Category Archives: European History

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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The Life of Yergeny Yevfushenko

By: Dylan Hebert (History ’17)

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko

One of the great Russian poets of the twentieth century, Yevgeny Yevtushenko died in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 1st of this year at the age of eighty-three. A descendent of the deported leaders of a peasant rebellion, Yevtushenko was born in a small town stationed along the Trans-Siberian railway in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. In a town called Zima, or in English, “winter,” the climate of Zima is harsh even by Siberian standards, with temperatures ranging from -55 degrees in the winter to +100 degrees in the summer. In 1937 at the age of five, Yevtushenko’s family experienced great turmoil with the official declaration of both his grandfather’s as enemies of the people and their subsequent arrest in Stalin’s purges.
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Study Away: Studying History at Irkutsk State University

By: Dylan Hebert (History ’17)

Class Photo

Class Photo

Studying abroad in Irkutsk, a small industrial city in Eastern Siberia, one of my greatest and most rewarding challenges, was taking a mainstream history class with Russian students at Irkutsk State University (ISU). While everyone has different objectives when they study abroad, for those who want to get as much as they can out of the experience, I wholeheartedly recommend that they take a regular class from their host university. Studying abroad through the Middlebury International Language Program, I had taken history and other subjects in Russian with ISU professors before, but my other classmates were also English speaking Americans from the Middlebury program. Taking a mainstream Russian history class with ISU students was much more intimidating.
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Visiting Lenin in Red Square

By: Dylan Hebert (History ’17)

Red Square Mausoleum Lenin

Red Square Mausoleum Lenin

Vladimir Lenin may have died on January 21st, 1924, but to this day, his body remains on display in the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square. Lenin himself wanted to be buried at St. Petersburg’s Volkovskoye Cemetery alongside his mother, two sisters, and brother in law, but his request was not granted. The decision of whether or not to bury Lenin has frequently resurfaced in years since.
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Belgorod, Russia: Visiting the Battle of Kursk Museum

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US and Russian hip hoppers outside the WWII Museum in Belgorod, Russia” width=”625″ height=”353″ /> US and Russian hip hoppers outside the WWII Museum in Belgorod, Russia

From February 16-23rd I was part of a USA hip hop delegation (‘Under the Curtain’) to Russia due to my role as a faculty advisor to the Trinity Chapter of Temple of Hip and the annual Trinity International Hip Hop Festival. Sponsored by the United States Embassy in Moscow, I accompanied Trinity undergraduate student Cam Clarke (Philosophy and Human Rights), three Hartford-based hip hop artists, and one hip hop organizer from World Hip Hop Market. We visited Moscow, Belgorod and Togliatti. Although our days were mostly filled with travel, lectures, and workshops, we did get the chance to tour each city and learn about their respective local histories.

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History Department’s Senior Thesis Presentations 2016-2017

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This academic year, the History Department has nine honor thesis writers. Elizabeth, Sedona, Callie, Dylan, Elm, Chelsey, Eleanor, Seth and Andrew will be presenting on their research on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. The presentations will take place at Seabury Hall 215 (Trinity College), starting at 9:00 a.m. History Thesis Writers, History Majors, members of the History Department, and members of the Trinity and Hartford community are invited and encouraged to attend this special event. A five minute Q+A will follow each presentation. For the full schedule, continue reading….
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“My Senior Thesis and its Portrayal in Pop Culture”

Chelsey Crabbe ‘17

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I am a senior Thesis writer whose topic has been portrayed within a Hollywood movie, a scenario that even clouded my own judgment after watching the film. I am researching the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), a military unit attributed with protecting and salvaging Europe’s greatest cultural treasures against the Nazi regime during World War II. My focus is on the subsequent cultural restitution, or return, that occurred after the war as the Allies found themselves with troves of Nazi loot. I found this topic to be quite fascinating since I am passionate about cultural heritage, a fan of Art History, and a student needing to satisfy her European interests with a topic that had some sources in English. Therefore, I chose to tell the story of the Monuments Men, the full story, and not just the one that would attract moviegoers.
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