White gloves and hats: a woman Clerk in the House of Commons

Clerks are the senior staff in many of the different offices in the House of Commons and House of Lords which support the work of the chamber and committees. During the Second World War, three women were appointed temporary Clerks in the House of Commons, in order to release men for war service, however by 1945 they had all departed. There were no more female Clerks until Jacqy Beston (now Jacqy Sharpe) and Alda Milner-Barry were appointed in 1969.  Jacqy Sharpe retired in 2015 after a long and successful career in the Clerk’s department, and shares her memories below.

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I was just 10 years old when I visited London and the House of Commons for the first time.  My visit to the House turned out to be very significant as I fell in love with the building on sight and immediately decided that it would be an interesting place to work. Ten years later I walked into the House as one of the two newest members of the Clerk’s department.

‘Jacqy Sharpe, Clerk of the Journals’ by David Partner, 2007 ©Palace of Westminster
‘Jacqy Sharpe, Clerk of the Journals’ by David Partner, 2007 ©Palace of Westminster

The recruitment process had not been without incident.  The first hurdle was to pass the initial qualifying exam.  The normal stresses of an exam were exacerbated by the fact that it was held on New Year’s Day, which at that time was not a public holiday in the south but was certainly a holiday in the north of England where I lived.  Just getting to the exam by public transport was a test in itself.  The exam was followed by a two-day selection board which included choosing subjects which we’d be prepared to defend in debate.  I found the whole process a little too serious so chose as my third topic “Easter bonnets are an expensive anachronism”.  Fortunately they didn’t ask me to defend that!  The next step was an interview board with, I think, seven interviewers.  In those days it was customary for women candidates to wear white gloves and hats. I didn’t mind the gloves but, as I knew I’d worry that my hat would fall off half-way through the interview, I decided not to wear one.  It’s ironic therefore that, although I have rarely worn a hat since, I have for many years been required to don a wig as part of my Table uniform (and I have always worried about it falling off.)

I had not realised until I had my interview with the then Clerk of the House, the final step in the recruitment process, that there were no women Clerks in the department at that time and that my colleague and I would be the first women Clerks since the Second World War.  Happily there were, of course, many other women in the department and the wider House service as a whole. We were accepted as colleagues from the first day and I never encountered any difficulties throughout my career.

In those days it was usual to spend our careers solely in the Clerk’s department so I never worked in any other department of the House or applied for a secondment but I still had a varied career.  I started in the Public Bill Office, which deals with legislation, as “bottom boy”.  One of my responsibilities was to ensure that the copy of any Bill passed by the Commons and sent to the Lords was correct.  We achieved that by reading every word of the proof of the Bill as passed by the House out loud to a colleague. I can still remember the difficulty of checking the Misuse of Drugs Bill with its many unpronounceable names.  I was also on division duty two nights a week which often meant being at work until after midnight.  The one unforgettable memory of that time was when the House voted throughout the night and well into the following day on the Industrial Relations Bill.  We worked in shifts of two hours on and one hour off until relieved by our colleagues around 6am. I did so many divisions on the Bill that I never had any difficulty in remembering the names of Members in my half of the alphabet for the rest of that Parliament.

As part of our training, and to ensure we were familiar with all aspects of a Clerk’s job, we moved regularly between procedural offices, such as the Public Bill Office and the Table Office which handles questions and Early Day Motions and prepares the Order Paper, and the Committee Office which provides the staff of the various Select Committees.  My first Committee was the Employment and Social Services Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee (this was before the establishment of departmental select committees) and I then moved to the Race Relations Committee.  Later I clerked the Transport Committee, the National Heritage (now Culture, Media and Sport) Committee, the Treasury Committee and the Liaison Committee as well as two Joint Committees which were composed of Members of both Houses.  I have clerked inquiries into a wide variety of subjects including Youth Employment, the Channel Link, the British Film Industry and the Private Finance Initiative – a fascinating and challenging experience.

One of my other posts was as Clerk of the Overseas Office.  The UK Parliament welcomes Members and officials from all over the world and I much enjoyed sharing information on the work of the Westminster Parliament and learning in turn about their Parliaments, both here in the UK and at seminars abroad. My last substantive post was as Clerk of Legislation which meant I ultimately headed the Office in which I had started my career over 40 years earlier – not something I had ever envisaged.

For many years I have also been a member of the Table team – the Clerks who sit in the Chamber immediately in front of the Speaker.  I have usually both enjoyed being at the Table and found it interesting but I have to make an exception for the 3am to 6am shifts during debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, a process which is now purely formal, when my main concern was just to stay awake.

This is just a very brief description of my experience of working for the House of Commons.  But was I right in my initial impression that the Commons would be an interesting place to work?  YES.  I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it – even the all-night sittings – but even more important than being an interesting place the Commons is a friendly and inclusive place to work.  I am so glad that I went on that initial tour of the House.

Jacqy Sharpe, 2015

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