The one-man Irish Hansard – Sir Henry Cavendish – On this day, 29 September 1732




On this day, 29 September 1732.

Given the fact that today’s politicians complain bitterly that there is very little reporting of parliamentary proceedings, and that, if people choose to do so, they can catch elements of pretty much any parliamentary debate on radio, TV or the web it is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that it is only relatively recently that it has been even legal to report the proceedings of the British House of Commons in newspapers. The same was true for the Irish Houses of Parliament for much of their existence prior to their disappearance in 1800.

Which makes the achievement of Henry Cavendish of Lismore, member of the aristocratic family that was to provide the Dukes of Devonshire, all the more startling. Cavendish personally recorded 3,000,000 words of debate in the House of Commons in London from 1768-74. Without his furious note-taking the contributions to that parliament of the likes of Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox might have gone unrecorded.

However, Cavendish was not some freelance scribe chancing his arm, he was himself a member of parliament. The journal he kept was for private consumption only. However, had he not filled fifty notebooks, the record of that particular period, including important debates on North America, would have been rather more sketchy. Cavendish had done the same thing when he was an MP in the Irish House of Commons between 1776 and 1789. Using a shorthand system developed by Thomas Gurney Cavendish filled more than 15,000 pages in noting down the speeches of the House of Commons in London.

Cavendish served as a member of the Irish parliament for Lismore for three periods prior to the Act of Union. He also, somewhat bizarrely, was the member for Killybegs for six years between 1791-97. His period as an English MP was spent as representative for one of the most notorious rotten boroughs in the British Commons, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. By the time of its abolition in the great reform act of 1832, it could only muster 24 electors and had long been in the pocket of the Earls of Mount Edgecombe.

While Cavendish didn’t exactly invent shorthand (though he is credited by some with the achievement) he made valuable use of the technique in an astonishing display of energy. The fact that he wasn’t expected to do much for his constituents, numbering in the dozens, gave him considerable freedom to indulge his hobby.

Sir Henry Cavendish, the one man Irish Hansard, was born 181 years ago on this day.