Letter: Bastards, drunkards, debtors and nutters

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The Independent Online
Sir: As I watched the Government twist itself into ever-tightening knots with its abortive 'back to basics' campaign, I was amused to come across this description of the House of Commons (taken from its own records) in the early 1800s, from Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern:

There were 25 bastards and 50 who acknowledged having bastards themselves; 23 were divorced. Sir John Saint Aubyn had 15 children by the mistress he eventually married. Over 100 had 12 or more children and 6 had 17 or more; Sir Edward Knatchbull, Bt, had 20, his heir 15. Freedom from arrest for debt was one reason men sought to enter the Commons, seven former members during this period died in debtors' prison. About 15 members were in the House primarily to escape debt but many others took advantage of it. On 25 May 1811 every single Irish member present was intoxicated during the debate on Catholic Relief. At least 35 members verged on insanity or were definitely insane - they included the Earl of Bective, 'a chattering, capering, spindle-shanked gaby', whose adultery with Lady George Thomas Beresford caused her husband to commit her to an asylum. The varieties of madness found, ranging from egomania and senile dementia to persecution mania, were pretty typical, my researches show, of society as a whole, though members of Parliament were more likely to shoot each other than was the average citizen. At least 19 committed suicide, 6 while mad.

Yours, etc

ROB HAYHURST

London, E18

14 January

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