He was born on 25 May 1901 at Grangetown, near Middlesbrough, the son of a steel worker, and educated at Stockton-on-Tees Secondary School and King's College, London, where he gained First Class honours in his BA (1922) and a PhD in 1940 for a thesis on Shakespeare. He had honorary degrees from Southampton (1967), London (1967), Durham (1968), Bath (1969), Ottawa (1969) and Loughborough (1971). He taught English at Taunton's School, Southampton 1922-1946, where he was head of English from 1930, and was Headmaster of Regent's Park Secondary School, London 1946-1950. His key interests were education and politics.
He served on the Hampshire County Council almost continuously from 1946 to 1965 and was MP for Southampton from 1950 to 1971. He became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1965, the first to come from the Labour benches. During his term of office moderate parliamentary reforms were accomplished. On retirement in 1971 he was created a life peer and became a deputy speaker of the Upper House. He was also Deputy Lieutenant of Hampshire. He was associated with a number of charities and was the Honorary Treasurer of Help the Aged from 1972. He was National President of the Brotherhood Movement in 1963. He wrote and edited several books, including ones on Homer and T.B. Macaulay. He played the piano and piano accordion with flair and among his compositios was a carol 'Is the little King sleeping?' He was four times married. His first wife, Victoria Florence (née Harris) (1896-1966) was a Labour councillor in Southampton for many years and mayor in 1953. He died in Southampton on 3 September 1986.