[Spelling Reform Anthology §7.7 pp119-122]
[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Winter 1975, pp13-16]
[See Journal topics: Parliament.]
[William Reed: see Pamflet 10, Anthology, Bulletins.]

Spelling and Parliament

by William J. Reed.

SSS Hon Sec., England.
A paper presented at the First International Conference of the Simplified Spelling Society, at College of All Saints, London.

In Britain we are a parliamentary democracy. We vote at stated intervals to elect a House of Commons of 635 members. From these, the leader of the largest political party is called upon by the Sovereign to choose a Cabinet and form a Government. This Government is the Executive and is the body which has the power and the authority to make all decisions concerning the welfare of the nation.

It is widely believed by many of those who are well qualified to judge that our spelling conventions are at present unsatisfactory and that they should be improved. There is no authority which can improve them except the authority of Parliament. No individual or group of individuals can make any effective changes except through Parliament.

Our present spelling is thought by some to be 'traditional' and will hereinafter be designated 'traditional orthography' or T.O.

It may be objected to what was said in the second paragraph that T.O. itself was not brought about by any Act of Parliament and the objection is reasonable. What we call T.O. was brought about by printers and, to a lesser extent, by writers during the latter part of the 17th century. It was unsatisfactory even then, though not as unsatisfactory then as it has become since. It has become more unsatisfactory because, during the intervening three centuries, it has changed very little, while the language which it is supposed to represent has changed very much. This unsatisfactory spelling has continued to be accepted by the nation because of important reasons, including the following:

(1) Many millions of copies of the Authorised Version of the Bible have been printed and read in something like our present T.O.

(2) Shakespeare's plays also have been printed and read, not in Shakespeare's spelling but in T.O.

(3) This spelling, with its disadvantages and imperfections, was accorded the imprimatur of the formidable Samuel Johnson when he published his Dictionary in 1755 and when he wrote in his preface: "I have attempted few alterations, and among those few, perhaps the greatest part is from modern to ancient practice." He recommended that people "should not disturb upon narrow views or for minute propriety the orthography of their fathers." By this he probably meant that they should not attempt to change 17th century spelling to match the great changes that had taken place in the language. So 17th century spelling was fastened even more securely on our language.

A second objection might be that thoroughgoing spelling and alphabet reform were introduced in Turkey, 1928, by the efforts of one man, namely Kemell Ataturk; but the circumstances were quite different because Turkey at that time was not a parliamentary democracy such as we are now. A third possible objection is that important changes were made in American spelling by Noah Webster; but his Elementary Spelling Book of 1783 is said to have sold more than 100 million copies and to have had the approval of no less a person than Benjamin Franklin. Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, was quickly accepted as the standard for spelling and subsequent editions maintained this authority. It is difficult to see how that sort of change could be brought about in contemporary Britain by any one man or by any small group of men, however eminent.

When compulsory schooling was introduced by Parliament a century ago, the principal concern of the authority might well have been to give children a good education in their native language and literature: more consistent spelling might have been agreed on and introduced. The attention of the authorities was, however, distracted by other considerations which seemed at that time to be even more urgent. Social and industrial changes were affecting villages and, even more, towns. Families with children were uprooted. Many authorities found that their foremost task was not to provide children with a good education but to get them off the streets. As the historian, G. M. Young, wrote: "In 1870 the essential was to get the children somehow into some sort of school … In Birmingham, forty out of every hundred children were running loose in the streets, while in Manchester the figure was as high as 50 out of every hundred." [1] Chambers' Encyclopaedia, Vol. 4, page 800, 1973, states that in the eighteen sixties, 2¼ million children were not attending school: that would have been about 40%. Well might Young say that the essential was to get the children, somehow, into some sort of school.

Children had to be accommodated somewhere while their fathers, and often their mothers too, were hard at work, and they had to be kept occupied for otherwise they would tend to become listless, mischievous and perhaps destructive. 'Education' was a wonderful ideal but the authorities seemed to be chiefly interested in making compulsory the three R's (reading, writing and arithmetic) and thus in making children spend their time and energy struggling with out-of-date and unsuitable spelling units, and with out-of-date and unreasonable units of measurement.

The passing of the R.E. Forster Act of 1870 did not mark a sudden break with the past (at the time, my own school log book did not mention it). Lowe's Revised Code of 1862 had required that all children should be instructed in reading, writing and arithmetic according to a clearly defined syllabus issued by a central authority and that all girls should be instructed in plain needlework. School experiments with reformed alphabet shapes or with reform spelling were not expressly forbidden and it is possible that some bold teachers did try such experiments. We know that Isaac Pitman's Phonotypy had been tried in schools 30 years earlier, in 1882; [see Note] and there was the testimony of the great Alexander Ellis who wrote regarding "the importance of employing a phonetic alphabet as a desirable, nay, necessary instrument in national education in that it furnished the only means by which reading, spelling and writing could become general among the great body of English people". [2]

For hundreds of years, and certainly since the latter part of the 16th century, it had been realised by many of those who had most carefully studied the matter that what we call T.O. is subject to serious objections whether considered from the standpoint of etymology, phonology or, most important of all, teaching. It is the teaching aspects of the matter which has led Parliament, as representing the nation, to consider what reforms are needed and how much reforms might be implemented.

The Simplified Spelling Society had been founded in 1908 by a group of scholars under the chairmanship of Professor Walter Skeat. Some few years later, during the time when Professor Gilbert Murray was president, when Sir George Hunter was Chairman, when William Archer was Secretary and Walter Ripman was Treasurer, a Petition to the Prime Minister was organized by the Society with the aim of directing Parliament's attention to the evidence relating to the need for spelling reform. Responsibility for the Petition and for much of the actual work involved in interviewing people who were prominent in administration and in scholarship were accepted by Sir George himself and by his personal secretary, Mr. Thomas B. Barber. Mr. Barber was Secretary also of the Simplified Spelling Society and remained Secretary for many years afterwards and until his retirement in 1954.

By July, 1923, there was an impressive list of signatures in support of the Petition. There were names of 15,000 people who were representatives of scholars, writers, administrators and men and women who were prominent in public life and affairs. The list represented, probably, hundreds of thousands of such people inasmuch as, in many cases, the president and secretary signed on behalf of all the members of a society following a resolution passed at a general meeting. The covering letter was signed by forty people 'whose eminence in Scholarship, Science, Letters and Affairs is widely recognised' as Sir George Hunter commented.

During the next few years, and until shortly before 1933, the teaching staffs and the administrative staffs of universities were generally in favour of asking the government to appoint a representative committee of eminent scholars who should be asked to consider the case for spelling reforms and the means by which such reforms might most conveniently be carried out. 800 of these eminent scholars signed the Petition. [3] It must be remembered in this connexion that the number of universities, and consequently of university staffs, was then smaller than it is now after the great expansion of recent times. So 800 really is a notable figure.

In the Univ. of Birmingham, signatures included those of Sir Charles Grant Robertson, the Vice-Chancellor, C. W. Valentine, the Prof. of Education and of 20 other professors, 19 Lecturers and 4 Readers. In the Univ. of Cambridge, those who signed included Dr. P. Giles, the Master of Emmanuel College, Sir J. J. Thomson, the Master of Trinity College, Dr A. C. Seward, the Master of Downing College, Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, the Prof. of English Literature, Dr. Emery Barnes, the Prof. of Divinity, Dr G. G. Coulton, the famous historian of the middle ages, together with 37 other Professors and Lecturers.

In the Univ. of Oxford, those who signed included W. D. Ross, the Provost of Oriel College, C. H. Sampson, the Principal of Brasenose College, Dr. A. H. Sayce, who was later Prof. of Assyriology, Sir M. E. Sadler, the Master of University College; Prof. Gilbert Murray, who was Regius Prof. of Greek and who succeeded Walter Skeat as President of the Simplified Spelling Society in 1912 and who supervised its policies until his death in 1957; Dr. R. R. Marrett, Rector of Exeter College, Dr. Reg. W. Macan, late Master of University College and an authoritative advocate of spelling reform; Prof. H. C. Wyld, Merton Prof. of English Language and Literature and Editor of the Universal Dictionary of the English Language; F. M. Powicke, Regius Prof. of Modern History; Percy Simpson, Fellow of Oriel College, an authority with A. W. Pollard, W. W. Greg, E. Maunde Thompson, J. Dover Wilson and R. W. Chambers (O.U.P. 1923) on Shakespeare's spelling in the Sir Thomas More play (fragment) and in Venus & Adonis and Lucrece, which are the only examples we have of how Shakespeare himself actually spelt words: Edmund Blunden, former Prof. of English Literature in the Imperial Univ. of Tokyo, Dr. M. W. Keatinge, Reader in Education and D. H. MacGregor, Prof. of Political Economy: along with 24 other eminent scholars.

In the Univ. of London, there were: Lascelles Abercrombie, the Prof. of English Literature (David Abercrombie, his son, was for some years Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society, during the time when I was Honorary Secretary); A. Lloyd James, who was later Prof. of Phonetics (he did much of the work involved in producing the fifth edition of New Spelling 1940, and wrote the Preface which appears on pages 5 to 7); Sir T. Percy Nunn, Director of the Institute of Education, Sir Cyril Burt, F.B.A., Prof. of Philosophy, together with 40 other distinguished scholars.

In the Univ. of Manchester, those who signed included the Professors of English Language, English Literature, and almost all of the other departments of the University.

There were many signatures from the Universities of Aberdeen, Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh (58 names), Glasgow (41 names), Liverpool (Vice-Chancellor, 25 Professors and 12 others), Reading (Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, 11 Professors and 20 Lecturers), St Andrew's (Vice-Chancellor and 38 others), Sheffield (Sir Henry Hadow, formerly Vice-Chancellor and 16 others), Univ. of Wales (the Principal, 16 Professors and 28 Lecturers), from Univ. of Nottingham there were 16 names.

There were also the names of 125 Members of Parliament, 22 Bishops, including William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, 49 publishers, including Edward Arnold, Jonathan Cape, W. & R. Chambers, 8 authors, including H. G. Wells, J. B. Priestley, Julian Huxley and Sir Norman Angell.

There was support also from many educational associations, including the National Union of Teachers, National Association of Schoolmasters, the Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes, and the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Thus supported and encouraged by the widespread approval of the universities' teaching and administrative staffs, by teachers, writers and publishers, Sir George Hunter in July, 1923 met some of the Simplified Spelling Society's committee and interviewed Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was then President of the Board of Education. He stated the Board's official position thus: "While difficulties of the present system (of spelling) were admitted, he felt that the appointment of the Commission or Committee could not be expected to result in any scientific solution unless the supporters of Spelling Reform were able as a preliminary to decide upon an agreed and definite scheme." Lord Irwin later (in 1933) quoted and agreed with this point of view.

Rebuffed by the Board of Education because he had not brought an agreed and definite scheme, Sir George Hunter asked the Society's Committee to reconsider and possibly revise the earlier proposals which had been formulated by William Archer and Walter Ripman. After renewed consideration, the proposers and supporters of English Spelling Reform met on May 3rd, 1933, and unanimously agreed to approve and submit for the proposed Committee's consideration the scheme (New Spelling) approved by the Simplified Spelling Society. Sir George Hunter's covering letter included the following sentence: "The scheme has been used in a number of elementary schools with benefit to the children; it does not require any new letters or any additions to the printers' fonts of type … It is not expected that our spelling can be immediately changed by any arbitrary decree but it is believed that any improvements recommended by the Committee will be voluntarily and gradually adopted". This meeting, on 3rd May, was attended by Sir George Hunter, Chairman, and by: Mr. A. Lloyd James, Reader in Phonetics at London Univ., Mr. Walter Ripman, Chief Inspector of Schools for London Univ., Prof. W. Emery Barnes, Prof. Daniel Jones, Sir E. Dennison Ross, Mr. A. E. Henshall, ex-President of the National Union of Teachers, Wm. Barkley, Journalist, Oswald Lewis, M.P., W. G. Pearson, M.P., Mr. Gray Jones, representing the Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters, Mr. Gordon and Mr. T. R. Barber, Secretary of the Simplified Spelling Society.

Even after this, Lord Irwin wrote on June 30, 1933, saying that the Government could not agree to the appointment by the Government of a Committee "... because its official character would give people the impression that legislation might be possible in the future. There is no justification for the board to go even this far..." Lord Irwin declined to appoint a committee and declined to receive a deputation. The scholarship that had produced several versions of New Spelling and all the work that had resulted in the collection of 15,000 signatures of prominent people were rendered of no avail because of what must have seemed to Sir George very much like obstinacy on the part of Lord Irwin and his advisers. Sir George was defeated. He died in 1937 and left a large legacy to enable the Society to continue the work for spelling reform which had meant so much to him. Here again, he suffered another defeat. All moneys used for educational purposes are 'charitable' and therefore exempt from paying income tax. The amazing truth is that the Society's income from the Hunter bequest was declared to be not for educational purposes. The money was, therefore, subject to income tax and the Society has lost many thousands of pounds because of this decision.

On 11th March, 1949, Dr. Mont Follick, M.P. for Loughborough, presented his Private Member's Spelling Reform Bill to the House of Commons. Part 1 of the Bill asked for the establishment of a committee to produce a scheme for the simplified and consistent spelling of English. Part 2 required that reformed spelling should be used first in schools, later in government publications and later still should be used generally. The Minister of Education at that time was Rt. Hon. George Tomlinson and he was deeply concerned about the welfare of children. He cautiously expressed the opinion, however, that advocates of reform should secure some reasonable measure of public support and that later there should be an official inquiry into spelling.

On the Second Reading, 11th March, 1949, the Bill was debated for five hours and lost by only three votes, the official figures being 84:87. This was a remarkable achievement by Mont Follick and for spelling reformers. Clearly, even better things were within reach. [4]

In the autumn of 1952, Mont Follick was again successful in the ballot for Private Members' Bills, being drawn No. 5. He again brought in a Bill concerned with spelling reform. It required the Government to institute research into methods of improving the low standard of reading and to investigate, among other things, the use of consistent spelling, even though there might later be a transition to Queen Anne's spelling (T.O.). On Second Reading, 27.2.53, the Bill was carried by 65 votes to 53 after a debate which is reported in 82 columns of Hansard (2425-2507). Mr Ralph Morley, M.P. for Itchen, had said: "As a class teacher for nearly fifty years, I know it is our ridiculous and illogical spelling which is the chief handicap in teaching children to read". I myself have had more than fifty years experience of teaching and agree with what Mr. Morley said. [5]

After Second Reading, the Bill went to Committee where it was again approved in spite of government opposition.

On 7th May, Dr. Follick rose in the House "To ask the Minister of Education if she will state her policy towards proposals by a competent research organisation to investigate possible improvements in the teaching of reading by means of a system of simplified spelling". Miss Florence Horsbrugh replied: "Any such organisation could rely on my interest and goodwill for their proposals designed to investigate possible improvements in this field of education. There would be no extra grant and the organization concerned would have to secure the willing cooperation of the l.e.a., teachers and parents."

The sponsors of the Bill realised that it might still meet powerful opposition and that it might be rejected in the Lords. They agreed to withdraw the Bill, being well pleased with the Minister's assurance that there would be approval for properly controlled research into how the use of simplified spelling would affect the processes of learning to read.

John Downing was appointed to administer the tests to the i.t.a. groups, also to the control groups. The i.t.a. experiments were started in September 1961. After only a few weeks it was clear that children could learn to read in the fairly consistent i.t.a. much more quickly and much better than the control groups could learn to read T.O. It seemed also that reading skill acquired with consistent i.t.a. could be transferred later to reading matter printed in T.O. Subsequent tests confirmed this. The most important result of the i.t.a. research was to prove that T.O. is a handicap to children when they are learning to read. What happened after the transition was interesting but it did not affect the really important conclusion quoted in the last sentence. These experiments, and later ones, were a consequence of the Follick-Pitman success in the House of Commons, 27 February, 1953, and the Minister's subsequent assurance that there would be approval of, though no government grant for, experiments with simplified spelling in the teaching of reading.

It seems that Mont Follick was more concerned with spelling reform then he was with teaching children to read T.O. It was only with reluctance that he agreed to the withdrawal of his 1953 Bill and he later seems to have regretted having done so. He was a true spelling reformer and remained so until his death, 10.12.1958. His Will required that his fortune should be used to found and endow a professor's chair of Comparative Philology "in which spelling reform (not merely the teaching of reading) should form a principal part". Dr. Mont Follick had been the founder and was the Proprietor of the Regent School of Languages. His estate was large. After considerable delay, the money was accepted by the Univ. of Manchester and William Haas was appointed the first Mont Follick Professor. This decision was the crucial decision which must decide to what extent the benefactor's aims are likely to be fulfilled. All this may reasonably and fairly be said to follow from the House of Commons' verdict on 27th February, 1953.

During recent years, two Departmental Committees have considered language teaching and, especially, the teaching of reading. Lady Plowden was Chairman of the first. Detailed evidence was submitted by the Simplified Spelling Society but this did not appear in the report, although the name and school of the Honorary Secretary did appear. During 1970 and 1971, useful correspondence passed between the Society and the Departmental Inspector for English, Mr. E. Wilkinson. I met Mr. Wilkinson on 15 November, 1971, and we discussed the Society's Resolution to the Minister. We did not disagree on any of the items included in this Resolution, and we discussed what further progress might be made, such as experiments with New Spelling under the auspices of a university. The unexpected and unexplained departures of our President and Chairman from the Annual General Meeting made it difficult for the Society to make further progress at the time with the Departmental Inspector. The final sentence of the Resolution was: "Members of this Society … urge the government to institute an inquiry into the educational, financial and international advantages likely to result from modernizing our out-of-date spelling conventions".

Another Government Committee was appointed in 1971. There were 19 members and Sir Alan Bullock was appointed Chairman. During 1972 and '73, several of us wrote on behalf of the Simplified Spelling Society and expressed regret because the Society had not been invited to give oral and written evidence. Mr. S. S. Eustace was at that time Hon. Sec. of the Society and wrote several times. Mr. R. Arnold was Sec. of the Bullock Com. and early in 1971, he wrote saying that the Society's representatives would be able to give oral evidence to the Bullock Com. We were invited also to send an agreed 'submission.' Of the dates offered, the first one, Jan. 23rd, was chosen by the Society's Committee at its meeting on Jan. 12th. There was not adequate time in which to prepare an agreed 'submission' but four of us (Messrs. Eustace, Gibbs, O'Halloran and Reed) met in Elizabeth House on Jan. 23rd. We met a Bullock Committee (not the full Committee) under the chairmanship of Prof. J. E. Merritt. Prof. Merritt is, incidentally, a member of the Simplified Spelling Society.

That meeting with the members of the official Bullock Committee was important and promising. Mr. O'Halloran, who has since been elected Honorary Secretary of the Simplified Spelling Society, made a particularly good impression on the Bullock Committee and has since had important correspondence and interviews with some of its members. Progress towards improvement in our spelling conventions will have to be the result of recommendations by a Departmental Committee appointed by, and reporting back to, Parliament.


[1] G. M. Young, The Victorian Age, Penguin, p. 116.

[2] Benn Pitman, Life and Labours of Isaac Pitman, 1902, quoted by Harrison in, Instant Reading, Pitman, 1964, p. 30-34.

[3] The Case for the Improvement of Spelling, Simplified Spelling Society, 1933, pp. 16-32.

[4] Hansard, 11 March, 1949.

[5] Hansard, 27 February, 1953.

[Note 1] It is thought that this may have been 1832.


Founded in 1908 by Professor W.W. Skeat, Lit.D., LL.D., D.C.L., Ph.D.


to The Secretary of State,
Department of Education and Science

"Whereas many great authorities on English have deplored the inconsistency of its spelling and have advocated reform;

And whereas no reasonable case against spelling reform has ever been made by any considerable scholar;

And whereas experiments in Britain, America and elsewhere have proved our spelling to be wasteful of time and effort;

And whereas a number of other nations have in recent times reformed their spelling conventions with great benefit to themselves and to other users of their languages;

And whereas English is now being learnt as a second language by a large proportion of the human race and is the most widely used international language;

Members of this Society, feeling that it is now incumbent upon native speakers of English to remove unnecessary difficulties in the learning and use of the language, whether by students approaching it has a second language or by English-speaking and other children learning to read it and write it, urged the Government to institute an inquiry into the educational, financial and international advantages likely to result from modernizing our out-of-date spelling conventions."

Passed by subsequent Gen. Meeting, Dec. 12, 1970.

William Reed, Hon. Secretary.

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