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The Parliamentary Archives Jargon Buster: Acts of Parliament

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This blog was written by Verity Jones, Archives Assistant Graduate Trainee.

I am currently the Archives Assistant Graduate Trainee in the Parliamentary Archives, having started in September 2019. Over the last 8 months, I have got to grips with many of the quirks here in the Archive that were a mystery to me before I started. One of the most important parts of my role has been learning about the records we hold in the Archive, and helping researchers find the most useful records for them. So, in a new series of blogs I’m going to take a closer look at some of the most used records from our collections. First up: Acts of Parliament.

An Act of Parliament is a Bill that has been approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and has been given Royal Assent by the Monarch. This then creates a new law or changes an existing law. Acts of Parliament were the first records to be kept by the House of Lords. In 1497 Master Richard Hatton, Clerk of the House of Lords, chose to keep hold of sixteen enacted Bills (or Original Acts). Since then, our collections have grown to more than three million records. Today, the Parliamentary Archives hold all the Original Acts of Parliament, dating from 1497 onwards. Acts predating this are held at the National Archives. We also hold printed, bound versions of Acts. Normally, visitors that request copies or to visit our search room will be offered the printed versions for conservation reasons, although they can view the Original Act if they need to. There are three different types of Act – Public, Private and Local.

Public Acts affect every citizen and impact people all over the country. They cause national change and can include laws about education, healthcare and the economy. For example, the Representation of the People Acts from 1918 and 1928 fall into this category. The 1918 Act gave the vote to married women aged over 30, while the 1928 Act gave women the same voting rights as men, allowing all women over the age of 21 to vote. Therefore, they are Public Acts because they affect the general public all over Britain.

Representation of the People Act 1918
Representation of the People Act 1918, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1918/7&8G5c64

Unlike Public Acts, Private Acts only affect certain groups of people. For example, until 1844 an Act of Parliament was needed for someone to become a naturalised British citizen, and until 1857 an Act of Parliament was needed to grant a divorce. In both these cases, these are Private Acts, because only those involved in the naturalisation or divorce settlement will be affected. Private Acts should not be confused with Private Members Bills, which are Bills introduced by MPs who are not government ministers. If these are passed, Private Members Bills will become Public Acts.

Todd’s Divorce Act 1896
Todd’s Divorce Act 1896, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/1/1896/59&60V1n111

Local Acts are similar to Private Acts in that they only affect a select number of people. They differ in that Local Acts only affect certain regions or places – for example Acts relating to the building or repairing of infrastructure such as roads and bridges in certain areas. They are not relevant to the entire country, so are Local Acts.

An Act for Inclosing Land in the County of Carmarthen 1817
An Act for Inclosing Land in the County of Carmarthen 1817, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/1/1817/57G3n238

It is not just the different contents of the Acts which should be noted, but also the difference between Scrolled and Modern Acts. Before 1850, all Acts longer than a few lines were scrolled. They were written on membranes (pieces) of parchment and as one membrane was filled, another was stitched onto the bottom. This created one long piece, which was then rolled up to be stored. The Local Act above is an example of a Scrolled Act. Some very early Acts are short enough to be just one membrane, so they didn’t need to be rolled. However, as time went on, the Acts became longer, so flat Acts are very rare. The longest Act is an 1821 Act concerning the raising of taxes and is a quarter of a mile long when unrolled. However, from 1850 the Acts were changed to a book format, so that they could be stored more easily. We call these the Modern Acts. The examples of Public and Private Act given above are Modern Acts.

Land Tax Act 1821
Land Tax Act 1821, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1821/1&2G4n248

Many of the Acts in our collection have been digitised and are available to view on our website here. To discover our entire collection, go to our online catalogue at

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