By Haydn Brown.
Old Luke Hansard was born on July 5th, 1752, in Norwich in the day of Wenman Coke. Today in 1952 was when the Spectator Newspaper celebrated Luke’s bicentenary birthday with an article, from the pen (and it probably was a pen in 1952) of Evelyn King. This year of 2018 marks Luke Hansard’s 266th birthday and its seems appropriate and timely to reproduce Evelyn’s contribution whilst taking the liberty to supplement the content with further detail.
Luke Hansard was born in 1752 in the parish of St Mary Coslany; his parents were Thomas and Sarah. In an account of his life, written in 1817 for the benefit of his sons, Luke described his father, Thomas, as a manufacturer, though of what was not revealed. His mother, Sarah, was a clergyman’s daughter from Spilsby in Lincolnshire, but at the time of Luke’s birth, the family fortunes had reached a low ebb and were never to recover.
Little has been said about Luke’s education, except that he was educated in Norwich and at the Free Grammar School in the village of Kirton which lies about four miles south of Boston in Lincolnshire. As someone once said, ‘he got a little but not much education in Lincolnshire’. It was as he approached his fourteenth birthday when his parents thought of apprenticing him to an apothecary, but his ‘gallipot’ Latin was inadequate; so he became apprentice to Stephen White in Cockey Lane, Norwich. Mr White was a printer, medicine-vendor, boat-builder, ballad-writer, general artist and a dab-hand at playing the violin. Young Luke was to describe his master as an “eccentric genius”, who was “very rarely in the office” ……….‘my master was but very rarely in the office; he was either engraving, or painting, or wood-cutting, or fishing, or pigeon and rabbit shooting, or boatbuilding and rowing and sailing; anything but the office’.
In Hansard’s version of events, as an apprentice he was left to run the business more or less single-handedly, despite his master having been apprenticed to the trade in London and having worked as a journeyman in a respectable printing house. Despite this, personal instruction in the art of printing was given sparingly by White. He would, for instance, begin to set a line of type and then say, “So go on Luke boy,” and leave Luke to finish. However, within a few months, Luke had mastered every aspect of the printing trade. During this time, young Luke boarded with the proprietor, sleeping in the corner of the shop whilst another of Mr. White’s pastimes, his pigeons, occupied the opposite corner. Then, in 1769, his father died aged only 42; in the same year Luke’s apprenticeship came to an end and by the summer he had packed his bags and gone to London, with a downright manner, a Norwich burr, and with only a guinea in his pocket. After 10 weeks he found work as a compositor with the firm of John Hughes in Great Turnstile, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Much later, when he was Old Luke, he would enrich the English tongue with his surname—Hansard.
That was Young Luke as he once was, first an apprentice then later as proprietor of the firm of John Hughes, Printer to the House of Commons. But Old Luke only printed the journals, and those by order. Old Luke was a Tory to the bone, and his pride lay in the carrying out of an order punctually and exactly. He earned the appreciation and respect of Pitt and the intimacy of successive Speakers —Addington, Mitford, Abbott and Sutton—as well as the affection of Members of succeeding generations. His was the grain-of-oak candour which earns affection and respect. All literary London knew Hansard the printer. He was an intimate ‘of Charles Dilly and Edmund Burke. He published for Dr. Johnson and Richard Porson, and also for the prolific Dr. Hill. (” His farces are physic and his physic a ‘farce is,” wrote Garrick of Dr. Hill).
In 1771, John Hughs died and was succeeded by his son Henry with William Day as partner and manager, but as the workload increased both on the parliamentary and general side – Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke were among their literary customers – Hughs and Day realised that another part-ner was needed to supervise the operative section. In 1774 they offered 22 year-old Luke a partnership. With his future now secure, Luke’s thoughts turned to marriage. On 21 July 1775, he married Elizabeth Curson from Swanton Morley in Norfolk at St John’s Church, Clerkenwell. Their marriage was to last for 50 years and produce five children: Thomas Curson (1776), Elizabeth Susanna (1779), James (1781), Luke Graves (1783) and Hannah Mary (1785). Henry Hughs certainly admired the skills and character of Luke, his junior partner. He involved Luke more and more in the general running of the business until Hansard the printer became well known in the London literary circle and in the corridors of Parliament where he was becoming a familiar figure. In 1800 at the age of 43 Luke became sole proprietor of the firm. Henry Hughs had retired and William Day had been dead for six years. Thomas Curson, James and Luke Graves had followed their father into the business and the new century saw Luke Hansard and Sons as printers to the House.
However, it was Old Luke’s son, Thomas Curzon Hansard, who was a problem – he was a ‘fly-by-night’. He, at a very early age, wanted to enact the gentleman. He wanted to be in business on his own account, which was bad; he was a Radical which was even worse, and he was a friend of William Cobbett, which brought him to prison. He had printed Cobbett’s flaming condemnation of an administration which allowed German mercenaries to be used to compel British soldiers in Ely to submit to 500 lashes for mutiny, and he shared with Cobbett the trial and punishment with which that “seditious libel” was rewarded. Yet it was Thomas who published in his maturity that massive work Typographia and became, within his own province, the foremost scholar of his day. But he was not immortalised for his scholarship. He was immortalised because, in a little magazine of small circulation and dubious legality, which ran at a loss, he published, from a site on which now stand the offices of the Daily Telegraph, the Debates of the day—an offence for which more than one of his predecessors had been reprimanded on their knees.
It was in 1732 that Cave had started his reports in his Gentleman’s Magazine, and from 1740 Dr. Johnson had written them, though his rounded essays had in them little enough of the speech he purported to report. There had been many other efforts, but in the end it was Cobbett’s, later Hansard’s Parliamentary, Debates, which caught and held the attention of the public. It was not until 1855 that Cornwallis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, a learned and dull man, plunged rashly and ordered the Controller of the Stationery Office to subscribe for a hundred annual sets of Parliamentary debates to be circulated in Government Departments in Whitehall, London and throughout the Colonies.
Appetite grew by what it was fed on, and in three years the order rose to 120 sets at five guineas each. This meant decorous enthusiasm at 12, Paternoster Row, and well over £600 a year for the second Thomas Curzon Hansard. But Old Luke’s other more favoured son, and successor, Luke Graves, came within an ace of prison too; a shattering thought to that tower of rectitude. In avoiding it he was instrumental in establishing a constitutional principle of vital consequence to our liberties. William Crawford and the Reverend Whitworth Russell were two of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons. They reported that a certain book circulating among prisoners in Newgate Gaol, and published by Stockdale, was “of a most disgusting nature” and its plates “indecent in the extreme.” By order of Parliament the report of H.M. Inspectors of Prisons was published, and Hansard published it. Stockdale sued Luke Graves for publishing a libel.
Here was a question of supreme constitutional importance. Could Parliament protect its servants who carried out its instructions. Was the voice of Parliament to be heard freely? The case came before Lord Denman, who enquired coldly why, if a subject of the Queen were libelled, the printer should not be sued for libel, by whomsoever the libel was authorised. He found Hansard guilty. Parliament came a little slowly to Luke Graves’ defence, and the battle .between Parliament and the Courts was fairly joined.
Nor was it confined to words. Our Parliamentary and judicial ancestors had fire in their bellies. Under the authority of the High Court the High Sheriffs of Middlesex took forceful possession of poor Hansard’s eleven printing presses. Stirred to wrath, the Commons directed their Sergeant at Arms to arrest the High Sheriffs. These grave men passed a dolorous weekend in Newgate Gaol, in which they had hitherto had only a professional interest. Scarlet-robed and mute of tongue they were brought to the Bar of the House. Their sins had been as scarlet as their robes. They were guilty, they were told, of “a contemptible breach of the privilege of the House of Commons.” But the Court of Queen’s Bench also had weapons and used them. They issued a Writ of Habeas Corpus on the Sergeant at Arms, and in the centre of it all stood poor Hansard, wide open to every blizzard, his locks visibly greying, bemoaning man’s ingratitude in the spirit of King Lear as the tumult beat about his head. Ultimately common-sense prevailed, and after a three-and- a-half years’ battle the law was amended. Lord Denman deserves his place in history, if only for this single sentence:
“I infer . . . that the House of Commons disapproves our judgement, and I deeply lament it, but the opinion of the House on a legal point in whatsoever manner communicated is no ground for arresting the course of Law or preventing the operation of the Queen’s Writs on behalf of every one of her subjects who sues in her Courts.”
It was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that the Hansards had their day. But, though they were constantly harried by H.M. Stationery Office anxious for a larger sphere of usefulness, Tory Ministers of the nineteenth century seemed avid, in this case, for nationalisation – their influence in and around the House did not cease until 1890.
H. L. T. Hansard, great-grandson of Old Luke, sold his interest to the new Hansard Publishing Union for £90,000, in which the principal was Horatio Bottomley. Mr. Bottomley, unlike the Hansards, required no Parliamentary grants. He would print the journals. As to the debates, which he also acquired from T. C. Hansard, they would be nourished and sustained by income derived from tasteful advertisement. Mr. Bottomley’s enterprise was private and original, but its end was public and commonplace. It expired in a fog of litigation and bankruptcy, and a charge of conspiracy and fraud.
It was not until 1920 that H.M. Stationery Office won its Hundred Years’ War, and lifted the printing from the hands of private enterprise. Old Luke, who had, multiplied his guinea by 80,000 before he died, had been followed by Luke Graves, Luke James, who went mad by the way, Henry and Henry Luke – so it went from father to son. And as Luke and his seed published the journals, so in parallel Thomas and his seed, even better known, published the debates.
It is strange how nouns and verbs, once renowned, may sink into oblivion. This might well have happened to Hansard but for the activity of Stephen King-Hall, then Independent Member for Ormskirk. In 1943, after much prompting by him and by Sir Francis Freemantle, the Speaker directed that the name Hansard “should be restored to the cover of the official reports of the debates.” And so on July 5th each year we celebrate the birthday of Old Luke. It is right that he should be remembered. He powerfully affected Parliamentary history. There are “Hansards” not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Australia, in Canada, and in many other parts of the Commonwealth. All this would have seemed strange indeed to Stephen White’s apprentice—the small boy who laboured long ago at the press in a Norwich attic to the sound of his master’s violin.
By a remarkable coincidence, when the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office was moved from London to its present site in St Crispins, Duke Street, Norwich, it was only ‘yards’ from the parish church of St Mary, Coslany, within the boundaries of which Luke had been born over two centuries before. Hansard had returned to the city where a 14 year-old apprentice printer had first set a line of type. The Region’s Caesar never knew his posterity had swayed. However, his memory, like his portrait, lives in the House he venerated, and Parliament must speak for ever in his name. – Happy Birthday Luke lad!
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