This blog was written by Verity Jones, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).
For the third blog in our Jargon Buster series, we’re looking at two different types of records which are often confused – Hansard and Journals. Both give detailed accounts of what happens in the House of Lords and House of Commons Chambers, but while Hansard tell us what is said in the Chambers, the Journals tell us what action is taken. For example, Hansard will tell you what MPs and Lords said in the debates about a Bill, while the Journals will tell you if the Bill is passed.
What are the Journals?
The Journals are the original daily minutes of the proceedings of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, dating back to 1510 (Lords) and 1547 (Commons). Prior to this, the records of the Medieval Parliament were recorded in the Parliament Rolls, available online here. The Journals give us an official report of the business of the day in both Chambers and tell us what happened.
Almost all of the Records of the House of Commons prior to 1834 were lost in a fire that year which destroyed most of the Palace of Westminster. The Lords Journals, along with the other Lords records, were safe because at that time they were not stored in the Palace, but in the Jewel Tower nearby. A few of the Commons Journals were saved when the Clerks threw them out of the window into the Thames! This means we still have original Commons Journals for some of the most important moments in Parliaments history, including the discovery of Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
Although most of the original Commons Journals have been destroyed, we still have access to the information they held because printed copies had already been made before the fire. The printed versions of the Journals can be found in the corridor next to the search room in the Parliamentary Archives, so visitors can access them without having to request a retrieval. Many of the Journals are also available to access online through our website – find out more here.
What is Hansard?
Hansard, on the other hand, is the record of what is said in Parliament. Like the Journals, there are separate records in Hansard for the Commons and the Lords. Hansard provides a detailed account of debates from both Chambers, and reports decisions taken during a sitting. What Members say and how they vote to reach those decisions are also recorded.
Hansard’s history does not date back as far as the Journals. Historically, Members were secretive about what was said in the Chambers and didn’t want their words recorded. Parliamentary debates were first published in 1803 by MP and Journalist William Cobbett. The publications are named after Thomas Curson Hansard, who first printed Cobbett’s publications. Cobbett sold the publication rights to Hansard in 1812, and they have had his name ever since. Since 1909, Hansard has been an official Parliamentary department.
Today, Hansard is still printed daily, but it is most easily accessible online. There are several websites where you can access Hansard records. The current Hansard website, available here, is the most commonly used, although the historic Hansard website, available here, can also be useful for easily navigating to a particular date. In the Archive, we also hold hard copies of Hansard. Although these aren’t needed very often anymore, the online Hansard sometimes has gaps or errors so it can be useful to cross-reference with the hard copies.
One Day in History
To illustrate the different ways that the Journals and Hansard report on events in the Chambers, we can look at their reports for a particular day – 1st September 1939, the day the Second World War was declared. The Journal accounts lists all the bills which were passed that day to cope with the outbreak of war (18 in total) and the back and forth as they are debated in both Houses.
However, none of the speeches are recorded in the Journals. For those, you must consult Hansard. Here we can read the reports on the speeches and debates held on that day, meaning we can know the exact words that the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke when addressing the chamber:
‘I do not propose to say many words tonight. The time has come when action rather than speech is required. Eighteen months ago in this House I prayed that the responsibility might not fall upon me to ask this country to accept the awful arbitrament of war. I fear that I may not be able to avoid that responsibility.’
This shows how we can use Hansard and the Journals to get a stronger sense of what it would have been like in the Chambers that day. These records are valuable tools for understanding Parliamentary process, as well as giving us an insight into historic decision-making and debates.
Sign up to UK Parliament's Visit Newsletter for the latest updates on visiting and Big Ben,