Listening to the Commons: The Sounds of Debate and the Experience of Women in Parliament c. 1800

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: History


Did women have a presence in the House of Commons before they were granted the right to vote and stand as MPs in the early twentieth century? 'Listening to the Commons' brings political history into dialogue with creative digital acoustic technology, virtual reality and buildings archaeology to explain how women participated in Commons debates long before they were formally enfranchised in 1918. Through 'Vote 100', Parliament is spearheading this 100th anniversary with a major series of events and exhibitions. Listening to the Commons will contribute to Vote 100 by adapting a 3D visual model of the historic Commons chamber constructed by the AHRC 'St Stephen's Chapel' project, to recover the soundscape of debate as experienced by women listening through a ventilator in the old House of Commons ceiling around 1800.

Between 1548 and 1834 the House of Commons met in the converted royal chapel of St Stephen in the Palace of Westminster. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the Commons witnessed intense debates which came to define modern Britain: the abolition of the slave trade, the ethics of capital punishment, the Reform Bill extending the franchise to working-class men. Women had often watched Commons debates from the public galleries, but in 1778 they were ejected following complaints from some MPs. Women responded by occupying the space above the Commons ceiling, accessed by a ladder, where the architecture of the medieval St Stephen's chapel was still visible. Surviving drawings show women watching and listening through the ventilator. Our follow-on activity focuses on this little-known but highly significant space.

Acoustic and virtual reality technologies create an exciting new opportunity to develop the 3D model of the historic Commons chamber, created as part of the St Stephen's Chapel project, to model the soundscape of the Commons. Listening to the Commons will scale up this existing 3D model for the incorporation of historic sound. Building on a successful University of York Research Priming Fund pilot project to test out this idea, we will model the ventilator space and produce auralisations (the audio equivalent of visualisation) to enable us to recover the experience of women listening to Commons debates. We will explore the important narrative of women's engagement with Parliament at this time through this hidden space. Translating our results for a virtual reality experience will deliver a novel, historically and politically important, high profile example of how arts and humanities research can communicate with new cultural and heritage partner audiences via technology founded in the creative economy.

The 3D visual and acoustic model, auralisations, and VR representation will be incorporated in the 'Vote 100' exhibition in Westminster Hall (July-Oct 2018). Exhibition visitors will experience debate from the perspective of women commenting on the all-male world of the House of Commons, dispelling the myth that women were absent from parliamentary politics before the twentieth century. The digital audio and VR content produced will be made accessible and shareable to provide further outreach for this exhibition and dissemination of this work.

Listening to the Commons brings together three centres of expertise at York - the Dept of History, Dept. of Electronics Audio Lab, and the Digital Creativity Labs - into collaboration with the 'Vote 100' team, and this follow-on initiative develops the already strong relationship between the University of York and Parliament established by the St Stephen's project. Combining innovative digital technologies to highlight the deep history of women's participation in politics, our follow-on collaboration with Parliament's 'Vote 100' project will make a compelling demonstration of the impact of AHRC-funded research in the creative economy to engage new audiences and enable modern people to hear new histories told in new ways.

Planned Impact

Listening to the Commons builds on the University of York and UK Parliament collaboration established in the AHRC St Stephen's Chapel project. This follow-on activity is based on leading arts and humanities research, for the first time collaborating with innovative creative sector work in virtual reality, audio technology, acoustics and heritage. Through Parliament's Vote 100 Project and York's Digital Creativity Labs, Listening to the Commons will deliver impact in the Creative Economy to engage new audiences in culture and heritage and enable modern people to hear new histories in new ways. Beneficiaries include Vote 100 and UK Parliament, the public via the Vote 100 exhibition, and those working with creative economy focused audio and VR technology in the cultural and heritage sectors.

The Vote 100 exhibition will benefit from the digital 3D visual, acoustic, audio and VR assets produced. Making these resources available online ensures they have a role beyond the visitor experience at the exhibition itself and we will use low-cost VR headsets to maximise dissemination and engagement opportunities for this novel creative content. We are working to engage MPs as part of the creative process, using them as our actors for the recording of historic debates. Positively received, discussions are underway with Parliamentary authorities on how the practicalities can be accommodated. Listening to the Commons therefore supports Parliament's own public engagement aims (Business plan 16/17: Enhancing public engagement and participation especially through digital means) and the assets created will be used beyond the 2018 exhibition as an education and outreach resource.
More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the Vote 100 exhibition. Audiences, both present and online, will benefit from opportunities to digitally engage with the exhibition content. We will contribute to Vote 100's media and engagement strategy, and BBC Parliament are keen to follow up their recently broadcast St Stephen's project TV documentary. Listening to the Commons will therefore play a significant role in the culture (through the digital narratives developed) and economy (through audience attendance) of the UK.

Listening to the Commons will benefit partners in the creative economy with an interest in VR technology, a significant business opportunity, particularly in its potential for developing novel, engaging narratives for audiences within cultural and heritage sectors. This will be facilitated through Project Steering Group members from cultural (York Museums Trust) and business (Knowledge Transfer Network) sectors, together with the DC-Labs remit to deliver research focused impact in the creative digital economy via their 80+ partners, including companies already developing VR for gaming (Sony), broadcast (BBC, BT) and engineering (Arup, AECOM). We will disseminate outcomes through three impact workshops as well as existing DC-Labs channels and author a paper on the project process and outcomes for audiences from both academia and industry. Acoustic data will be published via OpenAIR, an online resource already creating impact in sound design, digital heritage and gaming, and so therefore also benefitting these creative communities.

Impact with Vote 100 will be realised as the exhibition opens in July 2018. Audience numbers will be monitored, and we will commit at least one University of York Institute of Public Understanding of the Past internship to the capture and evaluation of ongoing impact related to audience engagement with our work. Impact in the creative economy will be developed during the lifetime of the project through three key workshops with ongoing impact captured through existing DC-Labs activities (2020 end date).

The Named PDRA will develop new skills in VR development and their placement within the DC-Labs multi-disciplinary, impact-focused research environment will further opportunities for them across employment sectors.


10 25 50