This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
One of the iconic parliamentary ceremonies at Westminster is the appearance of Black Rod at the door of the House of Commons at State Opening to summon MPs to the Lords chamber to hear the speech from the throne. When the door is slammed in Black Rod’s face, Black Rod bangs three times on the door with the eponymous stick to demand entry.
This is said to symbolise the autonomy of the lower house from the Crown, harking back to that period of great constitutional conflict between the king and the Commons in the 17th century, including the famous attempt by the king himself, Charles I, to arrest five MPs in the chamber in 1642.
Erskine May, the parliamentary procedural bible, explains the tradition slightly differently: “Successive Speakers have ruled that this custom is to allow the Commons to establish Black Rod’s identity, rather than being, as is often supposed, a direct assertion of that House’s right to deny Black Rod’s entry.”
A notorious example was on 25 October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when the prime minister’s statement on the critical international situation was unexpectedly interrupted by the appearance of Black Rod summoning the House to the Lords for prorogation of the session. Opposition MPs were outraged, and one Labour MP, John Rankin (Glasgow Govan) shouted, “To hell with the Lords!” The Speaker refused to respond to critical points of order, but, following discussions between the parties and officials, he did make a statement in December which affirmed, from 300-year-old precedents, that the House cannot deny Black Rod entry by simply carrying on its business.
Some other Westminster-style parliaments around the Commonwealth have an equivalent official to Black Rod, who has various administrative and ceremonial functions in the upper house. In bicameral parliaments, these include summoning the lower house to the upper chamber to hear messages from the Crown or its representative, such as the speech at the opening of a session of Parliament. The Westminster custom of the door being slammed and Black Rod having to tap on it thrice to demand entry has also been adopted in many of them.
To perform this ceremony properly, of course, requires a suitable wand or rod. When I took the public tour of the State Parliament of Western Australia in Perth some months ago, the guide explained to us how problematic this was half a century ago.
Sadly, that parliament’s Black Rod did not have a grand, ornate or antique staff to flourish on ceremonial occasions. The poor chap had to make do with a pool or snooker cue, about five feet in length, painted black. This hardly seemed appropriately dignified as a symbol of office of the attendant to the Sovereign. Only in 1954, in time for the visit of the Queen Elizabeth II to Perth that March, was Black Rod actually provided with an appropriate black rod.
This story seemed too good to be true, but after a little research it was clear that this was not some apocryphal tale made up for gullible tourists. One scholar of parliamentary ritual described it as “an ingenious and economical solution to an unusual problem, and a determination to continue with the traditional ceremony in spite of the lack of the major symbol”.
Local press reports of the period emphasised the embarrassment felt at the obvious incongruity of the grand parliamentary official and the less-than-grand symbol of office, and the relief in February 1954 when it was to be remedied. One reported that the new rod “is the dinkum thing.”
This replacement wand was the gift of one of parliament member, Harry Hearn. It was designed and made by Garrard of Piccadilly, the then-Crown Jewellers (an honour bestowed on them by Queen Victoria in 1843, and held until 2007).
Its arrival in Western Australia on board the SS Ceramic was reported in detail by the media. Housed in a five-foot pine case, it was passed over from the captain to the usher of the Black Rod and the clerk of the legislative council on 15 February, and kept locked in a safe at Parliament House.
Its official handover took place in a grand ceremony on 18 March, at a special meeting of the legislative council, when the governor of Western Australia, Sir Charles Gairdner, presented it to the president (speaker) of the council, Sir Harold Seddon.
The new rod was shorter than its sporting predecessor, and similar in design to the Black Rods at Westminster and in other Australian parliaments, except that instead of bearing royal symbols and insignia, it sported the Western Australian state symbol of the swan, an emblem much in evidence around the parliament buildings.
Western Australia was not the only state parliament facing such a problem at that time. Until 1951, the Victoria State parliament’s usher of the Black Rod had no instrument with which to tap on the closed door of the legislative assembly, Victoria’s lower house.
A Victorian parliament information sheet describes how ceremonial tradition was satisfied under this significant constraint: “He approached the doors of the assembly, then swivelled so his back was to the door, and then struck the door three times with the heel of his shoe.”
In 1951, a rod made of wood and plaster was provided, but, sadly, this proved too flimsy for the task.
Finally, the following year, a sturdier, more ornate wood and sterling silver rod was presented to the parliament by the State’s silverware manufacturers association. As one commentator put it, “Dignity and tradition were restored”.
The Victorian parliament of that era had its very own Dennis Skinner. At the opening of the state parliament in December 1952, Black Rod tapped three times on the door of the legislative assembly, presumably with his brand-new black rod. Then came a voice from the other side of the closed door: “Don’t come in! I’m having a bath!”
JB Seatrobe is grateful for the assistance of James Sollis, WA parliamentary education officer