20 June 1965

Black Dog’s Tail docked

On this day in 1965 workmen entered the chamber of the House of Commons and cut down Black Dog’s Tail, the length of tarred rope from HMS Victory that had hung from the ceiling since the ship’s return from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson had famously invoked a new Britain, forged in the white heat of scientific and technological revolution. A symbolic but telling act of his first administration was to review the existing technology of parliament itself, and this resulted in several changes, including the removal of the famous rope.

The function of Black Dog’s Tail was to dissolve parliament. This was achieved by the Prime Minister licking the tip of the rope and calling, ‘Begone, hear ye!’

To reach the rope, they climbed a 40-foot ladder, and accidents were not unknown. The replacement system entailed an electric buzzer on the ceiling, which was pressed with a 14-metre stainless steel staff. This was deemed safer, and the new method continued until 1974, when Prime Minister Edward Heath dropped the staff, causing facial injuries to the Leader of the Opposition, which happened to be Harold Wilson.

The cutting down of Black Dog’s Tail was widely condemned, notably by Philip Larkin in his notorious unpublished poem, ‘The Bastards’.

Trivia: This parliamentary convention is the origin of the expression ‘lick black dog’s tail’ – an acknowledgement that something is finished or has run its course.

The Chamber of the House of Commons without Black Dog's Tail
Compiled with the help of the Barrett-Jameson Archive Picture: PA

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