I have received a flurry of letters from overseas readers asking if I might explain a phrase spoken in the BBC’s reporting of the budget, which referred to a ‘raft’ of measures announced by the Chancellor.
The usage dates from Tudor times, when the manuscripts of laws drafted at Hampton Court were swum down the Thames to Westminster suspended from the bills of trained swans. For many years the arrangement worked in an entirely satisfactory manner, and led to the usage of the word ‘bill’ to mean proposed legislation. However, with an increasingly active and vociferous parliament, special difficulties arose when multiple documents, collectively too heavy to be carried by a single swan, had to be swum together. The trained swans were fiercely territorial, and when tasked with swimming in a group the enraged avians would instead lash out at each other with the draft laws suspended from their powerful necks, paying no heed to even the sternest admonishments of the royal swan-herds.
It was the naval architect Roger de Plessis who found the solution to the difficulty. After a package of velum flung by a particularly enraged cob was later found floating in the outer reaches of the Thames near Sheppey, de Plessis realised that the draft laws admirably combined the properties of buoyancy and water-resistance, so that large numbers of them could safely be bound into a raft that could be steered down the Thames by a punter with suitable knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of its current.
After the first demonstration of the technique almost came to grief when the punter suffered a large splinter from the rough-hewn pole of fir with which he had been expected to propel and steer the raft, Sir Roger (as he had recently become) from his own purse commissioned a spectacular pole of peerless black ebony, known for its unsurpassed ability to endure submersion in water. The name ‘Black Rod’ survives to this day from the habit of the state punter to announce his arrival at parliament by knocking his ebony pole on the riverside entrance.