Out of ‘site’, out of mind? The Hidden Ladies of the Ventilator

Guest post by Amy Galvin-Elliott

Historically, women have had a contentious relationship with the Houses of Parliament, and their access to and interaction with the spaces of Parliament provides an illuminating co-narrative to their journey towards enfranchisement. The Vote 100 project is a really exciting opportunity to recreate and try to imagine some of the spatial experiences of the women who, for example, observed Commons debates from the ventilator, were concealed behind the grille of the Ladies’ Cage, or who stormed Westminster Hall and St Stephen’s Hall to fight for their political rights.

This post focuses on the early space of the ventilator; the accounts we have of this space are limited and emerge largely in the personal letters and journals of elite women. Nevertheless, as I investigate their individual recordings of their experiences of the ventilator, a collective narrative is beginning to emerge about the occurrence of this space and the activities within it. At this early stage in the nineteenth century, it certainly cannot be said to have served as a site for the fight for female suffrage. However, what the ventilator did allow was a new perspective from which women could begin to absorb a political education. Furthermore, in an all-female environment, they could discuss the debates and events they witnessed in this new space, developing an emerging female political subjectivity that the popular culture thinking on femininity denied.

Sketch of Ventilator, House of Commons’ By Frances Rickman, 1834, pencil on paper (WOA 26)


The beginning of the nineteenth century saw a return in popular thinking to ideals of womanhood centred on the ‘angel of the hearth’. Although practically it was impossible to banish women entirely from the public sphere, this popular cultural thinking separated the world into public and private, with the public domain being the realm of men and the private domestic setting of the home being the realm of women. As a consequence, there emerged a new cultural narrative saying women were excluded from public life. Implicit within this ideology were attitudes to women in Parliament, and their exclusion from electoral politics appeared to support this view. Already in 1778, women had been banned from the House of Commons after a particular incident where the Speaker had called for the gallery to be cleared, but some of the female occupiers had refused. There is an account of this in the minutes of the Select Committee on the admission of strangers to the House of Commons in 1908:

‘I believe ladies were admitted to the body of the House until there was a certain lady who would not withdraw when notice was taken that strangers were present, and it took three hours to clear her out. She was a very celebrated professional beauty of the name of Mrs Musters….at the end of three hours they at last got rid of her, and after that they determined they would not let any more ladies in again.’[1]

It is important to note that this ban occurred at a time of international tension, when many MPs had called for the galleries to be closed to the public to protect the county’s interests, and so this incident was not entirely motivated by gender. However, after the events of February 1778, men were able to return to the galleries, but women were not admitted. As a consequence, women discovered the space of the ventilator. As of yet it has not been possible to precisely define the date from which the ventilator was in use, but it can be assumed that it was discovered at some point after this exclusion from the galleries in the Commons in 1778. Indeed, the same Select Committee minutes detail that after this incident ‘the only place the ladies had to view proceedings in the old Chamber was through the ventilating shaft which as at the top of the old St Stephen’s hall; there was a sort of balcony round where the ladies sat or stood; they could hear the debate there, and could just catch sight of the Members’ heads below.’[2] It was used right up until the fire of 1834 that destroyed the old St Stephen’s Chapel. Many of the sources available on the ventilator date to the early nineteenth century, and so it appears that it is during these decades that it became a popular space for women.

House of Commons, 1821
House of Commons, 1821. Monochrome mezzotint by Scott. Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 357

The ventilator was never intended as a space from which to view the happenings of the house. As a result of the high ceilings of the old chapel, MPs began to raise concerns about the acoustics and problems with hearing the debates in such a vast space. Consequently, an artificial ceiling was built into the chamber to solve the issue, and this left an attic space above the chamber of the house. In this middle of this new ceiling was hung a chandelier, and above, rising into the attic space, was a ventilator, designed to carry away the heat and residue of the candles. Keen to observe the proceedings of the house but denied entrance to the public galleries, women gathered around the ventilator in the attic and peered through the gaps to see and hear as much of proceedings below as their limited view permitted. This was a unique site within Parliament; it is not clear when it began to be used as a place of observation, nor whether or not there were any official rules as to when the ventilator could be used and by who. However, as long as they were out of sight, the ladies of the ventilator were permitted to remain in their new site. Furthermore, as an unofficial space within Parliament, it was often overlooked when the public galleries were cleared, and so female spectators could sometimes achieve a privileged viewpoint that their male counterparts in the galleries below could not.

Visitors to the ventilator were varied and came from a range of backgrounds with various motivations for wanting to listen to debates in the House of Commons: some were relatives and friends supporting MPs below; others were visitors to London wanting to hear the novelty of a debate; others were the servants and companions of more aristocratic visitors. Although it was hot, uncomfortable and dirty, here female spectators observed the House of Commons debates, in spite of the limited view and acoustic difficulties their space presented. In his Random Recollections of the House of Commons from the year 1830 to the close of 1835, James Grant highlights that ‘no ladies were admitted to the strangers’ gallery’ and describes the ventilator as ‘a large hole which was made immediately above the principal chandelier, for the purpose of ventilation.’[3] His description illustrates the purely practical function of the space, designed only to improve the comfort of the men below. Grant also describes the limiting conditions of the ventilator as he writes that ‘not more than fourteen could, at once, see or hear what was going on from this place, and even then but imperfectly. Besides, the smoke of the candles, and the heated atmosphere they inhaled, combined with the awkwardness of the position they were obliged to assume, made the situation so very unpleasant.’[4] His description conveys the excluded and marginalised position of these women, and reflects the social attitudes of their time to women engaging in the male business of public life. The size of the space, limiting the number of female spectators to fourteen at a time, reveals a physical limitation of the numbers of women able to observe the proceedings of the chamber, and even then ‘imperfectly’. This, in addition to the discomfort caused by the space, depicts clearly that Parliament was not a location in which women were expected to be found. However, the very description of their presence, in spite of the undesirable site allocated to them, illustrates that women were still engaging in political life.

As a visitor to the ventilator, Maria Edgeworth provides a female perspective:

‘In the middle of the garret is what seemed like a sentry-box of deal boards and old chairs placed round it: on these we got and stood and peeped over the top of the boards. Saw a large chandelier with lights blazing, immediately below: a grating of iron across veiled the light so we could look down beyond it: we saw half the table with the mace lying on it and papers, and by peeping hard two figures of clerks at the further end, but no eye could see the Speaker or his chair, – only his feet; his voice and terrible “ORDER” was soon heard.[5]

Maria Edgeworth’s use of the verb ‘peeped’ and her description of the limited view the ventilator afforded conforms to conventional notions of women marginalised and excluded from political life. The ‘deal boards and old chairs’ reflect the attitudes to their presence, and contrast starkly to the dark wood and leather upholstery that would have been provided for their male counterparts in the main chamber below. However, despite their apparent exclusion from a space created by and for men, the presence of women in the space of the ventilator refutes the cultural and ideological claim that women were totally excluded from public and political life in the early nineteenth century. The ventilator was a subversive space that created scope for women to re-enter political life. At this early stage in the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement was not in existence, and visitors to the ventilator were so wide ranging in both class and motivations that it is impossible to classify the ventilator as a site of political protest. However, what it did provide was a site of political education that, whilst marginalised, provided women with a unique access to political debates and initiated the re-entry of women to the space of Parliament. Unfortunately the ventilator perished in the fire of 1834, but the Ladies’ Gallery designed by Charles Barry in the new House of Commons provided a new political site for women to inhabit.

Amy Galvin-Elliott

Amy Galvin-Elliott is a current PhD student in the History department at the University of Warwick. Her research is kindly funded by an ESRC doctoral award and is part of a collaborative project between the University of Warwick and the Parliamentary Archives. Her current research project considers female experience of political spaces in the nineteenth century and is interested in nineteenth century political culture and women, writing as a political tool and spatial theory.

Read Amy’s blogpost for the Parliamentary Archives: Thoughts of a Collaborative PhD in Parliament

[1] Select Committee, 1908, on House of Commons (Admission of Strangers), House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, p.23.

[2] Select Committee, 1908, on House of Commons (Admission of Strangers), House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, p.23.

[3] James Grant, Recollections of the House of Commons from the year 1830 to the close of 1835 (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1836), p.11-12.

[4] Grant, Recollections of the House of Commons (1836), p.12.

[5] Maria Edgeworth to Mrs Ruxton, 9th March 1822 in Augustus JC Hare, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, 2 vols (London: Edwards Arnold, 1894), ii, pp.66-67.