Erskine May

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The Right Honourable
The Lord Farnborough
Erskine May.jpg
Under Clerk of the Parliaments
In office
16 February 1871 – 17 April 1886
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by Sir Denis Le Marchant, Bt
Succeeded by Sir Reginald Palgrave
Personal details
Born Thomas Erskine May
8 February 1815
Highgate, Middlesex
United Kingdom
Died 17 May 1886(1886-05-17) (aged 71)
St George Hanover Square, Middlesex
United Kingdom

Thomas Erskine May, 1st Baron Farnborough, KCB, PC, DCL (8 February 1815 – 17 May 1886) was a British constitutional theorist. This derived from his career at the House of Commons.


Thomas Erskine May was born in Highgate, Middlesex, on 8 February 1815. He was christened on 21 September 1815 at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster with his parents being registered as Thomas and Sarah May.[1] He was educated at Bedford School.[2]

May began his parliamentary service in 1831, at the age of 16, as Assistant Librarian in the House of Commons Library. He was admitted to the Middle Temple on 20 June 1834 and called to the bar on 4 May 1838.[3][4] May married Johanna Laughton, of Fareham, on 27 August 1839.[5] May became examiner of petitions for private bills in 1846 and from 1847 to 1856 was Taxing Master for both Houses of Parliament. In 1856 he became Clerk Assistant of the House of Commons.

May was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB) on 16 May 1860[6] and promoted to Knight Commander (KCB) on 6 July 1866.[7] On 16 February 1871, he was appointed Clerk of the House of Commons by letters patent.[8]

In 1873, he was elected a bencher of the Middle Temple and awarded an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law by the University of Oxford in 1874. In 1880, he was made a Reader of the Middle Temple and appointed to the Privy Council in 1884.

On 10 May 1886, shortly after his retirement as Clerk of the House of Commons, May was created "Baron Farnborough, of Farnborough, in the county of Southampton".[9] He died on 17 May 1886[10] and left no heirs and so the barony became extinct, making it the second-shortest-lived peerage in British history, after the Barony of Leighton.

Sir William McKay, who edited Erskine May's private journal, has suggested that May was possibly an unacknowledged son or grandson of Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron Erskine.[11]

Notable works

May's most famous work, A Treatise upon the Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament (now popularly known as Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice or simply Erskine May), was first published in 1844. The book is currently in its 24th edition (2011). It is informally considered part of the constitution of the United Kingdom. The guide is authoritative in many Commonwealth nations, often with strong influence on constitutional convention.

Another notable work is The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George III, 1760–1860 (ISBN 0-8377-2429-5). May's work was rejected by later historians, such as Herbert Butterfield who wrote, "Erskine May must be a good example of the way in which an historian may fall into error through an excess of brilliance. His capacity for synthesis, and his ability to dovetail the various parts of the evidence ... carried him into a more profound and complicated elaboration of error than some of his more pedestrian predecessors ... he inserted a doctrinal element into his history which, granted his original aberrations, was calculated to project the lines of his error, carrying his work still further from centrality or truth."[12]

Titles and styles

  • 1815 – Thomas Erskine May, Esq
  • 1860 – Thomas Erskine May, Esq, CB
  • 1866 – Sir Thomas Erskine May, KCB
  • 1874 – Sir Thomas Erskine May, KCB, DCL
  • 1884 – The Right Hon Sir Thomas Erskine May, KCB, DCL
  • 1886 – The Right Hon The Lord Farnborough, KCB, PC, DCL


  1. Parish register printouts of Westminster, London, England (Saint Martin in the Fields), christenings, 1813–1837.
  2. 1881 Census: "Name: May, Thomas E. Age: 66. Relation: Head. Spouse's name: Lousia J. Gender: Male. Where born: Highgate, Middlesex, England. Civil parish: St Margaret. County/Island: London. Country: England. Street Address: Palace of Westminster. Condition as to marriage: Married. Occupation: K.C.B. Clerk Of The House Of Commons. Registration district: St George Hanover Square. Sub-registration district: St Margaret Westminster. Enumeration district: 1." Source: The National Archives, class RG11, piece 117, folio 18, page 30.
  3. Fellowes, E. A. (1 January 1950). "Review section". Parliamentary Affairs. IV (2): 266. Retrieved 16 July 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4.  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1894). "May, Thomas Erskine". Dictionary of National Biography. 37. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 139–140.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Correspondence of Lady Farnborough and Miss E G Laughton
  6. The London Gazette: no. 22387. p. 1915. 18 May 1860. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 23134. p. 3871. 6 July 1866. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
  8. The formal appointment, as Under Clerk of the Parliaments, was officially announced on 2 February. The London Gazette: no. 23702. p. 383. 3 February 1871. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
  9. The London Gazette: no. 25585. p. 2269. 11 May 1886. Retrieved 12 July 2010. This appears to contradict tertiary sources which claim that the peerage was created a day later, on 11 May 1886.
  10. Death certificate: "Name: May, Thomas Erskine (Lord Farnborough). Age at Death: 71. District: St George Hanover Square. County: London, Middlesex." General Register Office, England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes, April–June 1886, volume 1a, page 305.
  11. William McKay, May, Thomas Erskine, Baron Farnborough (1815–1886), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2000. Retrieved 11 April 2011.
  12. Butterfield, Herbert (1957). George III and the Historians. London: Collins. p. 152.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Farnborough