On 21st June 2009 I was working in the Houses of Parliament when I heard a rumour that the Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin was about to resign. He found his position untenable due to the his role in the expenses scandal.
A Speaker had not been ‘sacked’ since the 17th Century and I was keen to witness this historic event. I obtained a pass and hurried up to the public gallery. As I was entering the gallery, protected by a thick layer of flour-proof glass (installed after demonstrators threw purple coloured flour at Tony Blair) I met Lord Peter Mandleson coming in the opposite direction. I asked him what was going on, and he told me that the Speaker had entered the chamber, resigned and had now left. It was all over before I got a chance to see anything.
But who was the Speaker sacked 300 years perviously? He was a member of the Trevor Family from Sussex.
The ancestry of the Trevor family must be quite complicated as all the males seemed to have been called ‘John’, The John that I am going to tell you about however was the one born in 1637 in Wales to John Trevor and Margaret Jeffreys. His father was a Secretary of State for Charles II. His mother was the daughter of the infamous ‘Judge Jeffreys’ (known as the ‘Hanging Judge’)
He started out as a clerk but sought the patronage of his father-in-law who arranged for him to be appointed a King’s Council. On the death of his father he inherited estates in Wales and at Glynde in Sussex. John Trevor entered Parliament having been elected as the MP for the ‘Rotten Borough’ of Bere Regis in Dorset. There were two MPs for this tiny constituency – the other MP was Sir William Bastard (honest!)
Trevor slowly worked his way through the ranks until 1685 when he was appointed as Master of the Rolls (one of the most senior judges in the country ) and also the Speaker of the House of Commons. I say appointed – he more than likely achieved his position due to bribery.
He was a strange looking fellow. To quote an old history book “He was as ill favoured physically as any member who sat in the Speakers Chair. An ungainly figure, made more repellant by a villainous squint.” Indeed his cross-eyes were so prominent that when he pointed to a MP to give him the floor to speak, members were not too sure who he was looking at and several would stand up at one time!
The position of Speaker was powerful, especially as he decided which legislation was to be approved by Parliament. In 1694 it was rumoured that he had accepted bribes from the City of London and the East India Company in order to assist legislation through the House. The following year a committee was established to investigate the accusations.
The investigation was easy. Both the City of London and the East India Company had meticulous clerks and accountants. An official entry in the minutes of the City of London read “That Mr Chamberlain do pay the Hon Sir John Trevor, Knight, Speaker for the House of Commons the sum of 1,000 guineas, as soon as a bill be passed as an Act of Parliament” and later “1,000 guineas were delivered and paid unto the Hon Sir John Trevor this 22nd June 1694 in the presence of Sir Robert Clayton and Sir James Houblon.” 1,000 guineas is the equivalent of over one and a half million pounds today! Records of the East India Company were equally as honest.
When the House of Commons were appraised of the matter. A resolution was proposed “That Sir John Trevor , Speaker of the House, by receiving a gratuity is guilty of a high crime and misdemeanour” John Trevor himself asked the House if the matter should be investigated – there was a roar of ‘Ayes’ and complete silence when he called for ‘Noes’.
The matter was to be debated the following day and the house was packed. The members were to be disappointed though; the Clerk read out a note from the Speaker:
I did intend to have waited on you this morning; but after I was up, I was taken suddenly ill with violent cholic. I hope to be in a condition to attend to you tomorrow morning. In the mean time, I desire that you will be pleased to excuse my attendance.
I am with all duty, gentlemen your most obedient humble servant
J. Trevor, Speaker.
Yes, – knowing what was likely to happen, Speaker Trevor had thrown a ‘sickie’ !
When he failed to turn up the following day Parliament lost its patience and he was expelled from the position that he had dishonoured. However, despite this blow to his reputation ( and his pay packet ) he was not asked to pay back the bribe and amazingly continued to work as a Judge. He died in May 1717.
So what is the legacy of this corrupt cross-eyed Speaker? Well today the Speaker has to remember the names of all 650 Members of Parliament so it is clear which MP has been selected to speak. And, down in Glynde near Lewes in Sussex there is an excellent Harvey’s pub – The Trevor Arms. I wonder how many of the locals know that it is named after such an interesting character?