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  • Josiah Wedgwood and his Contemporaries:The History of Parliament Survey, 1936-40
  • Priscilla Baines

Elsewhere in this issue, David Cannadine describes Josiah Wedgwood's role in the creation of the History of Parliament during the late 1920s and early 1930s.1 He also describes Wedgwood's general approach to parliament or, more particularly, to the house of commons, and its history and gives some of the background to the decision in 1935-6 to extend the History's coverage to 1918 from the original cut-off date of 1832. Wedgwood's survey of members who had served up to 1918 was intended to form the basis of his planned history of the house of commons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the course of 1936-7, he compiled nearly 140 biographies, using around one-third of the 380 completed questionnaires from the survey, but after that he wrote no more and nothing was done with the material that had been so painstakingly collected, other than some obviously hurried listing and filing, probably early in the 1940s.

When the History of Parliament was revived in 1951, it was decided to revert to 1832 as the cut-off date, so the survey material languished, largely forgotten, in the History's archives. Its existence was quite widely known and it was occasionally consulted by scholars but was not in good order and therefore difficult to use. It was decided in 2005, in the context of the History's plans for the post-1832 period, that it should be conserved and reviewed for possible future publication. The conservation and re-filing have been completed and the responses to the questionnaires and the correspondence have been transcribed with a view to eventual on-line publication, although a considerable amount of editing remains to be done.

Since Wedgwood's ambitions for his survey were never realized, the material remains 'frozen' as a work in progress from the late 1930s. As Cannadine says, the questionnaires and associated correspondence make rewarding and enlightening [End Page 411] reading. The extracts he quotes convey vividly why the material provides such a rich source of information about members of parliament during the late ninetenth and early twentieth centuries. Much of its richness derives fromWedgwood's personal style and his relations with his colleagues. He may have been incorrigibly independent-minded and a frequent source of exasperation to many, but there can be no doubt of the affection and respect in which he was held by his parliamentary contemporaries. No modern social scientist would ask such open-ended questions nor would they expect (or probably obtain) such a degree of honesty in the responses, especially without the cloak of anonymity. It is that honesty which gives the material many of its unique qualities.

The questionnaire was never intended for quantitative analysis: Cannadine sees Wedgwood as more interested in stories than statistics, while Wedgwood himself said, when writing in 1942 about the History of Parliament, 'I wanted their minds rather than their deeds; and in the case of those surviving in 1934 [sic], I made a bold attempt at political psycho-analysis, by questionnaire'.2 He wanted to know about his colleagues as people, rather than about their politics or political careers (about which he probably knew anyway), about their personal circumstances, including their financial circumstances, what motivated them to go into parliament and how they reacted to various aspects of parliamentary life.

Despite his energy, commitment and considerable editorial skills, Wedgwood's plan to write all the biographies himself was always unrealistic but probably no-one dared to tell him so. Equally, no one else could capture his style and personal approach, which may explain why the pre-war History of Parliament staff did not attempt to do so. The present-day History of Parliament could no more replicate Wedgwood's approach than could its pre-war predecessor. Instead, there are now plans to do a systematic analysis of the questionnaires and correspondence, including such quantitative analysis as the material will allow, and write them up with a view to publication, probably during 2008.

Wedgwood's determination to carry forward his History to 1918 did not stop with his...


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pp. 411-413
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Archived 2008
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