Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

20 February 2018

A first for women in Parliament: Mary Frampton on running the Serjeant at Arms office

Emme Ledgerwood, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, University of Leicester and The British Library, writes about Mary Frampton, the first female Clerk in Charge of the Serjeant at Arms office. Mary Frampton was interviewed by Gloria Tyler for the House of Commons staff oral history collection (reference C1135/02/01-02). The interview can be listened to at the British Library St Pancras and at Boston Spa.

Today is Sarah Clarke’s first day in the House of Lords chamber as Lady Usher of the Black Rod. It marks another first for women in Parliament, as she is the first woman to take on responsibility for maintaining order within and around the Lords chamber and performing a key role in ceremonial occasions such as the State Opening of Parliament.

Copyright House of Lords 2018  Photography by Bob Martin SillverhubCopyright House of Lords 2018/Photography by Bob Martin/Silverhub

This comes ten years after Jill Pay became the first female Serjeant at Arms, Black Rod’s counterpart in the House of Commons. Women are now accepted members of the doorkeeper teams, for example Stella Devadason was the first to be appointed as a doorkeeper in the House of Lords in 1999. She went on in 2009 to become the first female Redcoat, the doorkeeper that welcomes members at the Peers’ Entrance.

Over the course of the twentieth century, as more women have fought and won election campaigns to become MPs, so too have women worked their way into positions of seniority among the parliamentary staff, but they have not all been as visible as Clarke or Stevadason. An early example was Kathleen Midwinter, who benefited from the need in 1940 to free up men for military service so that she was appointed as the first female clerk in the House of Commons.1

Another pioneer was Mary Frampton who entered the Serjeant at Arms office as a shorthand typist in 1950 and went on to become the first female Clerk in Charge of that office in the 1970s. Her job included booking committee rooms and liaising with Whips over the allocation of office space to MPs after an election. In Frampton’s day, Serjeants were traditionally men from a service background, such as Rear-Admiral Sandy Gordon-Lennox who treated his parliamentary staff as if they were “on the quarterdeck”. Unlike some of her colleagues, Frampton took this in her stride.

"I know some of them found it difficult" C1135/02/02

Here she describes another aspect of her job.

"Taking on the job" C1135/02/01

In this capacity she had to serve writs four times, famously to Arthur Scargill. On another occasion it meant her photograph made it onto the front page of The Times.

"Well I had this sealed letter" C1135/02/01 

Times front coverThe Times (London, England), Thursday, Jan 19, 1978; pg. 1; Issue 60214. © Times Newspapers Limited

However well she held her own in these circumstances, Frampton was unable to break through the next barrier. Towards the end of her career (she retired in 1988) she applied unsuccessfully to become an Assistant Serjeant. She admitted to feeling “a bit” of disappointment, remarking “I don’t know that they’d have had a female even then.”

1 Takayanagi, M. (2014-09-25). Midwinter [married name Midwinter-Vergin], Kathleen Margaret [Kay] (1909–1995), first female clerk in the House of Commons and United Nations official. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The House of Commons staff oral history collection comprises 18 interviews with past and present members of the staff of the House of Commons. Interviews from the collection were featured on Radio 4's Archive House, 'The House', on Saturday 30 September 2006.  The interviews can be accessed at the British Library St Pancras and at Boston Spa. Interviews with former MPs conducted as part of The History of Parliament Oral History Project can be listened to online at British Library Sounds.