How not to be heard in the House of Commons

Apr 04, 2019

BEING HEARD in Britain’s House of Commons is not always essential to get things done. One of the most influential and famous speeches was made there 230 years ago next month, when William Wilberforce denounced slavery and kick-started the abolitionist movement. Yet a new study suggests many MPs in the audience wouldn’t have been able to hear him properly.

Catriona Cooper, a digital archaeologist at the University of York, used a computer model to recreate the acoustics of the 18th-century Commons, which was housed in the former St Stephen’s Chapel. Then, using reports of how many people were in the building at the time and where they would have sat or stood, she worked out how Wilberforce’s speech on May 12th 1789 would have sounded to those present.

Many in the chamber would have been distracted by booming echoes, the model suggests. And those MPs in the best seats, including the front benches, would have heard worst of all. To them, Wilberforce’s fine rhetoric would have been a mush of rebounded sound. In fact, the best places to listen to this and other Georgian debates in the Commons were largely out of sight, in the doorway or behind the Speaker’s chair.

Dr Cooper’s model, whose results are published in Parliamentary History, suggests that in 1798 the chamber had an average...

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