elation and their circumspect manifestations of triumph.
    The Times that morning had remarked that it was a memorable meeting, the House of Commons for the first time in two generations having given the government, which was in a minority of twenty-eight when the dissolution took place, a majority against all corners of 152.
    Among the early arrivals were Sir R. Reid, late Attorney-General; Sir J. C. Colomb, Sir John Lubbock, the Marquis of Lorne, Sir W Kay Shuttleworth, and Mr. William Woodall who, under the recent government had held the important position of Financial Secretary of the War Office. The Anti-Parnellites were represented by T. P. O'Connor, Mr. Dillon, Dr. Tanner, Mr. McNeill, and Mr. T. M. Healy. The galleries were filled; the narrow loft, with its tantalizing grille apportioned to the women, being uncomfortably crowded.
    It had been agreed, in recognition of certain concessions, that Mr. Gully, the Speaker of the House recently dissolved, should be retained in his important office, so that the business of election was merely nominal. Of his re-election two very interesting views were taken; one by the Conservatives who held that this signal example of political generosity on the part of the adherents of the government, in the face of extreme provocation to an opposite course, was satisfactory proof that "pernicious partisanism" had not yet taken root in Great Britain. The Liberals, on the other hand, more than hinted that it was a recognition of the power of one radical member who [-18-] had snatched this much of victory from the jaws of defeat. Furthermore, they stated boldly that, while the Conservatives had come into power with an unprecedented majority, the vote which really turned the tide in the elections was so small that they perceived the wisdom of reasonable conciliation.
    Long lines of people, men and women of all classes and conditions, filled the corridors leading to the House of Commons. These were kept in order by the omnipresent policemen whose demeanor might be described as polite but firm. There was almost as much scrambling and elbowing as might be witnessed on similar occasions at home, but it was immensely good-natured. With all our protestations of equality and with the familiarity that seems bred of democracy, the personality, blunt, downright and of the sledge-hammer order, which is permitted upon the floor of the House of Commons, is something to which the visiting American can never become quite accustomed. It is so at variance with the ordinary reserve and self- control of the Englishman, and especially of the Englishman in office, that the remarks and comments which occasionally interrupt a member in the midst of a speech have something the effect of audible and flippant irreverence during a church service. I had observed this in an Australian parliament, where it had been introduced, no doubt, as a mark of reverence for "home" and its institutions, although, with the socialistic tendencies that are fast growing in that remote region, reverence for anything that savors of conservatism cannot long survive. This spirit was very apparent when Mr. Chamberlain, who, having renounced the principles and professions of many years, entered and seated himself by Mr. Balfour in a way that but a few short months before would have recalled the lion and the lamb of prophesied millennium. This prompted one of the most unruly of the Irish contingent to shout [-19-] "Judas.! The epithet, fortunately, was drowned by the applause of Mr. Chamberlain's new friends, who, happily for him, greatly outnumbered his former fellow-partisans. The taunt was accompanied by a few harmless, hostile demonstrations from other Irish and Radical members, and so passed without attracting much attention.
    The business was soon dispatched; Mr. Gully, by the forbearance of his enemies, was re-elected, and the House adjourned.
    My host had invited another guest, Emily Crawford, one of the most distinguished women journalists in England, for many years the staff correspondent of the London Daily News in Paris, whose letters after the death of President Carnot and the political crisis that followed made her widely known throughout the United States. After the session we were invited to tea on the Terrace, where other of the newly-elected members were entertaining their friends-a series of brilliant parties.
    The Thames rushed by, steamers and many small craft plying to and fro, the noble building, a mass of glorious architecture, casting its shadow across the tessellated pavement. The clock, historic Big Ben, struck three, the chimes of Westminster responded - the work of the session was done and over in one brief hour.
    With all deference to lords and commons, to bishops and peeresses, Emily Crawford, to me, was the most interesting personage there. She was of middle age, stout and rather short of stature, with blue eyes and a decidedly pleasing countenance full of varying expression and of great intelligence. She was plainly dressed in a black gown, and the one hand from which she removed the glove was small and white, with delicately tapered fingers. We sat upon an elevated seat, our host pouring the tea and attentively serving us with toasted currant buns and thin bread and butter. Many of the [-20-] members were brought up and introduced to the distinguished journalist, and she met them upon their own ground, but with no self assertion or controversy. Her talk was most delightful. Every incident, every important change of policy through successive administrations for more than twenty years, were readily recalled, and she substantiated her statements with names, dates, figures, that were a little bewildering to those not so well informed as herself. She had a deep musical voice, finely modulated, and a manner somewhat indifferent and taciturn. She attributed the defeat of the Liberals to the too numerous and too diverse measures which they had proposed, and which had failed only because of opposition in the House of Lords. She said that the British mind operated slowly, and that it demanded time for reflection and the assimilation of new ideas. The government, society itself, was a succession of growths, and one could not be violently displaced without permanently uprooting others. She thought, too, that the introduction of a temperance question in the guise of a local option measure had had its weight, especially among manufacturers or dealers in spirits and others whose selfish interests were involved. In the House of Peers she frankly preferred the hereditary nobleman to the new creation who "smelled of paint;" and she made some caustic comments on the aspiring descendants of "self-made" capitalists who were frequently the degenerate successors of men who had possessed excellent qualities. She was very much interested in the progress of civil service rule in the United States and, very oddly, perceived in the importation of Italian laborers the solution of the drink question. Laborers of other nationality, she thought, might require alcoholic stimulants as a specific against the malaria of newly-settled regions; the Italians were a temperate race, they had been acclimated against ague and fever, and, having literally stored up a [-21-] supply of caloric, were not in need of artificial stimulants. If not tenable, her views were at any rate original, and, as she stated them, extremely interesting. She spoke of journalism as a profession-the demand that it made upon the brains and energy, requiring skill, intelligence, knowledge and literary ability, only to record the events of the passing hour, a record speedily forgotten. Its tendency, she thought, was to develop a certain automatic facility for writing, but it secured for those who followed the profession none of the substantial rewards of literature. Mrs. Crawford was recognized by the Conservative members, who watched her curiously. One group, -  a tall young man with a curling blonde mustache, who had been defeated three years before and now returned, and a party of pretty women in French gowns,-were especially attentive while she talked, serenely unconscious of their observation.
    Bits of amusing conversation that one could not help overhearing went on all about us. One man remarked:
    "I shall have to put up my carriage and pair at auction to defray the expense of my canvass."
    "What did it cost you?" asked his sympathizing friend.
    "Fifty pounds a day, and not a penny less," he replied in a discouraged tone.
    I thought of our campaign funds, which so offended the moral sense of the good people of England, and perceived that here, indeed, was a distinction with a difference.
    The Liberals were good-naturedly and somewhat ruefully condoling with each other; one characterized the opening of the session as "tame - very tame ;" another humorously termed it "the slaughter of the innocents ;" while still another remarked that "it made him sad to miss so many of the old familiar faces." On returning home [-22-] we passed a great funeral, a member of the volunteers followed by a long procession of grey uniformed militia, - the coffin carried upon a caisson and quite buried under flowers.


source: Mary H. Krout, A Looker-On in London, 1899>