The Papers of Thomas Erskine May


For over 100 years the papers of Thomas Erskine May were in private hands, but in March 2003 the House of Lords Record Office (The Parliamentary Archives) purchased them.

Thomas Erskine May (1815-1886) began his career in the House of Commons in 1831 when he became assistant Librarian.  In total he worked for that House for 55 years and in so doing acquired a wealth of experience and knowledge of Parliamentary procedure.  He became Clerk of the House of Commons in 1871 and held that post until shortly before he died in 1886.

May's most famous work is his book A Practical Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament, otherwise known as Parliamentary Practice.  This is the authoritative work on parliamentary procedure.  Because of the large number of changes in such procedure since 1844 the work has had to be up-dated frequently.  The work is now in its 22nd edition, and a new edition is due soon.

The archive includes letters from William Gladstone, as well as correspondence from four successive Speakers, Charles Shaw Lefevre, John Evelyn Denison, Sir Henry Brand and Arthur Wellesley Peel.  There are letters regarding the publication of the first edition of Parliamentary Practice and correspondence with officials of overseas parliaments indicating the influence of Parliamentary Practice on other legislatures. There is also the letters patent creating May Clerk of the House in 1871, and May's private journal for 1883-86. The papers offer a valuable insight into the House of Commons, and its procedure, in the late 19th century.

This exhibition features some of the documents among the archive which relate to Erskine May's career.

 Sir Thomas Erskine May (PHO/11/4/9)


Letter from Speaker Shaw Lefevre to Erskine May, 4 Dec 1855 (ERM/2/31)

Charles Shaw Lefevre (1794-1888) was Speaker of the House of Commons from 1839 to 1857.  This letter relates to the appointment of a successor to William Ley as Clerk Assistant of the House of Commons.  The Speaker wanted May to replace him, but in another letter (ERM/2/33), he reports that Ley had recommended his own nephew, Henry Ley (Second Clerk Assistant, 1840-69).  However, May did succeed William Ley as Clerk Assistant.

Below is a transcript of the letter -

My dear Sir

Mr Ley has written to me to express his desire to resign - and as I have not discouraged him I expect he will write to Sir Denis on the subject without delay.  I have not been idle, and I have also written to Sir Denis - and find that he considers himself bound by the terms proposed by Lord J Russell when he was made Chief Clerk.  The Crown is therefore to appoint the Clerks at the Table upon the recommendation of the Speaker.  I spoke to Lord Palmerston about it last night - and I hope and believe he will act as I desire him to do.  I wish however before these matters assume a more formal shape that you would look at our Precedents - and see whether Clerks Assistant have not been appointed in Older time without any reference to any claims of any Junior Clerk - formerly I think there were only two at the Table - but if I mistake not Mr Rickman was made Clerk Assistant having before been Speaker's Secretary and without any previous service in the Clerks Establishment...


Royal Warrant creating Erskine May Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, 20 July 1866 (ERM/15/19)

May was created Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) in 1860.  In 1866 he became Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB).


William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), Prime Minister, 1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886 and 1892-1894 (PHO/7/1/35)

The Erskine May archive contains over 40 letters from William Gladstone, mainly regarding parliamentary procedure.


Extract from letter from William Gladstone to Sir Thomas Erskine May, 12 August 1870 (ERM/1/16)

This letter indicates Gladstone's hope that May should succeed Sir Denis le Marchant as Clerk of the House.  Below is a complete transcript of the letter -

My dear Sir Erskine May,

Mr Speaker informed me on Wednesday that Sir Denis le Marchant is to resign at the close of the year, and at the same time rendered to you a fitting testimony.

It is not well as a general rule to say anything which may seem like claiming a vested interest either in office or in life.  But the Speaker and Sir D Le Marchant having opened the subject, and the case being one so peculiar, I think myself justified in rendering to your transcendent merits the only testimony in my power by assuring you that, if [it] shall fall to me to appoint upon the occurrence of the vacancy, I shall not fail to discharge my obvious and simple duty by asking you to succeed Sir Denis as Clerk of the House of Commons.  Believe me

Sincerely yours,

W E Gladstone

Speaker Brand

Henry Bouverie William Brand (1814-1892), 1st Viscount Hampden (PHO/11/4/7)

The Erskine May archive includes around 250 letters from four successive Speakers: Charles Shaw Lefevre, John Evelyn Denison, Sir Henry Brand and Arthur Wellesley Peel.  During most of May's time as Clerk of the House, Sir Henry Brand was Speaker (1872-1884).

Brand letter

Extract of a letter from Sir Henry Brand to Erskine May, 22 Dec 1871 (ERM/4/15)

This letter was written following the suggestion from Gladstone that Brand should consider succeeding John Evelyn Denison as Speaker.  Brand was elected Speaker on 12 February 1872.

Below is a transcript of this letter -

Dear Sir Erskine May,

I have owed you a letter for above six weeks: in fact since we met in Downing St.

I was about to write to you on the subject of the Standing Committees the day after that meeting.  But my breath was taken away on that very day by a proposal of Mr Gladstone that I should undertake the duties of the Chair, the Speaker having resigned.

After a day's reflection I placed myself in his hands and at the service of the House.

I have come to this conclusion not without hesitation; for I may say with all sincerity that there are many men better fitted for this high and honourable post.

However none will be more willing or more in earnest to do his best.

One of the considerations which weighed much with me in guiding me to a decision was the reflection that I should have your very valuable assistance constantly given in a friendly spirit...

Letter creating May a Baron

Letter from Sir Albert Woods (Garter King of Arms) to Erskine May, 10 May 1886 (ERM/15/41)

This letter relates to the creation of Erskine May as Baron Farnborough in May 1886.  A few days later, on 17 May 1886, he died in his official residence in the Palace of Westminster.

Enclosed within the letter is a printed paper regarding the form of introduction of a Peer into the House of Lords (see image below).


Back to the Parliamentary Archives Home Page