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The American

CLERK OF THE HOUSE By Sir Robert Rogers

The Houses of Parliament, London, working late into the night IMAGE COURTESY MAURICE (ZOETERMEER, NETHERLANDS)


ast year we celebrated the 650th anniversary of the Clerkship of the House of Commons. It was a good time to look back on the history of the office, and the development of the Westminster Parliament over the centuries, as well as to speculate what the future may hold. I am the 49th Clerk of the House of Commons since my first predecessor, Robert de Melton, was appointed in 1363. He was paid £5 a year for life – a salary on which it was possible to live quite well in early medieval England! We were called “Clerks” because originally we were priests – Clerks in Holy Orders – at that time priests could read and write, whereas rather a lot of Members of Parliament couldn’t... Among de Melton’s successors was Henry Elsynge, Clerk of the House during the Long Parliament (1640-48), who was present at the Table of the House when Charles I came to try and arrest the Five

14 March 2014

Members. It was said that “more reverence was paid to his chair than to that of the Speaker”; at that time William Lenthall, who had his fifteen minutes of fame when he told the King that he had “neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place, but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”. Brave words; but Lenthall was a poor Speaker, whose career was described as being “a mixture of cowardice and indecision”. In my high-ceilinged office close to the Chamber of the Commons hang portraits of five of my predecessors: Nicholas Hardinge, Clerk from 1732 to 1748, the greatest Classical scholar of his day, who often adjudicated between the front benches on Greek and Latin quotations, with golden guineas being tossed across the Table of the House to settle the bets. On another wall is the Joshua Reynolds portrait of Jeremiah Dyson, a great public

benefactor. In those days the Clerkship was bought and sold like many other public offices. Dyson bought the Clerkship in 1748 for the equivalent of £750,000 in today’s money, but when Dyson left office in 1762 he left it unencumbered; and it was never sold again. John Hatsell, the author of the magisterial fourvolume Precedents of Proceedings of the House of Commons, was the first to make a systematic analysis of Parliamentary law and procedure, and his influence is still felt today. He held office from 1768 for an extraordinary 52 years; but after thirty years he retired to the country, leaving the Clerk Assistant to do the work – but Hatsell kept the salary! Sir Thomas Erskine May, Clerk from 1871 to 1886 and author of the Parliamentary Practice which has now been through 24 editions but still bears his name, was described by a later Clerk of the House as “a sycophant of real ability”, and was any-

The American March 2014  

The American has been published for Americans in Britain since 1976. It's also for Brits who like American culture.

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