Women in politics: watching MPs from the Ladies' Gallery in the House of Commons

{See also Ladies' Gallery press cuttings }

Although peeresses could not, by custom, be members of the House of Lords, women spectators had unrestricted access to sit on the benches; indeed, one day in 1787 it was almost impossible for any lord to find a seat to hear the King's speech.

A small number of politically-minded, wealthy ladies had attended the House of Commons from at least 1716 and had been actively politicking in the lobby as early as 1698. By the 1760s it had become quite a fashionable thing to attend and cheer the MPs of the party they supported. Lady Mary Coke's journal records her attendance, with a group of other ladies, on eight occasions in 1768. On 2 February 1778, during a debate on the American war, a huge crowd of men who had forced their way into the Strangers' Gallery were asked to leave because secret matters were to be discussed. Shortly afterwards, 'upwards of three score' of women (including Lady North, whose husband was speaking) were also asked to leave. They flatly refused and a riot ensued. It took two hours to eject them and so when the gallery was re-opened a few days later the speaker was reluctant to admit any women. However, records show that by 1782 small numbers of individuals were being allowed in. Around this time it was decided to create a female-only place in a small, hot, uncomfortable room above the ventilator in the middle of the roof of St Stephen's Chapel. Only eight women could be seated and they could only get admittance if they had a ticket, which they had to obtain from an MP, for a specific time and day. (Men did not need a ticket to sit in the Strangers' Gallery.)

This arrangement continued until October 1834, when most of the Palace of Westminster burned down. Work on the new one was not begun until 1840 and was completed in 1844. In the interim the House used temporary accommodation, and the question of letting women attend and listen to debates was discussed several times. It was first proposed by Mr Grantley Berkeley in 1835 see press cuttings ...

Arguments for allowing women to listen to House of Commons debates

  • It would exercise a beneficial influence on the House
  • Ladies were admitted into the ventilator (sometimes called the 'lantern') of the old House
  • Our countrywomen would be grievously disappointed
  • Ladies were allowed in the Irish parliament, the Chambers in France, Germany and Washington, and the House of Lords

Arguments against allowing women to listen to House of Commons debates

  • It would produce 'disorder and interference' in the business of the House
  • Members would leave ther places to attend to the accommodation and comfort of their female friends
  • The good sense of the country was opposed to making the ladies of England 'political partisans'
  • It would endanger the 'grave and sober temper' of the House
  • Ladies would keep 'bad hours'
  • Ladies would witness proceedings that would 'not at all times be agreeable to their feelings'
  • There ought to be somewhere men could be free from politics (i.e. in women's company). If women were politicised, this refuge would be lost
  • There was 'something indecent' in introducing high-bred and virtuous-minded females to the House
  • The proposition was 'most undesirable'
  • Who would want his wife or sister hearing debates on certain subjects?
  • It would be 'inconvenient, and destructive of that delicacy of the female character'

Debate in the House of Commons, 16 July 1835

Mr Grantley Berkeley rose to move that in future ladies be admitted as strangers into the gallery, in order to hear the debates of that House. In former times, 1716, Hatsel's Precedents inform us (vol. ii.) that not only was the strangers' gallery open to the ladies, but they were also permitted to occupy the benches immediately beneath it. In the Irish Parliaments they attended the debates, in France they to this day do the same, and they also enjoy that privilege in our own House of Peers. Then why should the Commons of England be behindhand in attention and liberality on such an occasion?

I am well aware that there is an erroneous opinion entertained by a few, a very few, as to what is deemed the too great interference of ladies already in the political world; and I have even heard of some men who are sufficiently selfish in their confined notions of lawful rule and right of supremacy, to say that they ought to take no part therein; but this narrow reasoning I deny. So long as a female head can singly wear the crown of England, let them not hold so false a doctrine. Are there any to be found hardy enough to assert that the female portion of the population does not contain a vast share of the better intellect of the country, or that in very many instances it does not fall to their lot to think of, and to rule, the line of conduct which man in his more apparent wisdom may pursue? And is it not often in their power, a power which no one can take from them, by their influence to decide a contested election for county or town? It is; there cannot be a doubt of it. Well, then, I ask the House, if, as it cannot divest them of weight in matters over which their mental worth must ever give them sway, if it would not be better - if it would not be but an act of justice - to concede to them an opportunity of listening to a debate in an honoured situation, to which they are so thoroughly entitled?

Before the recent conflagration they had it in their power to preside over our political hemisphere [i.e. they sat in the ventilator, sometimes called the lantern in the former building. Ed], and I am not aware that the sittings of the House were later on that account; then why not permit them a less lofty but more comfortable accommodation? I have been assured by one or two right hon. Members, but who, I trust, have too much gallantry really to oppose me, that the only reasons on which they hesitated as to whether they should support me or not, were that if the ladies were admitted, they feared that those Gentlemen who could speak would always and on every subject be addressing themselves to the gallery instead of the legislative portion of the House, and that it would tend to lengthen the addresses, and increase the number of orators.

... Now, granting that from the presence of ladies the language of the House did assume a softer, a more poetical, and a more civil style, where would be the harm of this? I will ask the House to look back upon the language and upon the general spirit of coarse personality, which has at times distinguished the present Session, and to declare whether there is not wide room for improvement, and whether the bitter tone that has at times been used could not be mitigated by the honey that could be infused by a better presence? Why, I contend, that had the gallery, or part of it, been tenanted by ladies, several hon. Members of my acquaintance would never have had cause to allude to a breach of privilege, neither would a right hon. Friend of mine (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) have had sufficient obduracy of heart to have inflicted a speech of five hours' duration, had he known that for that time he must have stormed the tympanum of the female ear... I question much if the admission of ladies would have any effect at all, save the grace that their countenance ever gives; or if it had, whether it would not confer more good than harm on the character of debates in general. I therefore ask permission to appoint a Select Committee to consider and report upon the best means of setting apart and adapting a portion of the strangers' gallery for the admittance of ladies during the debates of this House, such admittance to be granted or regulated according to such form and manner as the Speaker shall appoint. Also that directions be given with a view to the same effect in the building of the new House of Commons."

Several hon. Members rose to second the Motion.

Lord John Russell [later to be Prime Minister] would not enter into the subject of debate, but he really meant to oppose the Motion of the gallant Member. If it were the intention of the House to admit ladies into the gallery to hear its debates, the House was competent to fulfil that intention directly, without the intervention of a Committee, and he should therefore give a direct negative to the Motion.

The House divided: Ayes 153; Noes 104 - Majority 49. The press in September reported that it had ultimately been thown out by just 3 votes


03 May 1836: Report of the Select Committee appointed last Session with respect to the admission of Ladies into a part of the Strangers' Gallery, was read by the Clerk.

Mr Grantley Berkeley said he was at a loss to understand what objection could be made to the adoption of the recommendation of the Committee. That Committee had been fairly chosen, and their report was impartial and unprejudiced. He had never heard a single sound reason advanced why ladies should not be admitted into that House for the purpose of hearing the debates, provided they were placed in such a situation that they could not interfere with the business of the House... There might certainly be hon. Gentlemen of a more inflammable nature; but he did not think that was an objection which would be seriously urged.

Mr Potter could not see any objection to ladies hearing the debates of the House. The plan had been already tried in both Houses of Parliament - in that House when the Lords occupied it, and. no objections were urged against it, that he ever heard of. In the ventilator of the old House of Commons every evening ladies had been seen listening to the proceedings, without any objection being made, or its being considered improper. Females were as much interested in the proceedings of Parliament as the other sex, and if any portion of them were desirous of hearing the debates, why should they be prevented? It was well known, and acknowledged by all, that they possessed very great influence in society, and it was, surely, of importance that they should be treated as rational beings, and be enabled to exercise that influence properly. The beneficial influence of a virtuous and enlightened mother over her son generally continued through life, and why should she (if her son were in Parliament) be prevented from hearing the manner in which he discharged his duty? Why should the wife of a Member be prevented from hearing the debate? During the Session of 1833 and 1834, he had repeatedly observed hon. Members take their wives and daughters into the ventilator, particularly when subjects of importance were under discussion, and he felt convinced they would not have done so had they supposed the least injurious consequences to have followed. In the Chamber of Deputies at Paris, the front seats of the galleries were appropriated for ladies - he had repeatedly seen them there, and they appeared to take an equal interest in the proceedings - and he had never seen the least appearance of levity in their behaviour. In Congress Hall, at Washington, they were admitted, and he understood, also, at other legislative assemblies. Surely in this country they were not going to act on exclusive and oriental principles towards the female sex.

Mr Kearsley hoped and trusted, that every hon. Member who was blessed with daughters would negative this idle and ridiculous proposition.

Dr. Bowring said no evil had resulted in other countries from allowing females to hear the debates of their legislative assemblies. In the German states they were admitted; and their presence had not been found in any respect to hinder the progress of public business. On the contrary, their influence, as on all other occasions, had been found friendly to decorum, and friendly to the bridling of the manly passions. The character of females in this country stood so high, that he was persuaded no improper language would be used in their presence, and therefore that they would exercise salutary control. He had never known anything but good result from the presence of females; and he was therefore at a loss to understand why they should be refused admission into that House.

Mr O'Connell said, that in the Irish Parliament ladies were allowed to be present. The cause of their original admission was this. In former days a hospitality of a particular kind was exercised in Ireland to such an extent, that Members of the Irish House of Commons used to come drunk to the House. The remedy proposed and adopted was to admit ladies into the gallery, and from that moment not a single drunken man ever presumed to make his appearance.

Mr Villiers observed, that as he was neither "blest with daughters," nor felt any necessity to "bridle his manly passions," he might be considered an impartial judge on the present occasion. They had had friends of all classes in that House - friends of the Church, friends of the farmers, friends of the manufacturers, friends of the people, and now they had friends of the ladies. The change which it was proposed to make might be considered an organic change. In the first place, however, he was not aware that it was called for. He was not aware that any excitement existed among ladies on the subject; he was not aware that any petitions had been presented from them respecting it. He certainly did not see that any harm could result from the admission of ladies into the gallery. But would the thing end there? Were there no ulterior views? He wished to learn also how the admission of ladies was to be regulated? It would be impossible to admit as many ladies as there were Members of the House. Was the right of selection to be vested in the Secretary of State for the Home Department? If so, that right hon. Gentleman might subject himself to the charge of giving an undue preference to ladies of a peculiar description; he might be accused of being influenced in his choice by corrupt motives. ... He hoped the hon. Member would give an opportunity of letting the matter be canvassed in all the populous towns of the kingdom. To him it appeared to be so difficult to understand all the bearings of the subject, that he did not think that in fewer than three Sessions it would be possible to comprehend them all.

Mr Grantley Berkeley shortly replied, assuring the hon. Member who had addressed the House last but one, that he had no ulterior views whatever.

The House divided ~~ Ayes 132; ~~ Noes 90; ~~ majority 42.

June 1836. We understand it has been proposed within the last few days, by a coterie of fashionable ladies, to present to the Hon. Grantley Berkeley with a magnificent piece of plate, in testimony of the great service he has rendered the sex in general by prevailing upon the House of Commons to provide for their accommodation during debates in parliament'. Preston Chronicle, 11 June 1836. [It was presented in March 1842, once the gallery was opened. Ed.]

10 August 1836

The next vote was £400 to defray the expenses of preparing "an adequate portion of the stranger's gallery for the admission of ladies."

The Earl of Lincoln objected to the vote. He could not help feeling that the subject had been brought forward as a mere joke, and it was never supposed by the majority of the House that the proposition would be adopted.

Mr Freshfield said, so far from the matter being regarded as a joke, that the motion was adopted after the most deliberate consideration had been given to the subject. He was of opinion that it would be highly advantageous to admit well-informed and intelligent women to the discussions of that House. He thought that the knowledge that ladies were present would tend to prevent the recurrence of that want of courtesy which was occasionally manifested during discussions in that House. He could not help feeling that the opposition now made to the vote was rather unfair as the House had already come to a determination in favour of the motion. He begged the Committee to recollect that the proposition had twice been agreed to by the House, and although the noble Lord the Secretary for the Home Department, on both occasions opposed it, yet, on its being carried, stated that, notwithstanding the opinion he entertained on the subject, he felt bound to carry into effect the desire of the House.

Mr Ewart should like to know whether any hon. Gentleman ever observed any evil or inconvenience result in the Chamber of Deputies in France in consequence of ladies being admitted to hear the debates?

Mr Tooke was of opinion, that the presence of the ladies, instead of having any good effect, would be productive only of disorder and interference with the business of the House, because Members would be abstracted from their places in order to attend to the accommodation of their female friends. In fact, he thought the plan altogether would endanger that grave and sober temper in which they ought to discharge their duties in that House. He thought it would be much better to let the ladies acquire political intelligence through the ordinary channels, than to bring them there to keep bad hours, and witness proceedings that would not always be agreeable to their feelings.

Mr Philip Howard would vote against the grant, because he was convinced that the good sense of the country was opposed to making the ladies of England political partisans.

Mr Poulett Thomson said he should certainly oppose the motion. He thought they ought not to be guided by what passed in the French Chamber of Deputies - a place which he had visited, and he must say, from the disorder which he there witnessed, he hoped this House would not imitate so bad an example.

Viscount Palmerston said he could see no inconvenience that could arise from the presence of ladies during their debates. For the first night or two some trifling inconvenience might perhaps be felt; but after the novelty had worn off they would say of the ladies' gallery, as Mr Wyndham had said of another gallery when reminded that he could not be heard if he did not speak out, that when he spoke he forgot that there was such a thing as a gallery in the House. It had been said, that the ladies took no interest in the proceedings of that place; but he believed that they took very considerable interest in them, and thinking that no harm could result from their presence, he was anxious that they should be admitted.

Sir John Hobhouse said, that he dissented most decidedly from what had fallen from his noble Friend who had just sat down. He had considered the matter as a mere joke, and he considered it so still, for in his opinion nothing could be more absurd or preposterous ... He had a strong feeling against the proposition, because many things passed in that House, and necessarily in the elucidation of particular measures, which could not be listened to by ladies, and because they ought to have some place to retire to in which they would be relieved from everything like political strife and annoyance. He certainly should not like to be obliged to debate over again in a drawing room the different questions which might be discussed in that House, and if they were to agree to the present proposition he was quite satisfied that it would be impossible to continue society on the footing on which know happily stood.

As far as literary knowledge was concerned he was as desirous as any man to extend the means of information to the ladies; but certainly he did not wish to see the peace and comfort of men's homes disturbed by having the discussions of the over night renewed in the day, as would be the case if this proposition were acted upon. France had been alluded to; but without any disparagement to France, he should be exceedingly sorry to see the state of society in that country transferred to this. It was in his mind most indecent to see high-bred females present during the debates, and when he saw them in the House of Lords he had often shuddered. In the course of a debate it was impossible to prevent allusions from being made which no man could wish his mother, sister, wife, or daughter to hear; and, therefore, considering this, as he did, to be a very bad joke, he hoped the Committee would rectify the mistake into which the House had fallen.

The Speaker said he had come to a distinct and positive opinion, that the measure is undesirable and inexpedient.

Mr Aglionby thought the only preposterous feature in the whole question was the kind of objection set up to the proposition. He was quite surprised that a Gentleman possessed of the extreme sensitiveness now exhibited by the right hon. President of the Board of Control had never lifted up his voice against the practice of admitting ladies to the lantern of the old House.

Sir John Hobhouse said, it was a practice which had always excited his disgust.

Mr Goulburn was opposed to the admission of ladies to their debates. The admission should be indiscriminate or select. If indiscriminate, who would wish wife and daughter to be present; and if select, who would wish to undertake the invidious task of excluding particular persons.

Mr James Buckingham had often heard it remarked out of doors, that the House of Commons was at least half a century behind the rest of the community, in soundness of understanding, and in accuracy of taste and feeling; and he could not help saying that the discussion on this subject gave to his mind a striking confirmation of the justice of the reproof; for he did not believe there was any other assembly in existence - he was quite sure there was no assembly in England - in which the discussion, as to whether ladies might be permitted to be present at their debates, would have been conducted in a spirit of so much contempt for the understandings of women, and so utter a disregard to their intellectual character, as had characterized this debate of the assembled Commons of Great Britain - and he believed that some of the speeches delivered on this occasion, if they were faithfully reported, or indeed if they were reported at all, would be read with the utmost surprise and indignation.

To take the speech of the right hon. Baronet the President of the Board of Control (Sir John Hobhouse), a Member of his Majesty's Government, and who, as a Cabinet Minister, was obliged to pay his necessary homage to the Queen; - to hear the expression of his horror and disgust (for those were the terms he used) at the bare idea of any English female taking any interest whatever in politics, one would imagine that the right hon. Baronet must revolt with a horror and disgust more inconceivable still at the country being governed, as probably it soon might be, by a female sovereign, in which case, of course, the right hon. Baronet would instantly resign. To hear the right hon. Baronet talk, one would think, first, that the women of England were at present wholly ignorant, and wholly indifferent to, the public affairs of their country; and next, that by the simple act of admitting some twenty or thirty ladies, chiefly, perhaps, the relatives of Members of that House, occasionally to hear the debates - the whole of the females would be converted into mere politicians - would cease to become good wives and good mothers - and be so many firebrands casting nothing but discord into every circle of society. It was really difficult to say which of these views was the most remote from the truth; but that they were each entirely devoid of foundation he thought all impartial persons would admit.

The women of England, were often as well informed on matters of history and policy as the gentlemen themselves, and quite as competent to form an accurate opinion on the subjects of interest that engaged the public mind; and it was fortunate that it was so; because, having an influence over the conduct of men, through the sources of their affections, the question was, whether that influence was safest when exercised in ignorance, or when based on accurate knowledge. The first assumption of the right hon. Baronet being erroneous - if the second were examined, it would be found to be equally so. It might be thought, indeed, that the question of admitting ladies to hear the debates was now first raised, and that the experiment was now first to be tried - so full was the right hon. Baronet's mind of dreadful apprehensions on this score. But did the right hon. Baronet not know that for centuries past, ladies had been admitted, by an order from the Sergeant-at-Arms, to hear the debates of the House of Commons, in the ventilator of the old House - that for centuries past, ladies had been permitted to fill the body of the House of Lords on the opening and closing of every Session of Parliament - and while Peeresses have the privilege of hearing all the debates from the space behind the throne, and the ladies of Commoners enjoyed the same privilege in the gallery of the House of Lords - and had the right hon. Baronet ever heard it once alleged that this practice had been attended with the slightest inconvenience to others, or productive of the slightest evil to themselves? Indeed it was absurd to suppose, that while the women of England read the public journals, and studied the history of their country, so as to enable them to join in the conversations of men at the dinner table and in the drawing room - any danger could arise from admitting them to hear the debates on the same topics in the House of Commons. The right hon. Baronet said, indeed, that he "thought there would be a species of indecency in admitting the high-bred ladies of this country into the House of Commons. It was not flattering to the House of Commons to hear its proceedings thus characterised by one of its own Members; but for his part, he thought that while the high-bred ladies of England were permitted to witness the ballets of the Italian opera, and to hear the equivoques and songs which too frequently disgraced our national theatres, the purity of their taste would not be in greater danger by attending occasionally to witness the proceedings of the House of Commons.

But he would turn from the effects to be produced on the ladies by their admission, to the influence which their presence would have upon the conduct of the Gentlemen themselves. It was matter of every day observation that in proportion as women were well educated, so were they decorous in the exercise of every feminine virtue, (and he did not believe there were any women in the world superior to the English in this respect); and it was equally matter of constant remark, that their presence operated favourably in restraining the rude and boisterous manners of men. If hon. Gentlemen doubted this, he would only beg them to try the experiment of attending some public meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, where men only constituted the auditors, and attending some other public meeting at Exeter Hall, where females formed an equal portion of the assembly, and they would then see how powerfully the presence of the latter operated to produce order and decorum. For his own part, he had never known an instance to the contrary; and it was his earnest wish and desire that those who were worthy of the society of man as equals at his banquets and festivities, should be regarded as his equals in every intellectual enjoyment - and he was satisfied that the more this was the case, the better it would be for the community at large.

So long too, he would observe, as mothers took an important part in the education of their sons, so long was it proper, as their sons must in time become citizens, and perhaps senators in their turn, that mothers should themselves be rightly informed as to those principles which it was desirable that their children should imbibe.

The observation, indeed, was often made, that women should have nothing to do with politics, as they were altogether out of their sphere...

Viscount Howick thought that the desire of ladies to hear the debates in Parliament, or to listen to the speeches of those in whom they took an interest, was not only very natural, but very laudable, and he was quite ready to promote it.

Colonel Sibthorp supported the proposition. He had seen ladies of the highest rank attending at courts of justice, and why should they not be allowed to be present in the House of Commons?

The Committee divided: - Ayes 28; Noes 42: Majority 14.

It was discussed a few more times, then in March 1842 it finally opened.

In 1858 MAJOR EDWARDS said: having heard bitter complaints from many of the ladies of my own constituents and others, as no doubt most other hon. Members have, of the want of access to this House, owing to insufficient accommodation in the ladies' gallery, I would suggest to the noble Lord the Chief Commissioner of Woods and Forests, that by removing the screen which separates the gallery from the ante-room twelve or eighteen inches further back, at a cost, as I have ascertained, of about 200, double the number of ladies might be accommodated, namely, forty-two, instead of twenty-one as it is at present.

Mr BERESFORD HOPE said, that much as their gallantry might lead them to study the convenience of the ladies, he thought that when they came to expend money for increasing the accommodation in the House, Members themselves ought to have the priority.

LORD JOHN MANNERS was happy to say there would be no objection to make the experiment of giving an increase of accommodation in the Ladies' Gallery

In 1864, Mr HEYGATE wished to call attention to the want of ventilation in the Ladies' Gallery, which could only be likened to the Black Hole of Calcutta. There was no possibility of obtaining air except by opening a door, which created a draught by which the ladies were almost blown to pieces. He hoped some improvement would be introduced as soon as possible.

Mr COWPER remarked that the ill-ventilation of the remote corner to which the eyes of hon. Members were so often turned was owing to a defect of structure, but he had no doubt that every effort would be made to promote the comfort and convenience of the ladies.

SIR GEORGE BOWYER said, he wished to know whether the grating in front of the Ladies' Gallery could not be removed. If it were removed the ladies would have some fresh air, and he was sure Gentlemen would not be sorry to see them.

SIR JOSEPH PAXTON Instead of the removal of the grating in the front of the Gallery, he could not remove one of the panels from behind to allow of ventilation?

Mr COWPER I have, Sir, already done what is in my power to promote the comfort of the ladies by improving the ventilation by an outlet in the ceiling. [Regarding removing the grating] some years ago this subject was very generally discussed in this House, and many hon. Members maintained that if there was an open and visible gallery for the reception of the ladies, the influence exercised by that gallery over the proceedings of the House would be such as not to be altogether desirable. It was determined that it would be better that the House should not be exposed to such an influence. Until the House has pronounced a different opinion, I must decline to remove that conventual grating, which has its uses, for it enables persons behind it to see, without being seen.

SIR GEORGE BOWYER Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the House of Lords ladies sit in an open gallery without any grating at all? And is this House likely to be influenced by the ladies when they do no harm in the House of Lords?

In 1866 SIR GEORGE BOWYER said: The accommodation in the ladies' gallery, to which he called attention two years ago, was perfectly discreditable to that House and demanded most decided reform. There were only some eighteen seats - a most insufficient number. Even that number of ladies was inconveniently crowded; the place was too limited for comfort and health, and besides being cramped up in a place which really might be compared with the black-hole of Calcutta, the ladies had the benefit of the foul air which ascended from the body of the House. Another reasonable ground of complaint was, that the room to which the ladies retired for refreshment was of the most miserable dimensions and would accommodate only two at a time to get a cup of tea. There was no reason why the grating should be placed in front of the ladies' gallery; he could not imagine on what principle it was placed there. It reminded him of a Jewish synagogue, where the women were supposed to be concealed from the men; but in that House there was no reason for such concealment. Concealment was not considered necessary in the House of Lords; and if not there, why should it be necessary in the House of Commons? The objection as to freedom of debate being interfered with applied equally to both Houses; but it was so ridiculous as scarcely to be worth serious mention. Ladies had a right to a degree of comfort which was impossible with the present amount of accommodation. He hoped that no time would be lost in providing better accommodation for a greater number, a proper retiring room, and in removing the objectionable grating.

HON HENRY COWPER said: When the hon. Baronet wished to remove the present separation between the Ladies' Gallery and the House, he seemed to have forgotten that there was no rule of the House which allowed ladies to be present, and it would be a great change in their practice if they were to make one. In the House of Lords it was quite different. Peeresses had rights there as well as the Peers, but it was otherwise in the House of Commons, and his own impression was that most of the ladies who came to attend their debates would not be desirous of being more exposed to public view than at present. He believed that they were thankful for the veil of obscurity, which protected them from publicity, and from the observation of the House.

In 1867 Mr OSBORNE said the accommodation provided in the Ladies' Gallery was so infamous; the ventilation was so bad, that it was positively disgraceful to the House that they should permit any ladies to sit in that gallery, ventilated and accommodated as they were. He suggested that: that very unpleasant railing might be removed altogether, and the House of Commons might conduct their debates as the debates were conducted in the House of Lords?

SIR GEORGE BOWYER: It was quite disgraceful. When the House was full, the foul air in the House went up there. Air which had already passed through several hundred pairs of lungs went up to that Gallery and made it perfectly intolerable. He must say also that he did not see any reason why ladies should be shut up behind a grating in that House when in the House of Lords that was not done. He did not see why an arrangement, which was not an inconvenient one in the Lords, should not be adopted in the Commons. He therefore urged on Her Majesty's Government the expediency of removing those gratings which made the House of Commons unwholesome, and the Ladies' Gallery not only unwholesome but also disagreeable.

In 1869 Mr H. A. HERBERT asked whether there exists any reason why the gratings in front of the Ladies' Galleries should not be removed; and whether the accommodation already existing cannot in any way be improved?

Mr LAYARD said, he could not take upon himself the very grave responsibility of removing these gratings. He believed the reason why they had not been removed was that the subject had been frequently discussed in that House, and the general feeling of the House was against it. ["No, no!"] As regarded accommodation, he must confess that it was extremely bad; and, indeed, if it were not for those who occupied it, he should be inclined to call it a Chamber of Horrors.


Mr H. A. HERBERT rose to move - That, in the opinion of this House, the grating in front of the Ladies' Gallery should be removed. The Ladies' Gallery was divided into three parts. The first part was properly and rightly given up to the Speaker. Behind it was a very comfortable tea-room, with, which, however, they had nothing to do. Then there was the part which was assigned to the wives, daughters, and friends of Members, and which comprised the remaining two-thirds of the Gallery. The Gallery was very dark, very hot, and very low-roofed. The temperature there. was always nearly four degrees higher than in the rest of the House. [Laughter.] It was all very well for hon. Gentlemen to laugh, but they were there for their pleasure, while the ladies came to listen to them; and it was a very poor compliment to the ladies to put them in a place in which they were to be confined - in what had been called a chamber of horrors, where they had to breathe the air that passed through all the lungs of the House. All that was really a disgrace in this age of civilization. If the ladies wanted tea or any refreshment they could only get it in the small room of the door-keeper. It was but the other day that complaints were made by the reporters of a noise in the Ladies' Gallery; but this would not have happened if the ladies had a proper tea-room. It was said that the ladies would fidget about, would applaud, and would attract the attention of hon. Members. But no one could have witnessed the recent great debate in the House of Lords without observing how quiet was the demeanour of the large number of ladies who were in the Galleries. The throng of beauty did not attract the attention of noble Lords in the other House, where the ladies were accommodated with seats in which they could see and hear comfortably. No inconvenience was experienced by speakers in the other House from the presence of ladies, neither, he was convinced, would any be experienced by speakers in that House. He agreed with what Lord Palmerston said - that if the Gallery were once opened, in a week hon. Members would forget there was a Gallery. Better accommodation should be provided for ladies in that House. He begged to move the Resolution.

Mr A. JOHNSTON , in seconding the Motion, said, it had been objected by some that the presence of the ladies in the House under circumstances in which they could be seen would set the hearts of speakers fluttering and palpitating; but he asked whether they could really lay their hands on their hearts and say that when they rose to address the House they ever gave a thought to the presence of the ladies?... A few strokes of the hammer and chisel would get rid of the grating.

Mr BERESFORD HOPE begged the House not to be carried away by the fervent eloquence of the two hon. Gentlemen, and not do that which he believed seriously - and he did not see why the matter should be treated as a joke - would neither be conducive to the dignity of this House or be considerate to the feelings of those for whose professed benefit the Motion was made. The ladies might be comfortable or not with or without a grating, but it was not in good taste to deal with this as a mere matter of fun. The accommodation of the ladies was just as serious a matter as their own, but in behalf of the ladies themselves he must represent that it would be a cruel kindness to take away that barrier. There were two sides to every question, and to a certain extent the grating impeded sight and sound... What was the object of a Ladies' Gallery? Was it to enable a certain number of ladies to add one more to the number of evening parties, and come down here in their best dresses, or was it to allow ladies to enjoy one or two hours of rational, intellectual enjoyment in their morning dresses and bonnets, without being molested by impertinent glances? In behalf, therefore, not of a few fashionable ladies, but of the general ladyhood, and of those who really wished to be able to see and understand the working of our constitutional system, he should oppose the Motion.

Mr H. B. SAMUELSON said he was surprised at the line taken on this subject by the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down. The hon. Gentleman had alluded to the jocular way in which the remarks of the two preceding speakers had been received; but he would beg to remind the hon. Gentleman that the laughter did not come from the advocates but from the opponents of the measure.

Mr LAYARD said he had asked at least 200 ladies whether they wished the grating to be removed, and, curiously enough, out of that number only two ladies had stated that they were desirous it should be removed. One said: 'there are some bores in the House of Commons... The grating enables us to leave the Gallery in the middle of dull speeches, which we would otherwise be compelled to sit out patiently, especially if the orator were an acquaintance, and had obtained our seat for us.'

In 24 March 1876 Mr WILLIAM FORSYTH said, he did not think that the constitutional rights and privileges of the House would be endangered by taking away the lattice from the galleries where the ladies sat.

Mr OSBORNE MORGAN thought the House ought to get rid of this piece of prudery. If those who were in favour of the grating desired it for the protection of the ladies they paid but a poor compliment to the House; while if, on the contrary, they thought it necessary for the protection of the House, that was but a poor compliment to the ladies. It was very rarely indeed, even in postprandial hours, that anything was said in that House which would raise a blush upon the most susceptible cheek, and if the argument to which he was referring were pushed to its logical conclusion, it would involve the exclusion of ladies altogether. If there were any danger of unseemly discussion or altercation, the presence of ladies would act as a check upon it, just as in the days of contested elections when ladies were placed in front they reduced the crowds to comparative quiet. Then was the grating necessary for the protection of the House itself? He saw the other day in a newspaper that the Members of that House averaged the sober age of 55 years. Surely at that age they ought not to be liable to such susceptibilities. The House of Commons was the only Assembly in the world in which it was found necessary to shut up the ladies in the way they did. In Italy the most prominent place in the Chamber of Deputies was given to the ladies, and in the House of Lords they also occupied a very prominent place. It was to Mahomedan countries that they must go for a precedent for the Gallery of the House of Commons. He protested against placing the ladies in a cage where, except in the front seat, they could neither see, hear, nor breathe.

Mr GREENE said, the country would think the House of Commons had very little to do when it wasted time debating a question of this kind. He was almost ashamed of being a Member of the House which occupied its time in discussing this matter.

28th October 1908

I have to report for information of the Sergt at Arms that at 8.30pm a Demonstration took place in the Ladies Gallery and St Stephens Hall also the Members Gallery simultaneously by Members of the Womens Freedom League. The following had been taken to the Ladies Gallery at about 5.30 pm by Mr Stephen Collins MP.

Miss Helen Fox } 1 Robert St

Muriel Matters } Adelphi WC

Both chained themselves to the ironwork of the grill and were brought out with the ironwork and the locks were filed off in a Committee Room.

The metal grille was removed in August 1917. 18 MPs voted for its retention; 164 for its removal. Part of it is in the central lobby of the House of Commons; part is in the Museum of London.

Press cuttings about the Ladies' Gallery

Edited and notes added by Helena Wojtczak