Recording women’s voices in Parliament -The Peephole

We are delighted to publish this guest post from UK Vote 100 volunteer Robin Fell on a little known incident in Parliament.

Although it is quite widely known that Nancy Astor was not the first woman elected to Parliament,(that milestone belonging to Constance Markievicz who never took up her seat) most people would probably assume that she was the first woman to speak in Parliament and to be recorded in Hansard. Sadly though, most people would be wrong. That particular honour is reserved for Margaret Travers-Symons and came about courtesy of something known as ‘The Peephole.’

‘The Peephole’ was a bit of a parliamentary oddity which whilst not actually authorised, would appear to have been widely sanctioned. As with many things parliamentary, the vision conjured up by its name varies widely from reality. The entrance to the House of Commons Chamber consisted then (as it does still) of two sets of double doors separated by a small lobby. At the first set sits the Principal Doorkeeper who is charged with the responsibility of seeing that only Members enter the Chamber. The second set of doors are monitored by a doorkeeper who sits beyond them by the Bar of the House. To the left of these doors is a window through which the interior of the chamber may be seen. It is this window which came to be referred as ‘The Peephole.’

Peephole picture2
Illustrated London News

A Member who had a guest desirous of observing the workings of the chamber could arrange for a seat in the Strangers Gallery – but only in the case of a male guest. Ladies could only watch from the ‘Ladies Gallery’ high up above the Press Gallery from which the view of the Chamber was further restricted by the hated metal grille. A practice developed whereby a Member could obtain for a lady a better view by taking her past the Principal Doorkeeper to the window by the second set of doors from where she could ‘Peep’ at the house in session; conveniently placed by the window was a low chair on to which the lady could step to further enhance her view.

This facility would seem to have been a development from the arrangement in the old ‘pre fire’ chamber whereby ladies would go to the roofspace above the chamber from where they could observe the proceedings from a ventilator (see previous blog item). Although affording a far better view than the ventilator, the Peephole had the disadvantage of only accommodating one, or perhaps two, ladies at a time. Thus the Sheffield Evening Telegraph of 16th October 1908 reports that such was the popularity of the facility that on occasions a queue of thirty to forty ladies extended from the door of the house halfway across the lobby. This, it tells us, was frequently much to the inconvenience of individual Members. There is no record of how this practice arose or the extent of its official sanction. It may have been a concession by the authorities or it may, perhaps, have been an initiative of the Doorkeepers maybe with a pecuniary element; but however it arose it was well established, and seemingly well used; but the exploits of Margaret Travers-Symons brought an end to the practice.

Margaret Travers-Symons was the secretary to Keir Hardy MP and whilst not overly active in suffragette matters she was sympathetic to their cause and had been the first treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union. On her way to the House on 13th October 1908 she had observed the police dispersing a crowd of suffragettes attempting to march on Parliament following a large meeting in Caxton Hall.  The suffragettes tactics are described in an earlier UK Vote 100 post A Rush on the House of Commons 13 October 1908.

On her arrival at The House she found that Keir Hardy was not available so she sent in a card to see Mr Thomas Idris, the Liberal Member for Flint whom she knew was acquainted with her father, Mr Robert Williams, a former Member of the London County Council. Mr Idris, who was dining with guests, left his guests when he received Margaret’s card and went to see her. She asked him to obtain a pass for the Ladies Gallery so she could listen to the debate on The Children Bill. Whilst he went into the Chamber to get a pass from the Serjeant at Arms he took her to the peephole so she could look in.

The next day’s edition of the Daily Telegraph contained an interview with Travers-Symons where she commented:

“Mr Idris came out and said that he had got a seat in the gallery, and then – well the door of the chamber swung open and I was inside, actually inside, the House of Commons! I said as loudly as I could, ‘Leave off talking about the children – attend to the bearers of the children.’ That was all I could say, for I was immediately bundled out by an official.”

The official in question was Mr A Haskell, the Bar Doorkeeper that day, who took her to the Lobby where she was handed over to the police. She was promptly taken to the street and banned from re- entering the building.

 

The Hansard for 13 October reported her interruption at column 243 as follows:

MR. WILLIAM RUTHERFORD … If he sent a boy messenger in uniform, who by the way only existed in London—[At this point a woman ran into the Chamber within the Bar, and exclaimed: “Leave off discussing the children’s question, and turn your attention to the women first.” The woman was immediately carried out of the House by one of the attendants.]

 

Peephole picture1
Illustrated London News

 

In 1910 Travers-Symons successfully applied to the Speaker to be allowed readmission, giving an undertaking not to breach the regulations in future. Mr Haskell’s prompt response would seem to have done him no harm as he retired in 1922 having become the Principal Doorkeeper. During the Suffragette ‘Truce,’ following the outbreak of the First World War, she did her bit for the war effort. Her name is to be found on the British Red Cross Register of Overseas Volunteers as being a member of a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). These were similar to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, but unlike the FANYs they were a civilian organisation not part of the military.

Although Hansard reported  her words as being, ‘Leave off discussing the children’s question, and turn your attention to the women first;’ whatever the actual words spoken, their inclusion in the official report secures for Margaret Travers-Symons the accolade of being the first woman to speak in the House of Commons – Sorry Nancy!!