Today (August 8) in London History – Death in the House of Commons & That Woman MP

A death in the House of Commons leads to an important first. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Begins with a death. A death in the House of Commons. Exactly a hundred and one years ago – this day, August 8th, 1921.

That very matter – a death in the House of Commons – starts any number of hares. Most of them utter nonsense. And the one that takes centre stage in this instance is that old bit of claptrap that it’s illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament. It’s what today might be called an urban legend, what yesterday might have been called an old wives’ tale. There are any number of them. Many of them stemming – purportedly – from a cornucopia of outdated, grotesque, almost surreal old laws. For example, that Englishmen are required to practice archery for an hour every Sunday. Or that a pregnant woman is within her rights to urinate in a police officer’s helmet. 

They sure did ride herd on women. The so-called Sumptuary Laws, for example. This little gem goes back to 1337. And, yes, I’m quoting. The law read: “No common woman should go to market or out of her house with a hood furred with anything other than lambskin or rabbit fur, on pain of losing her hood to the sheriffs…because shopgirls, wetnurses, and other servants and other loose women bedizen themselves with hoods furred with ermine and miniver, like ladies of quality.”

Well, regulate those girls and play with your toys boys. We started with Sunday archery practice, let’s bring this in with the codswallop that as long as you’re inside Chester’s city walls you can shoot a Welshman with a longbow. 

But lest this get too one-sided, it is illegal – take this as London Walks acting in your best interest, giving you a loud and clear warning – it is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour.  Come to think of it, that’s a sumptuary law that is still on the books, still in force. 

Anyway, you get the idea. Oh, almost forgot – it’s thought that the illegality of dying in the Houses of Parliament is a spin-off of the old wives’ tale that anyone who dies in a royal palace is entitled to a state funeral. And the Palace of Westminster – that’s the formal name of the Houses of Parliament – all their correspondence goes out under that heading – the Palace of Westminster was originally and strictly speaking still is, a palace. Ergo all that spin-dryer poppycock about funerals and the illegality of popping your clogs in the Houses of Parliament. 

For the record, there’s a legislative body called the Law Commission’s Statute Law Repeals team which has busied itself for well over 50 years rescinding outdated laws. So far, some 2,000 of them have been sent merrily on their way to the knacker’s yard. 

Anyway, that’s all those hares started – and I hope driven right off the edge of a cliff. 

There is another one, though, that we don’t have to shoo away. Namely, has anyone died under that roof? We know from my lead-in that at least one person has – and we’ll get to him in a minute. But depending on how you’re counting there have been at least two others and some would say – depending on you’re counting – many more.

Best known of course was Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. He was gunned down in the lobby of the House of Commons. 

A third name – much less well known – one Sir Alfred Billson, who collapsed and died in the ‘Aye’ lobby during a vote in 1907. It was a very good and a very bad summer for Sir Alfred. Less than two weeks after King Edward VII knighted him his maker tapped on his shoulder – well, his ticker – and he was gone. He was 68. He was voting on sugar import duties.

I said, depending on how you’re counting it could be quite a few more than three deaths on Palace of Westminster turf. People were executed in Old Palace Yard. Two of them very famous executions. Namely Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes.

But let’s get to what happened 101 years ago today.

Our MP in question is Thomas Wintringham. He was the MP for the Louth Division of Lincolnshire. He was in his seat, listening to the discussion on the railways bill. He didn’t say anything. In fact, he’d only been in Parliament for about a year and had said little in that time. Shortly before 8 pm he went to the dining room and ordered a meal. 

Colleagues said he was in a cheery humour. His dinner order involved a bit of preparation so he repaired to the Reading Room to look at the newspapers. A fellow MP picked up a newspaper and asked Thomas Wintringham if he wished to read it. And the reply was “No.” That was the last word he spoke. A minute or so afterwards he slipped sideways and leaned heavily on a fellow MP, Mr Tom Meyers. Dr Murray was in the House. He was immediately summoned. He found Mr Wintringham on the point of death. Moments later the Leader of the House made his way into the Chamber. His unexpected appearance was of course an indication that something unusual had taken place. He immediately intervened in the debate and moved the Adjournment of the House in accordance with precedent. 

And that’s all by way of a preamble. 

What happened in the House of Commons on August 8th, 1921 was an ending – but it was also a beginning. 

Step forward, Margaret Wintringham. Yes, she was the dead MP’s wife.

Margaret – her given name was Maggie but she was always known as Margaret – stood as an Independent Liberal in the by-election that followed her husband’s death. Still in mourning, she was described as the silent candidate because she made no speeches. Her two sisters and colleagues in the Liberal Part spoke on her behalf. Other women activists campaigned as well. As did former students of Girton and Newnham Colleges. The Conservative opposition threw everything it could at her. Needless to say, they played the gender card for all it was worth. They said, for example, that a woman could not possibly represent agricultural workers.

Margaret Wintringham, that woman, the silent candidate, saw them off. Won the seat. 

She achieved the distinction of being the first British-born woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. The first woman elected to the House of Commons was Constance Markievicz. She’d played an active part in the Irish Citizen Army during the Easter uprising. So, naturally, she ran as a candidate for Sinn Fein in the St Patrick district of Dublin. She was one of 17 women who stood in the 1918 election and the only woman who was elected. But, needless to say, she never took the seat she won. As a Sinn Féin MP she’d been elected on a mandate that she would not take up a seat in Westminster, in line with the party’s stance.

Which brings us to Nancy Astor. American-born Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons.

And that is as far as the historical memory usually goes. People know about the Sinn Fein candidate. They know about Nancy Astor. And then the trail goes cold.

I don’t think it should go cold. Margaret Wintringham is equally deserving of remembrance. Ergo this podcast. 

Nancy Astor and Margaret Wintringham didn’t just have different nationalities – they also had very different backgrounds, very different characters and indeed belonged to different political parties.

Nevertheless, they became friends. They had a lot of interests in common, a lot of battles to stand shoulder to shoulder in. They must have made a pair. Nancy, Viscountess Astor, was exotic and volatile. Mrs. Margaret Wintringham was sensible, practical and rather stolid. She described Nancy Astor as “a prancing pony” and in the next breath described herself as “a slow old cart-horse trotting beside.” 

I don’t know about that. I know she was much loved, respected and admired. I know she was principled and tireless. I know she played an important part in British public life for more than 50 years.

I’m not sure who put it better, the writer Baroness Mary Stocks. Or Margaret Wintringham herself. Mary Stocks said Mrs Wintringham was among those MPs whom “the House, irrespective of party, takes to its heart with a kind of paternal affection.”

That’s good. But I think Mrs Wintringham’s reckoning is better. She said, “the barbarians have made me welcome.”

Ok, Today in London. A recommendation. One out of, yes, left field. The Royal Cheesemonger Course at Paxton & Whitfield’s Academy of Cheese. Two dates cheese wheeling into view: August 19th and September 9th. There, you weren’t expecting that, were you?

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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