The Parliamentary Practice of the “Putting Out of the Wig”

By Brendan W. Clark ’21

History Major

I wrote this not as an assignment but for publication here after being inspired by the mention of this practice in my Parliamentary Debate class with Professor Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre. What started as a search for an answer became an exhilerating six-hour review through the annals of British parliamentary history. 

The Prime Minister of Great Britain during much of the American Revolution and the notorious culprit of the removal of Ellis’ wig.

On the evening prior,[1] the question was posed in a general sitting of History 270: Parliamentary Debate, a course duly held under the tutelage of one Dr. Jennifer Regan-Lefebvre, a professor of British History, inter alia, at Trinity College, as to the ambiguity of the nature of Parliamentary tradition surrounding the “putting out of the wig,” as it is so-called in the Parliamentary tradition.[2] Ergo, it stood within my earnest desires and in keeping with the general station of my inquisitive character to endeavor to establish, through scholarly review and research, the history of this unique practice. It is my hope that the forthcoming may provide an answer to this most perplexing and under-researched historical oddity in Parliament.

One would naturally first turn to the aged tome of Parliamentary practice from the early Victorian period, a work which seeks to lay out centuries of Parliamentary tradition. This text, A Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of the Parliament by the Hon. Sir Thomas Erskine, Clerk of the House of Commons, covers a myriad of the critical questions of Parliamentary practice in appreciable detail.[3]

Erskine details the “Rules of Debate” in the twelfth chapter of his work, emphasizing the importance of sitting and the manner of speaking, inter alia. His comments germane to a discussion of the “putting out of the wig” remain ambivalent in their assertiveness, however, he does devote a sentence to the question of making a “speech on a point of order,” of which a “point of interest” is a linear descendent. Imprimis:

“A member, however, who has already spoken, may rise and speak again upon a point of order or privilege, if he confines himself to that subject, and does not refer to the general tenour of the speech.”[4]

Erskine himself cites 140 C.J. 10, 293 and H.D. 3 s. 298 as sources for the aforementioned point. On this matter, Erskine is referring to two internal documents incidental to the House of Commons, which have eluded the best efforts of this historian in his attempts to requisition them. This notwithstanding, Erskine remains a frequently referenced source[5] in those studying the annals of Parliamentary history and, ergo, is a source whose veracity has been affirmed.

However, this leaves us no closer to an answer to a matter of historical consternation. As a corollary of popular opinion, the matter has been popularly addressed without historical background in certain guides to Parliament. One such recent document is a factsheet released by the House of Commons Information Office.[6] Herein, it is suggested that the practice of raising a point of order is derived from an unspecified Parliamentary incident of the eighteenth century wherein “one member’s sword impaled and removed another’s wig.” Therefore, suggests the factsheet, “it is now not permitted to carry arms of any kind into debate.” This, of course, is an erroneous statement in and of itself as the practice of carrying weapons excepting those of individuals in particular ceremonious roles was well established in the 14th century “Statuto sup’ Arportam’to Armor or Statutum de Defensione portandi Arma” (Statute forbidding Bearing of Armour).[7] Moreover, ambiguity exists surrounding a legal interpretation of which ceremonious positions directly qualify for exemption, as is evidenced in the narrative from the eighteenth century.

Welbore Ellis, as Treasurer of the Navy, had his wig knocked off by the Prime Minister.

Moreover, this factsheet makes the grave academic error of not explaining to the inquisitive individual the history of the “incident” or providing any source which can attest to its veracity. With some considerable discomposure, the answer was to be found in an obscure volume of historical memoirs produced for the popular press. In the third volume of Wraxwall’s Historical Memoirs,[8] the incident is laid out in considerable detail. For the edification and clarification of any historical dubiety that may remain, the story is reproduced unedited below:

“It can hardly obtain belief, that, in a full house of commons, he took off, on the point of his sword, the wig of Mr. Welbore Ellis, and carried it a considerable way across the floor, without ever suspecting or perceiving it. The fact happened in this manner. Mr. Ellis, who was then treasurer of the navy, and well advanced toward his seventieth year, always sat at the lowest corner of the treasury bench, a few feet removed from Lord North. The latter having occasion to go down the house, previously laid his hand on his sword, holding the chafe of the scabbard forward, nearly in a horizontal direction. Mr. Ellis stopping at the same instant that the first minister rose, the point of the scabbard came exactly in contact with the treasurer of the navy’s wig, which it completely took off, and bore away. The accident, however ludicrous, was wholly unseen by Lord North, who received the first intimation of it from the involuntary bursts of laughter it occasioned in every quarter of the house. Mr. Ellis, however, without altering a muscle of his countenance, and preserving the most perfect gravity in the midst of the general convulsion, having received back his wig, readjusted it to his head, and waited patiently till the house had recovered from the effect of so extraordinary as well as ridiculous an occurrence.”[9]

The aforementioned appears in the context of a reflection upon the obscured vision of Lord North and his inability to ascertain the particulars of certain situations as a corollary thereof.

However, being apprised to the importance of a multiplicity of sources towards the affirmation of confirming a story, additional surveys of historical literature were required to establish a true and pluralistic historical narrative which considers all aspects of the matter. An incident of similar description appears in, curiously enough, a review of the times of Jane Austen.[10] In this work, it is similarly presented that:

“Wigs were sometimes the cause of ludicrous incidents, as when in the House of Commons Lord North suddenly rising from his seat and going out bore off on the hilt of his sword the wig of Welbore Ellis who happened to be stooping forward.”[11]

Again, the incident is frequently referenced in earlier popular and seemingly public texts that were frequently printed for the pleasure of middle class lawyers, accountants, and clerks.[12] In another miscellany of the day, The Fireside Book,[13] reference is made to the popularity of the tale in the public sentiment

“Since the ludicrous circumstance of Lord North’s taking off Welbore Ellis’s wig on the chafe of his scabbard, no scene more comic had been acted within the walls of the house of commons.”[14]

Indeed, the history of this particular story appears to survive in a preponderance of written histories, with the last such appearing in 1916. In a work by H. Merian Allen in The Sewnee Review, aptly titled “Little Laughs in History,”[15] the incident is described in a manner commensurate with that of Wraxwall’s:

“One evening during the period of the American Revolution the House of Commons met for the sole purpose of renewing the frequent and acrimonious debates of the day upon Lord North’s policies as to these Western Colonies….On the Treasury Bench, which extended along a short half of the length of the main aisle, sat North himself, fat and near-sighted, and further down, at the lowest corner, was the dignified, elderly Welbore Ellis, Treasurer of the Navy, and afterwards Lord Mendip. As the discussion waxed hot, the Premier rose suddenly to go down the House to consult with a brother member, and, as he did so, laid his hand, with a quick nervous grasp, on his sword in such a way that the scabbard extended out nearly horizontally. Ellis leaned forward, in a bored position, as the first minister ambled ungracefully down the hall with his side-arm on a direct line with the former’s wig. Of course, away went the wig, and down the House went North, utterly unconscious of what he had done, blind as a bat, with the tonsorial dressing swaying to and fro on the end of his scabbard, like some strange kind of banner. The tension of the night was ended. The bursts of laughter from every quarter lasted long after Ellis, without altering a muscle of his countenance, had received back his very intimate property and readjusted it to his head.”[16]

Therefore, through multitudinous Victorian miscellanies,[17] the answer to the historic practice of “the putting out of the wig” is answered. Practically speaking, it remains the task of another historian to ascertain when the practice is first mentioned in the rules of debate and became popularized in that sphere. However, these shortcomings notwithstanding, as regards the origin of the story itself and its reason d’etre in modern parliamentary practice, it has been averred and evinced herein that the story of the venerable Lord North and the aging Welbore Ellis provides the answer to that fundamental question of so anomalous a Parliamentary tradition.[18]

Notes:

[1] Before the author proceeds, he wishes to make the reader aware that he is fully aware of the ludicrous nature of devoting a considerable body of text to the study of so minute a point of Parliamentary history, particularly when he is finishing this at 1:30 in the morning. This notwithstanding, the author hopes that this treatise brings considerable jouissance to the professor so named and others in his class.

[2] See descriptions of the acceptance and use of this terminology in various outlines issued by the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA): http://novices.apdaweb.org/resources/.

[3] Thomas Erskine May, K.C.B., D.C.L., A Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, ed. T. Lonsdale Webster, C.B. (London: Butterworth and Co, 1917).

[4] Erskine, A Treatise on the Law, 288.

[5] For accolades of Erskine’s work, one has to look no further than Parliament itself which has recognized that the book “has helped shape Westminster politics and been influential throughout the Commonwealth”: http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/parliamentwork/offices-and-ceremonies/collections/erskine-may/erm-treatise/.

[6] House of Commons Information Office, “Factsheet G7—General Series: Some Traditions and Customs of the House,” August 2010, FS No. G7 Ed 3.4.

[7] The King Forbids the Coming Armed to Parliament, &c, 1313 Edw. 2 ch. 7 (Eng.).

[8] The Select Library Containing the Best Popular Literature, Vol. III (Philadelphia: A. Waldie, 1837).

[9] The Select Library, 193.

[10] Geraldine Edith Mitton, Jane Austen and Her Times (London: Methuen and Co, 1905).

[11] Ibid., 236.

[12] Many of these popular texts are compendiums of short works and short essays which lack any cited author or contributor but, rather, are presented as a snapshot of various matters which may be of interest to those in the working classes. This was not an uncommon literary practice, see the work of Graham Law and Robert L. Patten in their survey “The Serial Revolution” in The Cambridge History of the Book for a more expansive exploration of the aforesaid topic.

[13] The Fireside Book: A Miscellany with a Plate of Abbotsford (Philadelphia: For the Trade, 1837).

[14] The Fireside, 396.

[15] Allen H. Merian, “Little Laughs in History,” The Sewanee Review 24, no. 3 (1916): 363-370, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27532936.

[16] Merian, “Little Laughs,” 64.

[17] See supra note 12.

[18] The author regrets that he was unable to attain records through Hansard or through the National Archives pursuant to the matter, as the lack of a date of the matter and the fact that said matter occurred before 1803 lends itself to both being absent in digital records and possibly lost entirely (as a corollary of the Great Fire of 1834, in which many journals and records were lost).

Bibliography:

Erskine May, Thomas K.C.B., D.C.L. A Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament. Ed. T. Lonsdale Webster, C.B. London: Butterworth and Co, 1917.

The Fireside Book: A Miscellany with a Plate of Abbotsford. Philadelphia: For the Trade, 1837.

House of Commons Information Office. “Factsheet G7—General Series: Some Traditions and Customs of the House. August 2010. FS No. G7 Ed 3.4.

The King Forbids the Coming Armed to Parliament, &c, 1313 Edw. 2 ch. 7 (Eng.).

Merian, Allen H. “Little Laughs in History.” The Sewanee Review 24, no. 3 (1916): 363-370. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27532936.

Mitton, Geraldine Edith. Jane Austen and Her Times. London: Methuen and Co, 1905.

The Select Library Containing the Best Popular Literature, Vol. III. Philadelphia: A. Waldie, 1837.

Bankwitz Lecture: “From Privy to the Statistical Archive”


Written By: Brendan W. Clark (History, Class of 2021)

The annual C.F. Bankwitz Lecture this year featured Barbara Ann Naddeo from the City College of New York presenting “From the Privy to the Statistical Archive: Political Information, Science, and the Formation of the Territorial State in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700—1815.”

Herein, I examine Professor Naddeo’s arguments regarding Galanti’s significance in his time whereas my colleague Ms. Meagher will touch upon Galanti’s role as a source of historical information.

Naddeo’s treatment of the implications and novelty of famed Italian economist and geographer Giuseppe Maria Galanti (1743–1806), who worked in the Kingdom of Naples during the aforementioned period, proved enlightening especially in its espousal of concepts on epistemology.

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Bankwitz Lecture: Galanti as a Historical Source

Written By: Tess Meagher (History, Cass of 2020)

On Thursday, November 16, the Trinity College History Department held its Annual Philip C. F. Bankwitz Lecture. This year’s speaker was Professor Barbara Ann Naddeo from the City College of New York who gave a lecture entitled, “From The Privy To The Statistical Archive.” In this lecture, Professor Naddeo cited Giuseppe Maria Galanti in making her argument that statistical writings in late eighteenth century Italy played a large role in the establishment of Italy as a modern political player. Before she made her argument, Professor Naddeo went into depth on the importance of Galanti’s works as a historical source. Giuseppe Maria Galanti was born in 1743 and died in 1806, Having lived his life in the Kingdom of Naples in Italy. During his lifetime he published five volumes of a text called The Geographical and Political Description of the Sicilies. The work includes census-like information about the region at the time as well as detailed maps. The census information translates to political statistics both then and now. The information indicates what the people of the time were like both professionally and socially as well as what the rulers of the time were interested in knowing about their people since it is they who ordered the gathering of many the statistics Galanti uses.
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Professor Kassow and Who Will Write Our History?

 

Written by: Brendan W. Clark (History, Class of 2021)


Samuel Kassow, the Charles H. Northam Professor of History and a member of the Trinity College History Department since 1972 is presently involved in seeing his book Who Will Write Our History? materialize as a documentary film directed by Robert Grossman and executively produced by Nancy Spielberg. In September of 2017, Adrian Brody signed on to serve as the voice of Ringelblum in the documentary.
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Lecture Recap: African Americans & Classical Education after the Civil War

 

By: Tess Meagher (History Class of 2020)

In coordination with the History Department, the Trinity College Classics department hosted its annual Moore Lecture on November Ninth during common hour. The lecture, entitled “African American Intellectuals and the Study of Ancient Greek After the Civil War,” was given by guest lecturer Michele Valerie Ronnick. The lecture dealt specifically with historical African American scholars, mostly during the era of 1850-1950, who had an impact on the study of classics and/or on the way African Americans were educated in classics during this time period.

Professor Ronnick began the talk with an explanation of the importance of Greek and Latin in nineteenth-century western culture, specifically the American education system. She said that beginning around the same time as the American Revolution, there was a debate as to how useful the prerequisite of Greek and Latin for further education was. Among the founding fathers, there was a group of anti-classicists who said there was no place in the new republic for the study of dead languages. However, this group was in disagreement with other founding fathers who believed in the studies of the classics as necessary. The disagreement wasn’t resolved here and continued to affect the education system until the twentieth century.
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Senior Thesis Profile: Christopher Bulfinch


Written by: Brendan W. Clark (History, Class of 2021)

About the Thesis Writer: Christopher Bulfinch ’18 is a senior history major and thesis writer. Chris came to Trinity knowing that he wanted to study history, but did not declare until the spring of his sophomore year. He has studied a myriad of topics from within the history department, but takes a particular interest in subjects of Americana. However, one of his favorite courses falls outside of this realm: “Living on the Margins of Modern Japan,” taught by Jeffery Bayliss, is a course he highly enjoyed and encourages prospective or current history majors to take.
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American Periodicals: History on a Page

Written By: Tess Meagher (History Class of 2020)

Want to see original publications of American authors, not in books, but in periodicals? Interested in understanding the media culture of a time period? All of this and more is available at the new Watkinson Library exhibit. The Watkinson Library at Trinity College currently has Easy Vehicles and Knowledge for an Enlightened and Free People: American Periodicals in the Watkinson, 1750-1950 on exhibit. The exhibition will be in the Watkinson from now until June 15, 2018. The exhibit was curated by Leonard Banco, M.D., who, though a guest curator, is a trustee of the Watkinson. The exhibition features the hundreds of american periodicals the Watkinson has in its collection. Dr. Banco has divided these periodicals into the categories of general interest, music, women, religion, politics, and literature for easier research into the exhibit. At the exhibit are pamphlets containing summaries of the works featured that both students and faculty can take to further interests or research.

I found the exhibit especially compelling as a history student. Standing in the Watkinson and see many, clearly old, periodicals spread around and opened to carefully picked pages meant to pique your interest is curiosity candy. From seeing first editions of famous works, to learning about medical practices and theories of different time periods in America, to viewing election coverage from the nineteenth century, the exhibit offers a window into American history that is unique because it is all primary sources. History students should take advantage of this exhibit. Wandering around may just give you a new area of historical interest, or  at the very least feed an old one. Not only history students should visit, however. Because the exhibit is curated into subtopics, students from nearly all majors from English, to biology can find something interesting here.

The History of Elm Trees at Trinity

Written by: Brendan Clark (History, Class of 2021)

Neath the Ashes: Revisiting the Veracity of Trinity’s Alma Matter in the Present Day
Alumni and present students of Trinity alike will recall fondly their jovial experiences of youth whenever the refrain of Trinity’s alma matter ‘Neath the Elms is heard at various college events: “No more shall we meet, our classmates to greet, / ‘Neath the elms of our old Trinity.” The tune, first set to words by Augustus P. Burgwin, Class of 1882, is still a centerpiece of tradition amongst Trinity students and stands as a bulwark against the changing landscape of Trinity in the 21st century.

Indeed, all may be surprised to know that the majority, save a few stragglers, of those familiar elms referenced in the tune were gone by the early 1970s. Before that matter can be addressed, however, the history of the trees which became eponymous with the song must first be examined.

First in 1880 and thereafter in 1883, the Trustees allocated funds and authorized the planting of several rows of English elm trees on the Quad. The location of these earliest rows can be ascertained by the location of the trees which currently stand parallel to Seabury and Jarvis and also the rows of trees that project outward from Northam Towers.

 
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Mead Lecture: “The Reinventions of Tradition: Writing Damascus in the Long 16th Century”

I found Professor Sadji’s lecture and work The Barber of Damascus to be very dense and informative. In her lecture, Professor Sadji examines the city of Damascus in the 17th century, which she proves to be a thriving cosmopolitan and a far cry from the war-torn city we know today. One of the five major cities in the Ottoman Empire and a provincial capital, Damascus was a display of the phenomenon she calls “exhibitionism” and was also a microcosm of the Empire as a whole, serving as the departure point for pilgrimages to Mecca. Her book, of which I read the Introduction and first two chapters, detailed the existence of a Damascene barber in the 17th century. His personal diary is fascinating because of the diversity of his interactions. Peasants, saints, commoners, and elites came to the shop and the barber’s account provides a refreshing change of voice in history. As Professor Sadji mentioned in her lecture, history is written by the victors, it is rare to see the oppressed have a voice. This is a theme that is often brought to light in our class, the National Party and its authoritarian control over the school system and the recording of history, subjected black South Africans and silenced their voice. Another interesting point in her book was that the barber viewed his society as a clash between the tyrannical rich and the oppressed poor. – Dan Marini, History, Class of 2018
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The Return of Time Travel?

By: Callie Prince (History ’17)
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Like many other history nerds, I am fascinated with the idea of time travel. Whether in books, movies or my imagination, there always seems to be an endless number of possibilities of places in different times that I would love to visit. Whether it is ancient Egypt during the time of Nefertiti or simply San Francisco the year my parents met, even with the knowledge we have, the past will always be something of a mystery. I think that my love for documentaries, especially those by Ken Burns, is apart of what makes me so curious about the past. Well-done documentaries or even mainstream movies can transport the audience to another time and even make them feel as if they better understand life for people who lived during that time. Allowing others to write or visualize the imagined time traveling can also change the perspectives through which the past can be viewed. What would it have been like to be a woman during the turn of the 20th century, versus a young boy? TV and other versions of imagined time travel allow for this kind of speculation based on the information available. Historians are using more and more innovative ways to look at life in the past. Even studying historiography, the history of how people study history, can provide other insights into the past.
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