William WilberforceChances are that you, as a reader of this website, are interested in the black art of acoustics. And it’s pretty certain that you know more about acoustics than the average Joe of 1789. There’s probably a big chance, also, that you wouldn’t care if you never heard another politician again. Have I got a story for you.

On May 12, 1789 a 30-year-old British politician named William Wilberforce (1759-1833) gave one of the most famous speeches ever delivered to the British parliament. It was such a powerful denouncement of slavery that it started the abolitionist movement. But it suffered an unrecorded shortcoming, all about acoustics.

For a start the House of Commons you’ve seen on telly didn’t exist in 1789. The lower house of the British parliament was located in St Stephens Chapel, Westminster, once a lavishly decorated place of royal worship that was given over to robust debate when the parliament first convened there in 1548. The pollies liked it so much they stayed there until St Stephens burned down in 1834, the year following Wilberforce’s death.

House of commons bThe major acoustic problem with his speech was that hardly anyone heard it. Even the folk sitting in the chamber were struggling to make it out. We know this because the University of York has just spent a million quid ($1.93 million) on a three-year project exploring key moments in the history of St Stephens. The objective was to answer long-standing academic questions, and tackle some myths, about its place in the development of Britain’s parliamentary heritage.

As part of this Dr Catriona Cooper, an archaeologist with a background in computers, used a computer model to re-create the acoustics of the debating chamber at the time of Wilberforce’s speech. Having combed through reports indicating how many people were present and where they were sitting or standing she figured out how the speech would have sounded to those present. Her research has been presented in Parliamentary History, a peer-reviewed academic journal publishing stories relating to the history of parliamentary institutions in the British Isles.

The major acoustical difficulty was echoes, which she described as booming. They were so pronounced that even the men (and they were all men) in the best seats were among the worst affected. You know how sound becomes mushed and muddled when you’re between two slightly out of synch public address speakers? It was a lot like that. Her model suggests that the chamber had an average reverberation time of 1.6 seconds. This is how long it takes for soundwaves to decay and die. The lower the reverberation time, the less the echo, and the optimal time for listening to voice is less than a second.

Dr Cooper deduced that the very best places to be in order to hear the speech were in the main doorway of the chapel, where no one sat because it was the doorway, or standing behind the speaker’s chair, where the listener would not have been able to see Wilberforce at all.

House of commons aThe Great St Stephens Fire of 1834 gave the men (and they were all men) in power a chance to build a proper House of Commons, but none of them understood acoustics. They elected to build the House just as the chamber had been in St Stephens, an oblong room where all the seats faced those on the opposite side to create an acoustic that closely resembled the inside of an empty corrugated iron water tank.

A second chance to put things right came in 1941 when German bombing destroyed the House of Commons. Alas, it was not to be. Winston Churchill, clad in the flag of patriotism, declared that the House would be re-built exactly as it had been before the mischief perpetrated by der Chermans. He described the sound in there as ‘intimate and conversational’. Obviously he could hear himself just fine.

So not only were the frightful acoustics preserved, but this also explains why you see so many people standing at the doorway when all members are present. There aren’t nearly enough seats for all the members. At least those standing at the door can make sense of what’s being said.

St Stephens modelListening to a speech in the current House of Commons is, therefore, almost as difficult as it was when Wilberforce was just a twinkle in his old man’s eye. High ceilings and stripped-down furniture keep the echoes echoing, and the forest of microphones that has been installed, a measure once described to me as an electronic band-aid, has done little to clear the air.

A question now occurs: Did the acoustics of the House contribute to the problems with Brexit?

Hope springs eternal in the human breast and the British will be presented with yet another opportunity to fix things in 2025, when the Palace of Westminster is to be refurbished. Let’s not encourage a referendum about that.

First published by Australian Hi Fi magazine August 2019.


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