Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester: a Reforming Speaker

Created on Friday 4th February 2022 by:
Murray Tremellen

Continuing my series on the occupants of the first Speaker’s House, this week we will examine the career of Charles Abbot (Speaker 1802-17). This post will give a brief introduction to his career, and explain how he took the initiative in rebuilding the Speaker’s House during the 1800s. More detailed biographies of Abbot are already available in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the History of Parliament.

Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester 1757-1829. Engraving by Charles Picart after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Charles Abbot, 1st Baron Colchester 1757-1829. Engraving by Charles Picart after Sir Joshua Reynolds. Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Like his predecessor, Henry Addington, Abbot rose from a relatively obscure middle-class family. He initially trained as a lawyer, and built a lucrative practice as a barrister. However, in 1794 the death of his older brother allowed him to take over the sinecure office of Clerk of the Rules in King’s Bench, worth £2,700 per year. This was a very substantial income by the standards of the time; it enabled Abbot to give up his demanding legal practice and pursue a political career. He entered Parliament as MP for Helston in 1795, thanks to the patronage of the 5th Duke of Leeds.

Abbot had a passion for reforming and modernising parliamentary administration, and he began to take an active role in relevant parliamentary committees. In 1796 he chaired a committee on expired and expiring laws; this was quickly followed by another on the promulgation of the statues. His assiduous work on these matters soon brought him to the attention of Speaker Addington, who became his friend and political mentor for the rest of his career.

In turn, Abbot must have been impressed by Addington’s work as Speaker, and he began to aspire to one day occupy the Speaker’s chair himself. It looked as though he would get his chance in 1801, when Addington was suddenly invited to become Prime Minister following Pitt’s unexpected resignation. Yet for some reason, Addington insisted on nominating Sir John Mitford for the Chair, whilst Abbot was despatched to Ireland as Chief Secretary. At least this role gave him a chance to further pursue his passion for reform, to the consternation of many people with vested interests in Ireland. However, Mitford and Abbot soon found their positions reversed: with the death of Lord Clare in early 1802, Mitford was sent to replace him as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Abbot returned to Westminster and was invited to stand for the Speakership, being duly elected on 10th February 1802.

As Speaker, Abbot continued his reforming agenda. He streamlined the process of printing the votes, for example, and set up a new Private Bill Office. Given his enthusiasm for modernising parliamentary administration, it is not surprising that he also wanted to improve the physical infrastructure of the Palace of Westminster. Abbot became actively involved in the Westminster Improvements Commission, which worked to improve the immediate neighbourhood of the Palace. He was also consulted on alterations to the Palace itself during these years, including James Wyatt’s controversial rebuilding of the House of Lords. However, the project which most directly concerned him was, of course, the rebuilding of the Speaker’s House.

Addington had appropriated the cloister house at St Stephen’s – formerly occupied by the Auditor of the Exchequer – in 1794. Although large and grand, the house was damp and uncomfortable. Abbot’s close friendship with Addington must have made him well aware of this long before his own election to the Chair. As Speaker, Abbot quickly resolved that a total reconstruction of the house would be necessary. No doubt Addington, as Prime Minister, supported him; at any rate, Treasury approval was quickly granted and work began during 1802.

Abbot was not content to merely reconstruct the house as it had been. He wanted to create something bigger and grander, befitting the dignity of both his own office, and the House of Commons as a whole. The architect charged with realising this vision was James Wyatt, Surveyor-General and Comptroller of the King’s Works. Wyatt had recently been commissioned by King George III to enlarge both Houses of Parliament in order to accommodate the Irish MPs and Peers following the 1801 Union. The Speaker’s House project became, in effect, an extension of this brief. Wyatt was a brilliant designer, but notoriously scatter-brained and disorganised, and chronically over-worked. He was unable to give the Speaker’s House his full attention, and the rebuild project dragged on until 1808, much to Abbot’s chagrin. Yet the Speaker’s patience was eventually rewarded: Wyatt produced a striking castellated Gothic mansion, in a prominent position overlooking the River Thames.

Abbot’s Speakership was not without controversy. He was a fierce opponent of Catholic emancipation, and in 1813 he was heavily criticised for hinting at these views in his prorogation speech to the Prince Regent. This was considered incompatible with the neutrality of the Speakership, and Abbot subsequently had to face a motion of censure in the House of Commons. It was not carried, however, and he managed to retain the support and respect of MPs until his retirement, due to ill health, in 1817. He was promptly raised to the peerage as Baron Colchester and, after a sojourn abroad to restore his health, he became an active member of the House of Lords until his death in 1829.

Like most Speakers, Abbot is now a somewhat obscure historical figure. In an age of seismic political, social and military upheaval, it is not surprising that his diligent reforms to parliamentary administration failed to capture the public imagination. Yet we should remember that one of the consequences of these wider societal changes was a great increase in legislative business. Abbot’s reforms were vital in equipping Parliament to deal with this.  

Similarly, Abbot’s great physical contribution to Westminster – the rebuilt Speaker’s House – is barely remembered now. It was doomed to a short life, being swept away following the infamous fire of 1834. Yet his house set the template for an official residence that would enhance both the stature of the Speaker, and the dignity of the House of Commons as a whole. The present Speaker’s House, designed by Charles Barry and completed in 1859, continues this tradition today.