Sunday 16 August 2020

The Death of a Speaker

 Wednesday, 3rd March, 1943 in the House of Commons [1][2]

Mr. Deputy Speaker, being informed of Mr. Speaker's death, left the Chair.

The Serjeant laid the Mace under the Table : and the Clerk Assistant, at the Table, acquainted the House that it was with extreme sorrow that he had to inform them that Mr. Speaker died this afternoon.

A Motion being made, That this House do now adjourn until Tuesday next - (Mr. Secretary Eden);

The Clerk Assistant, by direction of the House, put the Question, which being agreed to, the House adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes before Three of the clock, till Tuesday next.

As I have tweeted (and said) before, I think these four short paragraphs are the most sombre entries in any of the centuries of the records of the House of Commons, this being the only time a Speaker has died while the House was actually sitting [3]. Here follows the story of what happened next.

The Right Honourable Captain Edward Algernon FitzRoy, JP, DL, MP

Mr. Speaker FitzRoy had first entered the Commons for South Northamptonshire [4] in 1900. He lost the seat in 1906, regaining it in 1910, before switching to Daventry in 1918 when on a boundary change South Northamptonshire was abolished [5], which he represented until his death. A guards officer during the First World War, he was wounded in action whilst still a sitting MP.

After the war, he was elected Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (and thus a Deputy Speaker) in 1924. And in 1928 he was elected as Speaker when Mr. Speaker Whitley [6] resigned due to ill health.

By all accounts he was a good Speaker. However, his health was also failing. It had been the case for several weeks that each morning in the Commons had begun, not with Mr. Speaker taking the chair, but instead an announcement by the Clerk [7]

The Clerk Assistant, at the Table, informed the House of the unavoidable absence, through indisposition, of Mr. Speaker from this day's sitting: -

Whereupon Colonel Clifton Brown, the Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to the Table and, after Prayers, took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

The Standing Order referred to is still extant, but now finds form as paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 3 [8]

Whenever the House shall be informed by the Clerk at the Table of the unavoidable absence or the absence by leave of the House of the Speaker, or where paragraph (3) of this order applies, the Chairman of Ways and Means shall perform the duties and exercise the authority of the Speaker in relation to all proceedings of this House, as Deputy Speaker, until the Speaker resumes the chair or, if he does not resume the chair during the course of the sitting, until the next meeting of the House, and so on from day to day, on the like information being given to the House, until the House shall otherwise order:

Provided that if the House shall adjourn for more than twenty-four hours the Chairman of Ways and Means shall continue to perform the duties and exercise the authority of Speaker, as Deputy Speaker, for twenty-four hours only after such adjournment.

The daily announcement then served to, in effect, renew the Chairman of Ways and Means' authority to act. (Nothing turns on paragraph (3) for our purposes). 

The 3rd of March

3rd March began with a similar announcement. A sign of the sudden nature of the announcement can be seen by looking at the Hansard of the ensuing proceeding - which was a motion to go into the Committee of Supply, and a debate was occurring on a statement made by the First Lord of the Admiralty [9] about naval affairs. 

Lieutenant-Commander Brabner [10], the member for Hythe was speaking when Hansard (with an em-dash) records him being cut off mid sentence [11]

This is something which has news value, and I believe these men ought to have had their story told at that particular time—

And the Clerk made his announcement. This is necessary because, without a Speaker, the House is not fully constituted (hence why the Serjeant-at-Arms put the Mace under the Table,  as it is on the first day of a Parliament before the Speaker is elected) and so the debate could not continue.

In addition, if there is no Speaker, then the authority - and indeed the appointment too - of the Deputy Speakers ceases, hence why the Chairman of Ways and Means left the Chair.

Today, one might assume that pursuant to Standing Order No. 1, the Father of the House would take the Chair. However, a careful reading of that Standing Order implies it would only be applicable on the day (or days) on which the election of the Speaker is held.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden [12], on moving the adjournment (for there was little else the House could practically do) said [13]

The news which the House has just received will be felt, I think, as a tragic personal blow to each one of us. The Speaker was not only a great Speaker, but also he was a man whom every Member of the  House had come to regard as a personal friend. In that light, perhaps, most of all we shall always  remember him. This, as the House knows, is not the moment for the tributes which will in due course be paid, but I think I shall be expressing the feelings of every Member if now, on behalf of the House, I send a message of bur deepest and most heartfelt sympathy to Mrs. FitzRoy and to the family in the loss which, though it, is nearer to them than to us, is a loss which we the House of Commons feel also. 

[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Meanwhile, in their Lordships' House, a debate on aid to China was underway when the Lord Cecil [14] interrupted proceedings to announce [15]

My Lords, I have just heard the most distressing news that Mr. Speaker passed away at two o'clock this afternoon. I cannot help thinking that your Lordships would feel it most inappropriate that this House should continue in session in the circumstances. I would therefore most respectfully suggest to the House that we should immediately adjourn, and that on the next sitting day we should pass a formal vote of sympathy with Mr. Speaker's widow and relations.

A few moments later, on the motion of Viscount Cranbourne [16], the House was adjourned. This itself was a singularly exceptional courtesy for the Lords to extend to the "other place", but more was to follow.

The 4th of March

Viscount Cranbourne opened proceedings in the Lords (the Commons being adjourned till the next week) [17]
My Lords, we meet to-day in the shadow of a melancholy event, an event almost unprecedented in Parliamentary history. Yesterday, as your Lordships know, Mr. Speaker died at his house in the Palace of Westminster.

His Lordship then moved that a message of condolence be sent to the Commons, which the Lords had never previously done when a Speaker died [18]

Moved, That a Message be sent to the Commons to express to that House the profound sympathy of the House of Lords on the loss which the House of Commons has sustained by the death of a Speaker who will long be remembered with affection and regard for the distinction with which he discharged the duties of his office.

And like a Humble Address to the King, the motion was agreed nemine dissentiente.

The 9th March

Pursuant to their resolution the previous week, the Commons reassembled to elect a new Speaker. The House still not being properly constituted, [19]

Hon. Members having repaired to their seats, the Sergeant at Arms (Brigadier Howard [20]), came with the Mace, and, laid it under the Table.
However, the House can not proceed to an election without the approval of the King, which Mr. Eden signified

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden): 

(addressing himself to the Clerk of the House, who, standing up, pointed to him, and then sat down): Sir Gilbert Campion, I have to acquaint the House that His Majesty, having been informed of the death of Captain the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, late Speaker of this House, gives leave to the House to proceed forthwith to the choice of a new Speaker.

This was before the modern Standing Order No. 1, and consequently, the Clerk of the House selected members to speak but himself had not power to actually do or say anything. Hence the pointing. 

Sir Douglas Clifton-Brown, who as Chairman of Ways and Means had been in the Chair when Mr. Speaker FitzRoy died, was elected Speaker without a division. Mr. Speaker Clifton-Brown then received the Royal Approbation in the usual way the same day.

The 10th March

The day was broadly an ordinary sitting day, except that as an early item of public business, Mr. Eden moved that the House express its sympathies with Mr. Speaker FitzRoy's family and recorded it's admiration for him for being their chair during the exigencies of the war. [21]
That this House places on record its sense of the great loss which it has sustained by the death of Captain the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, Speaker of this House, who during a period of more than fourteen years, of which the last three and a half years have been charged with unprecedented dangers to this Realm, fulfilled the duties of his high office both in peace and war with ability, authority and impartiality; that this House recognises that, by his judgment, firmness and unremitting attention to the business of Parliament and to the manifold duties of his office, he maintained in full degree the dignity and privileges of this House; and that this House desires to convey to Mrs. FitzRoy and to the members of the family an expression of the very deep sympathy which this House feels for them in their grievous loss.

And a motion for an Humble Address not, as is usual, to honour Mr. Speaker but instead his widow

That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty praying His Majesty that He will be most graciously pleased to confer some signal mark of. His Royal Favour upon the family of Captain the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, late Speaker of this House, for his eminent services during the important period in which he presided with such ability and dignity in the Chair of this House

Both of which were again agreed nemine contradicente, which Mr. Speaker Clifton-Brown decided to make clear for posterity

I feel sure that the House would like me to direct that it be entered on the records of this House that the Motion was carried nemine contradicente.

The message from the Lords was then considered. Earl Winterton [22], the member for Horsham and Worthing, noted the significance of it [23]

May I raise a point about the Lords Message? As far as I know, it is quite unprecedented and a most graceful and grateful action on the part of another place to pass a Resolution of that kind. May I ask the Leader of the House whether it is intended to take any notice of it?

On another motion by Eden [24], the Commons formally replied to their Lordships

That this House desires to express its sense of grateful appreciation to the House of Peers for their Message conveying their profound sympathy on the loss which this House has sustained by the death of Mr. Speaker FitzRoy.

The 16th March

Before questions, as is customary for messages from the King, the Vice-Chamberlain of His Majesty's Household [25] reported His Majesty's reply to the Humble Address

I have received your Address praying that I will confer some signal mark of my Royal Favour upon the family of Captain the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, late Speaker of the House of Commons, for his eminent services during the important period in which he presided with such ability and dignity in the Chair of your House. 
I have the highest sense of the long services and great merit of Captain the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, your late Speaker, and will comply with your wishes.

The 30th March

A new writ was moved for the Daventry constituency, which I mention only because it then became caught up in a minor, simmering, dispute about the out of date electoral registers. After a division, the writ was issued.

The 3rd May

The King put these words into action on 3rd May by making the late Speaker's widow a Viscountess suo iure, as recorded in the London Gazette on the 4th May [26]

Whitehall, May 4, 1943.

The King has been pleased, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm, bearing date the 3rd instant, to confer the dignity of a Viscounty of the United Kingdom upon Muriel FitzRoy, C.B.E., widow of the Right Honourable Edward Algernon FitzRoy, late Speaker of the House of Commons, and the heirs male of her body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of Viscountess Daventry, of Daventry, in the County of Northampton.

The remainder there provides [27] that after Lady Daventry, the Viscounty descends like a normal Peerage to heirs male only. It was also the rule at the time that Peeresses suo iure could not sit in the Lords [28], so Lady Daventry could not take up a seat in the Lords. Her son, however, did take up the seat on 5th December 1962.

On 2nd September 1962, another Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, died in office. But at the time the House was adjourned for the Summer recess. A somewhat shorter story for a future blog.


Usual note that the text of Hansard and the London Gazette are available under the Open Parliament and Open Government Licenses respectively (though there is no practical divergence between them, I understand).

[1] Who were actually sitting in the chamber of the House of Lords

[2] Commons Journal, Volume 198, No. 37

[3] A few have died during periodic adjournments and prorogations.

[4] A wonderfully confusing name for a constituency.

[5] It has since been revived.

[6] John Henry Whitley, PC. Whitely decline the customary Peerage. Mr. Speaker Bercow is the only other Speaker (except those who died) since 1789 not to be called up to the House of Peers on retirement.

[7] In the era before Deputy Speakers (a surprisingly recent nineteenth century innovation) it was generally accepted that the House could not meet with the Speaker being present.

[8] It transpires what is now paragraph (2) is identical to the original Standing Order passed on 20th July 1855, see Commons Journal, volume 110, page 401.

[9] Albert Victor Alexander, later the 1st Earl Alexander of Hillsborough. Only one more person who was not a member of the Royal Family,  the Earl of Stockton, has been created an Earl since.

[10] As he then was. Later he retired as Commander Rupert Arnold Brabner, D.S.O., D.S.C., R.N., and was also a confirmed flying ace.

[11] Commons Hansard, volume 387,  column 611

[12] As he then was. Later to be Prime Minister, and later still was created Earl of Avon. His widow, the Countess of Avon (and née Spencer-Churchill too) is still alive - our past is so very often among us.

[13] Commons Hansard ibid.

[14] Hansard says this was "Lord Cecil" but I have failed entirely to work out who it actually is. If someone who has access to the bound volumes could check if the online version has just gone wonky I will be most obliged.

[15] Lords Hansard, volume 126, column 421.

[16] Later Robert Arthur James Gascoyne-Cecil, the 5th Marquess of Salisbury, K.G., P.C., D.L., F.R.S., he was at this time sitting by Writ of Acceleration in his father's Barony of Essendon, and was known in the House by his courtesy title of Viscount Cranbourne.

[17] Lords Hansard, ibid. column 423.

[18] ibid., next column.

[19] Commons Hansard, volume 387, column 613

[20] This is Brigadier Sir Charles Howard, G.C.V.O., D.S.O. In 1957, the then Lord Privy Seal moved that the House ask the then Speaker to convey the House's admiration for him on his retirement, see Commons Hansard, volume 563, columns 53-5. He served the House from October 1935 to January 1957.

[21] ibid., column 693

[22] This is Edward Turnour, the 6th Earl Winteron. Winterton being a title in the Peerage of Ireland, it did not come with a seat in the House of Lords, and consequently he was able to be elected an MP. Winterton became Father of the House in 1945.

[23] ibid, column 698

[24] Actually a pair of motions, one to consider the message forthwith and another to reply.

[25] At the time, William Boulton DL MP, the member for Sheffield Central. In 1944 he was created Sir William Whytehead Boulton, Baronet.

[26] London Gazette, issue 36002, page 2011, 4th May 1943

[27] And I have always found this an admixture of curious and a bit silly.

[28] This was changed by the Peerage Act 1963 (cap. 48)

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