Guest post by Portia Dadley, House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Hansard is a no-fail operation: come rain or shine, reports of debates in the Chamber and Committees are always published. In the second world war, that commitment was tested to the limit, with the Palace of Westminster damaged by air raids on 14 separate occasions. On Thursday 7 November 1940, the Commons sat for the first time in Church House because of fears that the Chamber might be hit while the House was sitting. Sir Henry “Chips” Channon MP remembered:
The atmosphere was gay, almost like the Dorchester.
Churchill described Church House as “a port in a storm”, but working conditions were difficult for Hansard reporters. Their accommodation was cramped, and in the temporary Chamber they sat on a low platform behind the Speaker, along with ministerial officials and parliamentary draftsmen. In the 7 November sitting, they heard Sir Henry Morris-Jones MP complain that the Official Report of the previous Tuesday’s sitting was not available until 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, which was
a matter of extreme inconvenience.
London had endured 57 consecutive nights of bombing and a messenger had been killed while taking copy to the printers at HMSO Pocock Street. The printworks itself, as George Isaacs, MP for Southwark, said, was
in an exceedingly vulnerable area and a place which has frequently been damaged.
Challenges mounted throughout the Blitz, with labour shortages, paper rationing, damage to machinery and the complete gutting of the Pocock Street press, but Hansard staff and print workers worked hard to make sure that MPs were not inconvenienced. Apart from the occasional delay, the Official Report was delivered to MPs in the London area early in the morning so they could read it at breakfast.
On 1 July 1942, the House sat for 15¾ hours to debate a motion expressing no confidence in the central direction of the war. All overnight proceedings were reported in Hansard, which was ready the next morning—something which The Daily Telegraph reported had been achieved “never before, even in peace time”. Meeting the deadline was not without difficulty: reporters had to write out the report in longhand after 11pm due to restrictions on typists’ hours, and a special van had to be arranged to take the copy to the printers. However, as Nye Bevan said in the debate in Church House on 7 November 1940:
We ought to put up with inconvenience if it is absolutely necessary, but only if it is absolutely necessary. The business of this House should be conducted as efficiently as possible if we, as Members, are to do our job properly.
Hansard was short-staffed during the war, as some members of staff signed up for military service. On 10 December 1943, for example, 10 Hansard reporters did the work of 12, with blank spaces and crossings out on their rota showing an almost constant reallocation of duties and an ever-increasing workload.
As a result of those shortages, Hansard recruited its first female reporter, Jean Winder (1907-2005), in January 1944. “The only reason why I thought of appointing a woman,” said Hansard editor Percy Cole, “was that I was unable to find a man.”
On 18 October 1944, there were questions on the Floor of the House about releasing “two of the most expert reporters from the Official Gallery” from RAF service so that they could return to reporting duties with Hansard. One of those reporters was Leslie Bear (1911-2000), who had enlisted in 1943.
Bear left a vivid account of working in Parliament during the first part of the war in correspondence to his wife, Anneliese, who had gone to live in Suffolk with their children while he remained in London. On 13 April 1941, he wrote:
But as for the poor old House of Commons—the Chamber simply is no more. A high explosive, bang in the middle…The curious thing is that from the front, the Palace of Westminster seems almost undamaged. Big Ben’s face is black and full of holes. The Tower at the top of which I fire-watched last Monday got a bomb right on top of it and came down, the two fire-watchers who were there being killed; they were War reserve policemen. All together it was a dreadful night—the House was one of their targets; I think it got half a dozen explosives and incendiaries were littered down on it.
Bear returned to parliamentary duties in 1945, and went on to become Hansard longest-serving editor—a post he held from 1954 to 1972.
Bear worked alongside William Dixon (1893-1973), who began work as a Hansard reporter in 1933.
Dixon gave an account of account of his job in Our Hansard (1950), which he published under the pseudonym William Law. Here he describes going into the Press Gallery to watch proceedings in the Chamber below:
I have spoken of a trench. The man who goes down for the first time into that trench for Hansard feels indeed that he is in the front line…Every Hansard reporter can tell the vivid story of his first few days in that trench, when he seemed to stand alone, as it were, charged with the task of making a verbatim report of Parliament.
Dixon, Bear and Winder all used shorthand to record proceedings in the Chamber, and in 2019 Dixon’s family donated one of his notebooks to the Parliamentary Archives. Here is his shorthand note of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s statement to the House declaring war with Germany on 3 September 1939:
In August 1943, the word “Hansard” was reinstated on the cover of the Official Report after a long absence. The rebranding chimed with the idea of Hansard being part of the war effort and the fight for democratic freedoms. During the war, sales trebled, with 8,300 copies printed daily by October 1944. The fact that parliamentary debates were freely accessible in print was a demonstration of those freedoms, as well as a signal that life was carrying on as normal—something championed by Commander Stephen King-Hall, who was elected MP for Ormskirk in 1939 and founded the Hansard Society in 1944. He paid tribute to Hansard as
the record of Parliament in action and therefore...the practical expression of the democratic ideals for which we are fighting.
Portia Dadley, House of Commons Hansard Writing Team