Informal clerical help provided by a member of the Speaker’s private household may have moved gradually into the more formalised role that eventually emerged.
Documentary evidence shows that assistants connected directly with the Speaker’s Office – and not, for example, with the Clerks of the Commons – were drawing income from fees associated with the Speaker’s responsibilities by the late 16th century.
Historically, the Speaker had sole discretion over the appointment of his Secretary, and Secretaries remained closely linked with their Speaker. Family connections between Speaker and Secretary were not uncommon.
On a Speaker’s retirement, then, Secretaries would also frequently quit the Speaker’s Office. Some Secretaries would go on to other posts in the House of Commons or in Government, and the relatively small size of the Secretary’s pay and job insecurity also encouraged such job mobility.
There was no imperative for a Secretary to leave with ‘his’ Speaker, however. Speaker William Gully appointed his son, Edward Gully, to the Secretariat in 1895, and was re-appointed by the next Speaker, James Lowther, in 1905.
Whilst most Speakers’ Secretaries remain in obscurity, one name that stands out from the list is John Rickman. Speaker’s Secretary for 12 years, followed by 26 years as a Commons Clerk, Rickman is remembered for being the originator of the census in England at the end of the 18th century, helping both to draft the bill and the procedures for carrying out the census.
The responsibilities of Speakers’ Secretaries have evolved and changed over time, responding to the particular needs of the serving Speaker as well as to reforms to Commons’ departments.
Thus, for example, until the Clerks’ Department was reformed and put on a more professional footing in the latter part of the 19th century, some Secretaries during the Victorian period filled a gap in provision of procedural advice to the Speaker.
More consistently through the role’s existence, Speakers’ Secretaries have been responsible for preparing the Speaker’s paper and briefs, and to act as a channel of communication between the Speaker and the House of Commons.
Since at least the 18th century, Secretaries have also been responsible for the delicate business of organising official dinners at Speaker’s House. There are complex protocols to be observed.
The role of Speaker’s Secretary took on its modern shape particularly during the 34-year long tenure of Sir Ralph Verney, Secretary from 1921 to 1955. In addition to the responsibilities already described, Sir Ralph is credited with starting the practice whereby Secretaries stand close by the Speaker whilst he is in the Chair.