HL Deb 28 June 1867 vol 188 cc653-60

rose to move that a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether any and what arrangements can be made to remedy the present defective Construction of the House in reference to Hearing. Although the subject of the Motion was perhaps of a humbler kind than many which occupied their Lordship's attention, yet it was certainly one of considerable importance, for he ventured to think that there could be no greater hindrance to the transaction of public business than the impossibility of hearing distinctly what was going on. On the front Ministerial and Opposition benches, no doubt, it was possible to hear what was said; but of no other part of the House could as much be said. His noble Friend (the Earl of Malmesbury) who spoke on the subject during his absence the other evening, and who said that a Committee had been appointed on the subject some years ago, had overlooked the fact that he sat on the Treasury bench, from or to which all speeches were addressed, and had made the mistake of supposing that other noble Lords in other parts of the House could hear and be heard as well as the occupants of the Treasury and the front Opposition benches. The noble Earl had served on a Committee appointed twelve or fourteen years ago, which considered all the arrangements of the House, and suggested several improvements, which were carried out and had been found exceedingly useful. But surely it was absurd to suppose that science had stood still since that Committee sat, and that other practical improvements might not now be possible. More than that, he must remind his noble Friend that the main object of that Committee was to consider how the hearing could be improved mainly in regard to the Reporters' Gallery. No doubt the result of the improvements then recommended was that the Reporters could hear the debates more perfectly than before, as their gallery was advanced and lowered some 10 or 12 feet: but as far as the great body of the Peers were concerned, scarcely any improvement had been effected. If their Lordships would bear in mind what the measurements of the House were, they would at once perceive the probability of their being a great difficulty in hearing. Its length was ninety-three feet, its height from the floor to the highest part of the ceiling about fifty feet, and the width about forty-five feet. There were large spaces overhead, behind the Woolsack, and below the Bar. In addition to these, there was under the House an immense range of vaults, or catacombs, separated only from their Lordships' feet by an iron grating, and through these vaults and open spaces the voice of every speaker wandered and ran to waste. Their Lordships' House, though it was not generally known, was considerably larger in its dimensions than the House of Commons, although, after all, the House of Lords was intended to accommodate only about one-half the number of Members of which the other House was composed. While on the largest division in the House of Commons, he believed, about 625 voted, the highest number who ever recorded their votes on a division in their Lordships' House was about 310. In other respects the accommodation within the House—if accommodation it could be called — was most deficient. The seats themselves were not sufficiently wide, and the gangways were so extremely narrow that passing through them was inconvenient; and the spaces between the back seats were so narrow that no noble Lord could sit upon them without personal discomfort. He was quite at a loss to understand why there should be so great a difference in regard to the spaces between the back rows in the House of Commons and the spaces between the back rows in their Lordships' House. The space in that House was only twelve inches, whereas in the House of Commons it was eighteen inches. On what possible principle could it be supposed that a Peer required six inches less room than a Member of the Lower House? The fact was, that their Lordships' House was fitted up for great pageants and State ceremonials, and not for the transaction of ordinary business. A reference to the architect's original memorandum would show that these were the main considerations apparently in view at that time. And what had been the result? He did not deny that on great occasions, when a subject of great importance was before the House, or a speaker of great eminence rose to address their Lordships, and the House was comparatively quiet, the debates were audible as long as the attention of their Lordships was fixed; but under ordinary circumstances—when they were in Committee, for instance,—the sight was generally presented of one or two, and perhaps five or six, noble Lords standing up around the table, and carrying on a conversation which might, no doubt, be very interesting to those engaged in it, but which was absolutely unintelligible to anyone who was listening below the gangway. Well, the Peers who were out of earshot naturally grew impatient on such occasions, and accordingly commenced talking; so that there was no chance whatever of hearing what was being done at the table. He was sometimes at a loss to understand how it was that the discussion ever reached the ears of the gentlemen in the Reporters' Gallery, and he could only account for the fact on the supposition that the sound of the speakers' voices rose and was heard more distinctly above head than by noble Lords who were on the floor of the House. It was obvious, however, that the Reporters could and did only accomplish their work by a combination of great intelligence and dexterity. It was very well known that when the Houses were originally built similar difficulties arose in regard to hearing in the House of Commons; and indeed continual complaints on the subject were made in the early debates there. The House of Commons, however, was too wise to endure so intolerable a nuisance, and accordingly two, if not three, Committees were appointed to inquire into the subject, and they instituted a number of experiments with the view of ascertaining how far the defects could be remedied. The result was that those defects were remedied to a very great extent; and, whatever might be its deficiencies in other respects, its acoustic properties now answered very fairly to its requirements. He thought their Lordships should take a similar course. There were two courses which their Lordships might pursue. In his opinion the best plan would be to retain the present chamber for the great State ceremonies and pageants, and to transact the ordinary business of the House in some other room of more moderate dimensions and better adapted for hearing. That, he thought, would have been the wise course to have taken originally, and he did not know that it would not be possible to revert to it now. If, however, that plan were not adopted, the next best would be to improve their Lordships' House on the Commons' principle. He would not on the present occasion go into the details, which could be far better considered by the Committee which he trusted their Lordships would appoint to inquire into the matter. He should be prepared to lay some suggestions before the Select Committee. The only principle necessary to be laid down was that no changes should be made which would destroy the architectural effect of the House, or render it useless for great State ceremonials and pageants, which were certainly necessary, although they might take place only once or twice in the course of a twelvemonth. In the next place he would suggest the desirability of proceeding cautiously and experimentally, and that the conclusions at which the Committee might arrive should be practically tested by degrees. Whatever might be done, he did not think the House could be made absolutely perfect for hearing. The original defects were so inherent in it that it would be impossible to make it perfect; but still there was room for great and beneficial alterations.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether any and what Arrangements can be made to remedy the present defective Construction of the House in reference to Hearing.—(The Earl of Carnarvon.)


, in reference to an allusion in the early portion of the noble Earl's speech, said, that he had made no remarks to their Lordships on this subject until after the noble Earl had given notice of what he intended. It was not for him, either as a Member of the Government or as an individual Peer, to object to such a Committee as the noble Earl asked for, if their Lordships generally were satisfied as to the correctness of the facts which had been referred to, and that any benefit was likely to result from the labours of the Committee. He must say, however, that, during his own experience of nearly thirty years in that and the old House, he had not experienced the great difficulty in hearing of which the noble Earl had spoken. He was quite sure that the noble Earl himself had no cause to complain, for whenever the noble Earl had addressed the House his speeches had been heard and reported perfectly. His noble Friend had now gone beyond his Notice, because he had alluded to the acoustic qualities of the House. A Committee which sat ten or twelve years ago came to the conclusion that no alterations could be made in acoustic arrangements without altering the architecture and the internal arrangements of the House. It ought to be a strong case which would make their Lordships interfere with the acoustics of the House, if it had the effect of spoiling its architecture, which was so very handsome. His noble Friend spoke of the personal inconvenience suffered by noble Lords during their attendance there. On this point he must differ from his noble Friend. He did not know whether the noble Earl wished to have the seats more softly stuffed, or whether his complaint was directed to the inconvenience suffered by noble Lords when they were addressing the House. If he referred to the latter, he must ask his noble Friend whether the inconvenience was not caused by Peers indulging in private conversation. He believed that a noble and learned Lord whose presence among them was of so much advantage (Lord Cairns) complained that speakers could not be well heard in that House. He would remark that no man who had ever entered their Lordships' House was heard better than that noble and learned Lord. There was not the slightest difficulty in hearing everything he uttered—a fact which, doubtless, was to be attributed to his clear and harmonious voice, and to what he said being listened to with great attention. His noble Friend who had moved for a Committee suggested the alternative of their lordships meeting in a smaller apartment; and if that were to be done perhaps the best course to be taken would be that their Lordships should change places with the House of Commons, who complained of being crowded; but when there was a numerous attendance of peers the House of Lords was not too large for the number who had seats in it. He did not at all desire to interfere with the wishes of his noble Friend; but, considering the very careful investigation which had already taken place regarding the acoustics of the House, and as he was of opinion that noble Lords who exerted themselves to speak out could be heard, and that the arrangements were not inconvenient, he thought, that the proposition of his noble Friend was unnecessary.


hoped that the Motion of the noble Earl (the Earl of Carnarvon) would be agreed to. He and other noble Lords felt the inconvenience to which the noble Earl had referred. The noble Earl who had just spoken thought that, on the occasion of great debates, the speakers were heard very well; but debates were constantly springing up, which, though not of universal importance, were of very great moment to large numbers in the community; and which should reach the country through the Gentlemen in the gallery as well as be heard by their Lordships. If the House were not large enough, they might have recourse to galleries; but there was generally room enough in it. The great fault was that the acoustic arrangements were bad. If the most rev. and right rev. Prelates spoke from their own Benches, in accordance with the rule of the House, it would be impossible for any one sitting below the table to hear what they said. Accordingly, they felt themselves obliged to advance to the table when they had to address their Lordships. Again, when the noble Lords on the Treasury and front Opposition Benches spoke, he defied any one near the end of the House to hear them unless they spoke very loud and there was very great attention. Speeches made from the Benches in the immediate vicinity of the woolsack were not audible at the other end of the House. The noble Earl (the Earl of Malmeabury) said that speakers would be heard if perfect silence were kept by the other Peers; but, practically, it was an impossibility to expect such silence in an assembly of from 100 to 300 persons. Besides, it was absolutely necessary to the business of their Lordships' House that there should be communication among its Members. There might be great difficulty in improving the acoustics; but, as what had been done before had in some slight degree effected an improvement in that direction, he thought they ought not to rest contented till they had ascertained whether the Palace of Westminster, which had cost £3,000,000 of money, might not, by a small additional outlay, be made better adapted to its purposes. His own opinion was that, to a considerable extent, a remedy might be found for evils from which he, for one, suffered, and of which many noble Lords complained.


thought experience showed that, when in any assembly there was a considerable buzz during the delivery of speeches, there was a fair inference that the place of assembly was not a good one for hearing. Whenever a speaker was heard there was sufficient silence around to allow what he was saying to have its effect; but whenever, from a defect in the acoustics, the voice of a speaker could not be heard, invariably and inevitably there was a buzz of conversation; because these who under other circumstances would have listened had recourse to aside and bye conversation among themselves. He should regret anything being done which would spoil the architecture of the House or change its structural arrangements; but it might be found on inquiry that a great improvement could be effected in the acoustics by arrangements of a light and temporary character, which would not interfere with the architectural characteristics of the building. He had had a long professional experience in addressing the House from outside the bar, and that experience led him to think there never was a chamber of the same size in which it was more difficult to make the voice of a speaker heard for any length of time. He hoped their Lordships would grant the Committee; for, even if they should find that no improvement could be effected, it would be at least some satisfaction to know that they had done their best.

Motion agreed to.

And, on July 1, the Lords following were named of the Committee:

E. Carnarvon V. Eversley
E. Romney L. Redesdale
E. De Grey L. Somerhill
E. Kimberley L. Cairns.