Charles James Fox
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.
Journalists who attempted to report on the deliberations of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ in the early 18th century, qualified as ‘strangers’, and could be removed from the House at the instigation of a member. This procedure, which still exists in modified form, was used in 1875 by the Irish MP Joseph Biggar, to have no less a personage than the Prince of Wales himself thrown out of the House. Biggar simply invoked the cry of ‘I spy strangers’ and everything came grinding to a halt until his future majesty was ejected.
In the eighteenth century, while it was actually legal to report the outcome of parliamentary deliberations, newspapers were not permitted to report the content of the debates themselves. Some editors and reporters were jailed for violating this parliamentary privilege. Newspapermen, in order to circumvent this passion for secrecy on the part of their betters, would record debates anyway, and then present them as thinly disguised fictional exchanges.
The same was true for the Irish Houses of Parliament, for much of their existence, prior to their disappearance in 1800. If you had the temerity to report on the musings of our elected representatives, you could be thrown in jail for contempt. Perhaps, if our great leaders of today were to threaten similar sanctions, they would find newspapers tripping over themselves to cover their compelling debates.
Which makes the achievement of Henry Cavendish of Lismore, Co. Waterford, all the more startling. He was a member of the aristocratic Irish family from which the Dukes of Devonshire are drawn. So he wasn’t in it for the money, because he didn’t lack for an estate or two.
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 largely 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 terms prior to the Act of Union. He also, somewhat bizarrely, was the member for the far distant Killybegs in Co. Donegal, 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 who could allocate the seat to whomever they wished.
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 one hundred and eighty-five years ago on this day.
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