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An eventful week at the Parliamentary Archives

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Guest post by Sean Harris, House of Commons Petitions Committee

Sean Harris in the Parliamentary Archives
Sean Harris in the Parliamentary Archives

August is a quiet month for committees, so to broaden my understanding of Parliament I undertook a week-long placement in the Parliamentary Archives, kindly arranged by Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist.

My week began with a tour of the Victoria Tower. One of the first things I saw was the 'well', an interesting piece of Victorian engineering that looks a bit like the Moon Door (for anyone who has seen Game of Thrones). It's a window high up in the Victoria Tower overlooking the Sovereign's Entrance, cranked open with a handle, allowing viewers a glimpse of the Queen as she enters Parliament – though whether it also served as a useful way to lift documents up to the tower is subject to debate.

This was followed by a tour of the archive stores in the tower - at a cool 16 degrees, they provided a welcome relief from the August heat! My guide, Simon, showed me the Act Room where, as you've probably guessed, rolled acts of Parliament are stored - everything from huge acts relating to taxation to much smaller ones for obtaining divorces or British citizenship. I also got to see some of the earliest acts of Parliament in the collection which date from the reign of Henry VII.

Sean Harris researching in the Archives
Sean Harris researching in the Archives

My week was filled with an interesting and varied programme of talks with archive staff while working on my own project on Parliament's relationship with the monarch. For this I consulted original documents from the archive collections, among them the original writs bearing the signature of the Queen for the first acts of Parliament passed in her reign. Among some of the items I saw was a fascinating collection of photographs and documents relating to her first attendance at a state opening of Parliament in 1947 before becoming queen.

On Wednesday there was excitement in the archives searchroom when an American television star arrived with a film crew to record a segment for a US history TV programme. It was a busy morning as I helped to supervise the searchroom and at the end of filming escorted our celebrity visitor out of the building (though I did nearly get lost somewhere on the northern estate).

Tracy peerage gravestone
Tracy peerage claim case gravestone fragment. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/DC/CP/3/105a

On Thursday, following a group visit, I helped archivist Claire putting collection items away in the stores. Among those items was one of the more unusual objects in the collection – a heavy fragment of a grave stone produced as evidence in a 19th century court case.

All meetings over and my project completed on Friday, I reflected on what was an enjoyable and eventful week at the Parliamentary Archives, for which I was very thankful.

Sean Harris works as the Committee Assistant for the House of Commons Petitions Committee.

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