Skip to main content

Power and the People: Reflections on research in the Parliamentary Archives

Posted by: Posted on: Categories:

Guest post by Chloe Bowerbank

Around Easter this year I had the great fortune of securing a paid internship with Royal Holloway and the Citizens 800 Project, which enabled me to work in Parliament and with the Vote 100 Exhibition Project. This was an opportunity I could not miss, and something that got me very excited for the summer. I moved from quiet provincial Lancaster, to the hustle and bustle of the Palace of Westminster. Parliament was still in session, and my lunch hours were spent picking out MPs and reporters in the canteen.

Chloe Bowerbank

But what I was really there to do was a mammoth task. Using the entirety of the Parliamentary Archives, I was to compile a list of documents that related to the theme of ‘Power and the People’. The sources had to give context and detail of the various points in history where the people decided their own fate, and forced or influenced legislation that changed the country forever. Considering the fact that the Parliamentary Archives holds records dating back to 1497, this was a very tall order.

However, it did give me access to some absolutely fantastic records. I had been to the Parliamentary Archives before to conduct dissertation research, but only saw a minute fraction of what is kept in Victoria Tower. I examined documents such as the Cat and Mouse Act, and the Equal Pay Act. But my research also gave me the opportunity to dig out more obscure documents like The ‘Olive Branch Petition’ or the House Bill of the Representation of the People Act.

Representation of the People Act 1918 House Bill
Representation of the People Act 1918 House Bill, Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/10/624

It is a combination of these important and forgotten documents that makes up the rich tapestry of legislative history that the Parliamentary Archives helps to keep alive. Without looking at the House Bill of the Representation of the People Act, for example, one cannot understand how it was debated and changed by both the Commons and the Lords. Documents like that put into sharp detail the processes that occur within the Palace of Westminster.

The breadth of the documents archived can also help researchers piece together a series of events leading up to world changing conclusions. The Stamp Act, Franklin Petition, ‘Olive Branch Petition’, Prohibitory Act and copy of the Declaration of Independence clearly mark the escalation of the relationship between the American colonies and the British government. Several of these documents were exhibited by the Parliamentary Archives in 2005 on the 240th anniversary of the Stamp Act, passed in 1765. These documents clearly show the relationship between the legislature in Britain and the Continental Congress, and how it developed into an all-out confrontation. This confrontation being a pivotal event in the 18th Century: the American war for independence. The event was to change the world forever, and nearly led to the abdication of King George III in 1783, as revealed by recently released letters from the Royal Collection.

My research at the Parliamentary Archives also led me to look at some documents detailing much smaller, but still important, events surrounding Parliament. Suffragette and Suffragist activity around the Palace of Westminster was the most visual part of the campaign for Votes for Women, and each disturbance and misdemeanour was recorded by police officers and sent to the Serjeant-at-Arms. These original reports still survive and give a great insight into the type of people who were caught protesting, as well as the different methods used by the protesters. Some tried to rush into the chamber, others made speeches in the Central Lobby and adjoining halls, whilst one Marion Wallace-Dunlop decided to stamp an extract from the Bill of Rights on the wall in St Stephen's Hall in 1909. The report that caught my eye was one concerning Sylvia Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and truly shows her grit and determination to campaign, even when it threatened her own life. For a more information about this particular incident, look out for my blog post on the Vote 100 Curators’ Blog on 27th September.

The Victoria Tower is a veritable treasure trove of such documents, from the grand and important to the seemingly small and insignificant. Because of my work I was able to look at such a large sample of very distinct and interesting sources, enabling me to both look at the wider picture of events as well as focus on smaller details. Visiting Parliament had always felt like a very special experience, but being able to work inside the building was a real privilege. But the real excitement was to look through the archives and surround myself in over 500 years of the history of this country. As a researcher it is very rare to get the opportunity to get to do such a thing.

Chloe Bowerbank

Chloe was a Royal Holloway Citizens Project intern and student at the University of Lancaster, based in Parliament's Vote 100 Exhibition Project, and researching material at the Parliamentary Archives.

Sharing and comments

Share this page