House of Lords Record Office - continued

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500 Years of Record-Keeping in Parliament

The English Parliament, which began to keep its own records in 1497, has the oldest continuous Parliamentary archive in the world. The mark this anniversary the Lord Chancellor, in the presence of Madam Speaker, opened an exhibition on 500 Years of Record-Keeping in Parliament in Westminster Hall on 7 July 1997. The exhibition also provided an opportunity to celebrate, somewhat belatedly, the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the House of Lords Record Office in 1946.

The first panels explained that, although Parliament began in the mid 13th century, no mediaeval records are held at Westminster because the early clerks, who were seconded from Chancery, took back to that office all the documents which they had collected or compiled. These are now in the Public Record Office. However, in 1497 the Clerk of the Parliament (Parliaments from1510) put on one side all the bills that had received royal assent that session and since then every 'Original Act' has been kept in Parliament itself. The exhibition features an act of 1497 - a small piece of parchment - alongside the 50 year-old Indian Independence Act, the record copy printed but still on vellum.

To help them keep a record of proceedings the Clerk of each House sitting at the Table (or originally kneeling at a woolsack) made rough notes from which he subsequently engrossed fair copies. These'journals' began in 1510 in the Lords and 1547 in the Commons. The earliest of each was on display, the Lords' showing two days in the Reformation Parliament of 1534, and the Commons' bills read in July 1552. The importance of the Journals as records of the disputes between King and Parliament in the 17th century was exemplified by the volume for 1621, from which James I tore the Commons' claim to freedom of speech. Journals continue to the present day.

'The High Court of Parliament', the subject of the third main section, provided the opportunity to illustrate the judicial functions of the two Houses. Impeachments were represented by the articles against the Earl of Oxford in 1715 - the last attempt to use this means to destroy a political opponent - and some shorthand notes (using the Gurney system) of the trial of Warren Hastings in 1788. Acts of attainder, trials of peers and, of course, appeals to the House of Lords, were also represented.

A graph showing the number of acts passed in each session from 1689 - particularly the rise in the number of public acts passed during the later 18th century, especially turnpike acts, and the severe oscillation in the numbers of 19th century private acts, largely explained by bouts of railway mania - led into the next subject: private bill legislation and the great bulk of records which it generated. As a separate attraction, our most recent guide to one large class of this material, the database of witnesses who gave evidence on opposed private bills, was made available to visitors to try their hand at finding references to particular person and places.

Since the 17th century, the Commons had used rooms adjacent to their Chamber as a record repository while the Lords had kept acts and other archives in the Jewel Tower. In 1834, therefore, when fire destroyed the old Palace of Westminster - graphically depicted in the recently-restored panorama painted by George Scharf sen. - virtually all the records of the House of Commons were burnt (save the Journals, which were rescued), but the Lords' records in the Jewel Tower survived. As a result of this, when the new Houses of Parliament were being designed, a large, fire-proof repository was demanded. This was provided in the form of the Victoria Tower by Charles Barry, whose rarely-seen model of this building was a prominent exhibit (see front cover).

From 1864 the records of the House of Lords were transferred to the Victoria Tower where, from 1905, they were joined by those of the House of Commons. These records include all kinds of papers which had been 'returned' to the Lords (and after 1850 also to the Commons), deposited in compliance with an act, or otherwise laid before either House or their committees. Amongst a small collection of such papers on view was a Protestation Return of 1642, one of the few genealogical sources within Parliament.

There is, however, little biographical material about peers and M.P.s apart from scattered references to individual members, such as the peer's pedigree or the John Wilkes petition amongst the items on display. Still less are their speeches amongst the archives. In spite of the widespread misconception that Hansard is the Parliamentary record, the Parliamentary Debates, which T. C. Hansard began publishing in 1803, only became 'official' and verbatim in 1909. (Broadcasting tapes and videos are much later, dating only from 1978.) Nevertheless, with electronic records imminent it seemed appropriate that the most recent record on display should be (by courtesy of the House of Commons Library) last session's Hansard on CD-ROM.

Apart from Hansard, which, like all printed works, is kept by the Libraries of the two Houses, records had been accumulating in the Victoria Tower since 1864, disturbed only by their evacuation during the Second World War. In 1946, however, a clerk was appointed specifically to care for them and soon afterwards a public search room was opened, conservation and reprographic services were established and in 1971 a Guide to the Records of Parliament was published. Today, as visitors to the exhibition were reminded, the House of Lords Record Office aims not only to preserve the records of the past but also, by encouraging good record-keeping practices, to ensure that current information of long-term value is identified and kept - ready for the next half millennium.


© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared: 15 February 1999