Robes and Ritual: Preparations for Women’s Arrival in the House of Lords

Guest post by Duncan Sutherland


Prior to a debate on a motion to admit women to the House of Lords in 1930, the newly-created Lord Noel-Buxton was introduced. The introduction ceremony involved the new peer and his two supporters (current members of the House) wearing bicorn hats and scarlet robes trimmed with gold and miniver, processing behind Garter King of Arms and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. He presented his Letters Patent (creating his peerage) and the Writ of Summons summoning him to parliament, which were read aloud. After taking the oath and signing the Roll, Lord Noel-Buxton and his supporters rose and bowed three times from the red benches, doffing their hats each time to the Lord Chancellor.

Bemused by these goings-on was a female journalist watching from the press gallery. The proceedings made her realise how devoted members were to ancient traditions which she felt appealed more ‘to the masculine mind than to the rather irreverent female mind’ – and fear for the outcome of the debate. With each step of the ritual, she sensed the doors which had admitted Noel-Buxton closing on the women. Sure enough, peers rejected the proposal, and it would be 28 years before women participated in the introduction ceremony.

Ceremonial and ritual are important parts of the Westminster parliament and occasionally they have to adapt to change. Modifications to the peers’ introduction ceremony, which dated from 1621, were considered pending the arrival in 1958 of the House of Lords’ first female members. These were Stella Isaacs, Dowager Lady Reading and now Baroness Swanborough in her own right; Irene Curzon, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston; Katharine, Baroness Elliot of Harwood and Barbara, Baroness Wootton of Abinger.

Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1704
House of Lords 1961-2 Portrait of Peers. Oil painting by Alfred Reginald Thomson. Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 1704. Includes Baroness Elliot and Baroness Horsbrugh on the left, and Baroness Summerskill, Baroness Wootton and Baroness Burton on the right.

Deliberations preceding the women’s arrival

Opponents of women’s admission had derided the prospect of a ‘House of Lords and Ladies’ but one of the first decisions taken by the Duke of Norfolk (who as Earl Marshal was responsible for state ceremonial) was to retain the form of address ‘My lords’ rather than adopting ‘My lords and ladies’. However his curious recommendation that new peers could be introduced between two male or two female supporters, but never one of each, was rejected. Senior ministers in the Lords saw no problem with mixed supporters, especially since a new woman member might want a female sponsor but could have difficulty mustering two. In 1962 Elaine, Baroness Burton of Coventry, a former MP and the seventh woman in the Lords, became the first new peer introduced between two female supporters.

As for dress, Baroness Wootton (the only nominee of the Labour Party) wanted to forgo wearing robes altogether but Garter King of Arms worried that the ceremony’s dignity would suffer without special attire. Garter and three other Lords officials examined the existing robes and bicorn hats to decide if they were suitable for women, assisted by Miss Dalgleish from the Lord Chancellor’s private secretary’s office. She may have been there to offer advice or to model the robes and hat. It seems likely that she at least wore the hat, as it was deemed unsuitable, and consequently a new design was sought.

Court robe-makers Ede & Ravenscroft co-operated on this with couturier Norman Hartnell, who had designed peeresses’ robes for the 1953 coronation. A range of women’s hat designs was provided and Garter selected the black velour tricorn with a gold rosette. Hartnell also proposed new robes designed specifically for women: a newspaper reported that these robes would be designed to accommodate the carrying of a handbag rather than the unsheathing of a sword. However there seems to have been confusion about the existing robes’ design in this report. Peers carried the train over their left arm to leave their right hand free (in theory) for a sword, but nothing in the cut of the robe was meant to allow for this.

Parliamentary Archives, LH/3/75
Correspondence on women peers’ hats and how to refer to women peers, 1962. Parliamentary Archives, LH/3/75

Decisions taken

In any case it was decided that women would simply wear peers’ robes and unfortunately no drawings seem to survive of the special ‘women’s robe’. It is possible that the four women were consulted and expressed a practical preference for simply borrowing and altering the existing parliamentary robes over buying new ones at £40 each. Wootton saved on the hire fee by borrowing robes from a peer who lived nearby in rural Surrey.

This decision was in keeping with Norfolk and Garter’s desire to treat the women as much like barons as possible, although some distinctions were made:

  • While barons were addressed as ‘Lord X’ women would be called ‘Baroness X’ to distinguish them from the innumerable women called ‘Lady’ by virtue of marriage. This benefitted Baroness Elliot in particular as there were already thirty Lady Elliots.
  • The Letters Patent, the document creating their peerage, described the women as wives or widows of their husbands, who were named, while men’s Letters Patent did not mention their wives. This seemed to reflect the feeling that a woman, however distinguished in her own right, was defined by her marital status.
  • At the end of the ceremony they bowed once to the Lord Chancellor instead of raising their hats three times, to preserve their hairstyles. Nonetheless in 1990 Barbara Castle, the new Baroness Castle of Blackburn, refused to wear it, causing a row with the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Introducing the first women peers

The four women and ten other life peers were introduced at special sittings with no other business on October 21st and 22nd, 1958, so that they could attend the Queen’s Speech debate the following week. A large turnout of peers, MPs and interested women witnessed this historic event. Among the spectators was Nancy Astor, who had expressed interest in becoming the first woman peer and had urged Winston Churchill as Prime Minister to ‘make my blood bluer’. Garter acknowledged that the women were the biggest draw, as he felt introducing them last would ensure that peers stayed until the end. The first two women sworn in were Baronesses Swanborough and Wootton. After years of resistance peers offered a warm welcome, though the atheist Baroness Wootton caused a stir by declining the Bible used for the religious oath and instead making an affirmation to the Queen.

The decision to use existing robes, altered to fit where necessary, worked well. After the second day of introductions, Alice Franklin wrote to her fellow former suffragette Philippa Strachey that Baronesses Elliot and Ravensdale looked well-tailored but the men’s robes were ‘trailing and crumpled’, ‘as if they had been lent by Santa Claus or had been found in trunks of theatrical props in the attics of the peers of the realm. In 1998 the hats, deemed ‘too Gilbert and Sullivan’, were dropped from the introduction ceremony. Also around the 1990s it appears that references to marital status from women’s Letters Patent were finally omitted. Remarkably, the letters patent of a divorced woman peer had even described her as the ‘former wife of’ her ex-husband.

PIC/D/3/6.HL Remembrance Book WW2
Entry for Lady Grizel Mary Wolfe Murray, who died from enemy action in the Second World War, in the House of Lords Book of Remembrance written and illuminated by Ida Henstock. Parliamentary Archives, PIC/D/3/6.

Baroness Elliot was especially pleased with her Letters Patent, illuminated on vellum, and asked for the calligrapher’s name to send a thank-you. While most of the players in these proceedings were men, it was a woman, Ida Henstock, who had illuminated the Letters Patent for countless peers since the 1920s. She had also been one of the scribes for the House of Lords’ Books of Remembrance and was appointed to the Royal Victorian Order after retiring in 1964. Although the introduction of the first women members was rightly lauded as a long-overdue breakthrough, Henstock’s role is a reminder that for decades previously women had played a variety of lower-profile roles in helping with parliament’s daily running and maintaining its traditions.

Duncan Sutherland

Dr Duncan Sutherland is a researcher who has worked in various areas of British, Jamaican and Singaporean History including heraldry, postal and philatelic history, and especially women in politics. His doctoral thesis was on women’s admission to the House of Lords, he has worked at the Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics in Belfast and written numerous articles for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on women politicians.

Find out more about the campaign for women in the House of Lords on Living Heritage including The first life peers


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