Guest blog by Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith
Jane Julia Bennett, née Wright, Deputy Housekeeper and then Housekeeper to the House of Lords, holds a remarkable place in the history of Parliament. For she was the only woman to occupy a senior post in Parliament, as an Officer of the House of Lords, during Queen Victoria’s reign.
In a remarkable piece of self-assessment from 1847 that survives in the Parliamentary Archives, she made it clear to her superior that hers was a highly responsible role. Jane Julia told the Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Willoughby de Eresby, that by virtue of a warrant granted by a former Black Rod,
‘it has devolved upon me … to have the entire care of the House of Lords, which I venture to hope I have diligently and vigilantly manifested, to the satisfaction of your lordship …. with the performance of my really responsible if not incessant duties’.
This is a powerful testimony from a woman in charge, in an age of men.
Jane Julia Wright was first nominated to the post of Deputy Housekeeper in about 1822 when still a child, to benefit her father William Wright, a Senior Doorkeeper. She was then appointed to this role in her own right in 1827, aged 16. Carrying out her duties with the support of her family, she was responsible for security and access in the House of Lords during all non-sitting times, signified by her control of the keys to the chamber. She also had to organise accredited workmen, supervise furniture and fittings, and oversee the Housemaids who kept the building clean. Her post was funded through access charges of one shilling per person. The imposing Lords chamber, situated in the former Court of Requests in the Lesser Hall, was a magnet for visitors and hence a lucrative source of income.
After the devastations of the fire of 1834, which had started in the undercroft of this very building, the Lords were moved into the adjacent and far less spacious Painted Chamber in 1835, fitted up as their temporary House. Jane Julia - from 1840 married to her assistant Edwin Bennett - conducted the Deputy Housekeeper role in her own right, taking custody of this cramped area and its ever-changing surroundings. By her own account she exercised the highest levels of care and vigilance over the course of a hugely stressful decade. As Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster grew up around them, the Lords and Commons continued to operate a busy programme of Parliamentary business from the heart of a vast and dangerous building site. Meanwhile, Jane Julia’s income dropped sharply as visitor numbers tailed off.
Eventually, in April 1847 Barry’s spacious and glittering new House of Lords – one of the greatest glories of the new Palace - was at last complete and ready for the sittings of Queen Victoria’s loyal peers.
To mark this momentous transfer, a set of keys was handed over to Jane Julia. Yet at the same time visitor charges were scrapped by the Lord Chamberlain, the Queen’s most senior representative in Parliament, putting her livelihood at risk. It was this event that prompted Jane Julia’s letter to the Lord Great Chamberlain. Clearly alarmed at the prospect of losing her, Lord Willoughby pulled all the strings at his disposal to arrange her promotion to the post of Housekeeper to the House of Lords. This had been vacant since the death of Frances Brandish, its absentee holder, the previous year, and brought with it a salary of £150 a year and £50 for servants.
Jane Julia’s future was secure, and as a mark of her status she was also allocated a new and spacious official apartment on the West Front of the new Palace, next to Chancellor’s Gate. The 1851 census records her living there with her husband, niece, a cook and two servants. Her husband Edwin appears – inevitably - as the head of their household. But he is described as Assistant Housekeeper, and it is Jane Julia Bennett herself who is the holder of the top job.
After a distinguished career spanning 50 years, Jane Julia Bennett left the service of the House of Lords in 1877. But her exit was far from triumphal. For in an unedifying echo of her original appointment, she had been ousted by the new Deputy Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord Aveland, to benefit one of his male associates. Yet the significance of her contribution was certainly recognised by the peers - for she was awarded a generous pension which enabled her to enjoy a prosperous retirement.
Elizabeth Hallam Smith
On 28 November 2023, you can attend a seminar by Mari Takayanagi and Elizabeth Hallam Smith, Women in charge? Parliament’s female Housekeepers and Necessary Women, c. 1690-1877 (hybrid) in the Parliaments, Politics and People series at the Institute of Historical Research.
Sources and further reading:
Parliamentary Archives, records of the Lord Great Chamberlain (LGC).
Mari Takayanagi and Elizabeth Hallam Smith, Necessary Women: the Untold Story of Parliament’s Working Women (History Press, 2023).
Elizabeth Hallam Smith, St Stephen’s in 1846: ventilation wars, ‘offensive emanations’ and lost buildings (Virtual St Stephen’s blog).
Caroline Shenton, The Day Parliament Burned Down (Oxford, 2012).