The Maiden Speech in 1826

The future Speaker John Evelyn Denison (1800-73) entered the Commons as Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme in July 1823. Like many young men just starting out on a parliamentary career, he was not at first disposed to try his hand at oratory in the chamber and did not make his maiden speech for nearly three years. But he was considered a serious politician, and he certainly made ample preparations for speaking against Lord John Russell’s parliamentary reform motion on 27 Apr. 1826, when George Canning, the Tory foreign secretary, ‘exhorted me strongly to speak’. His success was a sign of future promise.

Denison afterwards recorded in his journal (Nottingham University Library, Ossington mss OsC 25):

I began in a tone too low and something confused. I spoke for about 40 minutes, very pale and very nervous. I never lost my head, or said what I did not mean, and never lost the thread of my reasoning. But I once hesitated for a moment, and would have given worlds to look at a bit of paper, on which I had entered two or three heads, and, though I had this in my hands, which were clasped together, I could not look at it. As it was, perhaps I did as well without it. I was very well attended to during my speech, cheered in the course of it, and loudly cheered on sitting down. Indeed, from all quarters I was assured of my very good success.

As far as can be judged from the lack of evidence, this was a fairly typical example of a maiden speech. It was not so much flamboyance that was expected, as a certain professional competence: if a becoming nervousness was not unwelcome, what was unacceptable was a disjointed, rambling speech without a clear argument or purpose. A few years earlier James Grattan, the son of the great Henry Grattan, noted in his parliamentary diary (National Library of Ireland mss 14132) of his own hesitant debut, 5 Feb. 1822, that:

I went on about Ireland, her state, her government, etc., etc., as I had written it out. Committed an error, lost my head for a moment till the House grew impatient, the Speaker got up and called them to order. I recovered a little but not sufficiently ... It was a bad business ... I might have concluded shorter ... There were a few hears.

The required maiden speech of the early nineteenth century was of a different type to its predecessor of the eighteenth. During the previous hundred years, when only a minority of Members aspired to be considered orators, the theatrical maiden speech was de rigueur for any Member with rhetorical ambitions. Some novices achieved instant glory: of William Gerard Hamilton’s on 13 Nov. 1755, Horace Walpole wrote that ‘his figure is advantageous, his voice strong and clear, his manner spirited, and the whole [was delivered] with the ease of an established speaker’. Yet such triumphs could backfire, as in the case of ‘Single Speech’ Hamilton, who, for all his later attempts, could never maintain his reputation.

Of Canning’s generation, only he lived up to the expectations that he created for himself on his debut on 31 January 1794. He was acutely conscious not only ‘that on three quarters of an hour in this day depended perhaps the whole colour and character of my future fortune, condition and reputation’, but that it was essential to make his first speech in reply so that he made an impression as a debater rather than as reciter of a set speech. His own account gives ample testimony to the nerves he felt on beginning:

Oh! What I felt while Grey was speaking! What I felt when I saw him retreating towards his seat! What I felt when I found myself, standing bolt upright, and saw the Speaker pull off his hat towards me, and heard him cry and the House echo ‘Mr. Canning!’ It was not fear – it was tumult ...

Canning, who at one point was nearly put off his stroke by Charles Grey’s attempts to throw him, was faulted for speaking too fast and making too many gesticulations, but he enjoyed himself:

During the latter part of my speech – I know no pleasure (sensual pleasure I had almost said) equal to that which I experienced. I had complete possession of all that I meant to say, and of myself, and I saw my way clear before me. The House was with me to a degree that was most comfortably assuring and delightful.

He was warmly congratulated and gloated to see, what he had been told was the ‘sure test of a speech having succeeded’, that after he sat down ‘there was a general buzz and stir and changing of places and going out, and no disposition to hear the person who got up after’.

Canning’s experience was echoed later in the nineteenth century by Trollope’s fictional hero Phineas Finn, whose maiden speech was almost entirely a failure, but who rapidly overcame his crippling nerves (a tendency for the chamber to swim before his eyes) to gain a reputation as a useful, practical speaker.

The convention that an MP’s maiden speech be unexciting, uncontroversial and uncriticised was adopted only in the twentieth century.

Author: Stephen Farrell