Ralph Allan Gosset

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The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886 by Liborio Prosperi, published in Vanity Fair Christmas Supplement 1886. Ralph Allen Gosset is in the group on the left of the painting

Ralph Allen Gosset (1809-1885) was Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons in succession to his father William.

Early years

He was the only son of Sir William Gosset and nephew of Matthew Gosset, the Viscount. Born in 1809, his early years were spent in the Navy, but on 1 July 1836 he was appointed by his father, who was Serjeant-at-Arms, Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms to the Speaker of the House of Commons. In 1854 he was promoted to be Deputy-Serjeant. In 1875 "in response to the Unanimous feeling of the House" he was appointed by the Queen to his father's old post of Serjeant-at-Arms.

The Serjeant-at-Arms is the disciplinary officer of the House, whose duty is to expel unruly members and to keep in custody in the Clock Tower persons condemned to imprisonment by the authority of the House. He sits sword at side in a special seat at the Bar of the House. For many years his work was peaceful, but in his last Parliament he became a central figure in many stormy scenes.

In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected MP for Northampton, and as a militant atheist declined to take the oath, and claimed the right to affirm. The Law Officers of the Crown reported this to be illegal. Bradlaugh then agreed to take the oath but the House decided that, as he had asserted that no oath was binding on his conscience, this could not be allowed. The Speaker then ordered him to retire, and, when he refused to do so, called on Gosset to remove him. Bradlaugh was a burly six-footer, and Gosset a little old man of over seventy, but he took Bradlaugh by the shoulder and marched him out of the House.

Ralph Gosset was Vanity Fayre's 'man of the day' in March 1874

Courtly gaoler

A few weeks later Bradlaugh again claimed the right to take the oath. He was allowed to speak from the Bar, but the House by a large majority adhered to its previous decision. "Mr. Bradlaugh declining to withdraw", wrote Gladstone to the Queen, "was removed by the Serjeant-at-Arms. Having suffered this removal, he came again before the Bar and entered into what was almost a corporal struggle with the Serjeant". The House then ordered Gosset to arrest him, and keep him a prisoner in the Clock-Tower. Gosset did all he could to make his prisoner comfortable, providing him with a pleasant room, and allowing his daughters to wait on him. "Never", said the Illustrated London News, "can there have been a courtlier gaoler, never a more comfortable prisoner.

To watch them suggested that the tall, large-framed man was the favoured guest of the white-haired Serjeant in knee-breeches, silk stockings covering Malvolio limbs, sword at belt, and tail coa. Bradlaugh then appealed to the Law Courts, which decided against him, so in April 1881 he again entered the House, and demanded permission to take the oath. Once more Gosset was ordered to exclude him from the precincts. In August he made a fresh attempt to force his way into the House, and Gosset had to call in the help of ten policemen to remove him.

Meanwhile the intransigeance of the Irish members provided Gosset with another problem. In February 1881 he was called on to expel 37 of them from the House. Some likr Parnell went quietly on being tapped on the shoulder; others made a fight of it, and to remove one Gosset had to call in four attendants. But, as he got £5 a head for every member ejected, this was a profitable night to him financially.

Retirement

The 'Silent Member', who contributed weekly a review of Parliament to the Illustrated London News, wrote of him on is retirement:

"The urbanity and ever-ready courtesy, that distinguished his conduct during the smooth-water times of premierships of Lord Palmerston, Earl Russell, Mr Disraeli, and Mr Gladstone's first term of office, never failed him in the stormy scenes of the last Parliament. No member who witnessed the rare combination of firmness and coolness he showed, when called on to conduct Mr Bradlaugh to the Bar and to pilot Parnell and his colleagues out of the House, could help admiring the unfailing tact and good temper of the venerable Serjeant-at-Arms. It may be that the personal geniality and creature comforts said to have been forthcoming to privileged Visitors in his sanctum had something to do with the readiness with which his every mandate was obeyed. None the less is warm praise his due for doing his ministering so gently".

Harry Furniss, the caricaturist, in his My Bohemian Days also refers to the influence of Gosset's private room :

"The Serjeant-at-Arms was a jolly old sort, a little, round man, rather bent, with a merry face, and somewhat bowed, short legs. In his official black Court dress, cutaway coat, knee-breeches, and black silk stockings, his back view strongly resembled a black beetle, and as such I always depicted him in Punch. His private room leading out of the Lobby he made into a club, to which he invited members, who were good fellows, irrespective of politics. They became 'members of Gosset's room'. Tremendous decanters of whisky and boxes of cigars were provided by members for the benefit of all".

In August 1885 ill-health compelled him to retire, and he was created a Knight Commander of the Bath. The House passed a resolution, moved by Sir Michael Hicks Beach and supported by Sir William Harcourt and Parnell, recording its "sense of the exemplary manner in which he uniformly discharged his duties for nearly fifty years". He died in November that year at Richmond, aged 76.

In 1855 he had married Arabella Sarah Butler, daughter of Sir Thomas. They had four sons, Thomas William Butler, who became Colonel in the Royal Engineers, Henry Allen, who became Paymaster in the Army, Matthew John Alfred, who became Chief Clerk in the Inland Revenue Office, and Francis Russell, who became Assistant Serjeant-at-Arms. Gosset constantly figured in pictures in the Illustrated London News during the stormy years 1881-85, a striking portrait of him appeared in that paper on 5 Decemlwr 1883.

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