Parliament first began to keep and preserve its archives in 1497. The Parliamentary Archives collects significant records created by Parliament such as Acts of Parliament, as well as documents that record the activity of Parliament such as journals and Hansard. Our collections have grown as new records have been created and added. Some archives capture a moment in history like the Protestation Returns which created a census-like record in the 1600s. In 1834 a fire devastated the medieval Palace of Westminster and destroyed some of our records. The fire represents one of the biggest disasters for UK democratic heritage, but we still have approximately 4 million records today and counting. In this blog, we will be looking through history at some of the ‘Firsts’ in our collections.
This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.
Acts of Parliament
The first Act of Parliament that is held in the Parliamentary Archives is from 1497, the first year records were retained in Parliament. This was during the reign of the first Tudor King Henry VII, you can see his signature on the top left-hand corner of the Act. This was not a grand decree but was simply the first to be passed by Parliament that year and given the number 1. It is in fact an act relating to the wool trade. The Act’s official title is “An Act for taking of Apprentices to make Worsteds in the County of Norfolk”. The tradition of wool manufacture and trade in Norfolk had existed already for several centuries by this time. Many Flemish weavers had moved to Norfolk especially to the village of Worstead, which was how Worsted wool got its name.
Private Acts of Parliament were introduced slightly later than general public acts. Unlike Public Acts, these acts were passed for specific individuals, bodies or companies. One of the first Private Act in our collection is from 1515 which is “An Act concerning Sir Robert Southwell to survey the King's lands”. This Private Act only applying to Sir Robert Southwell, who was a friend and servant to Henry VII as well as his chief butler. He was clearly still trusted by his son, Henry VIII, to carry out this important survey.
The naturalisation of foreign-born residents to become British citizens also required a private act of parliament until 1844. For example, we hold within our collection the naturalisation act for the composer George Frideric Handel dating from 1726.
Parliamentary journals recorded the minutes and proceedings of the House of Lords and House of Commons. You can learn more about the journals and their history in our Jargon Buster blog. The first House of Lords journal dates to 1510, whilst the House of Commons journal started later in 1547. This page is from the first House of Lords Journal discussing Elizabeth Barton, otherwise known as the Holy Maid of Kent. Barton claimed to have visions and prophesied against Henry VIII’s annulment and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, which eventually led to her execution.
Going forward to the 17th century with the Protestation Returns in 1642. The Returns are the first and only census-like records within our collection from this period. After the religious upheaval of the Tudor period all adult men were required to swear allegiance to the Protestant faith, Parliament and King Charles I. The names of these men were written down for every parish and sent back to Parliament. Approximately a third of the records from the English counties survive today in our collections. Besides the detailed 1086 Doomsday Book, the Returns are one of the earliest surviving country-wide censuses and provides a great resource for researching family and local history.
In some parishes and counties individuals signed the Protestation, however, in most cases a scribe took down the names. This provides an indication of literacy in the area as some used their mark rather than sign the document, a scribe then wrote the name beside this. The record below is the first of the Protestation Returns from Ashton-under-Lyne.
Since the medieval period, permission to construct roads and undertake other public works has been given by acts of Parliament. In the eighteenth century, permission to build canals and later railways was also granted in this way. From 1794, promoters of these projects were first required to submit plans of the proposed work in support of their application. Many of these survive in the Archives. With so much building of infrastructure like the railways during the industrial revolution a lot of plans were submitted to parliament, however after the mid-20th century the number of plans deposited seriously declined.
One of the earliest deposited plans (but not the first) was for the Ellesmere Canal planned to carry boats between the River Mersey and the River Severn. But not all plans were realised into infrastructure, only sections of this plan were actually built. Below is an early plan of Chester from 1825 for a planned waterworks, as you can see the early maps were not just mechanical sketches but can be very beautiful, decorative, hand-drawn and sometimes colourful drawings.
Hansard is the official report of the debates, discussions and speeches of both the House of Commons and House of Lords. It was first introduced as the official record in 1803, before this the records were an unofficial collection from various private sources and often incomplete. However, even the official record was still selective until 1909 when it became the official report and fully recorded all debates. A set of these volumes are available and can be searched online.
One of the first surviving sessions recorded for Hansard was the House of Commons on 29th March 1803, listing the acts that had been passed. All sorts of topics can be discussed in parliament and thus recorded word-for-word into Hansard. For example, this later Hansard of the House of Lords from 1979 discussing UFO’s and referencing the 1938 radio broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’.
Not all records held within the Parliamentary Archives are paper documents, the collection also holds other mediums such as parchment, vinyl, film reels and a large selection of photographs. The earliest photographic collection is the House of Commons Library Photograph Album. It contains over 3,200 images dating back to 1852. Most of the photos are of Parliament, politicians and monarchs including Queen Victoria. For example, this photograph from the 1860s of Acton Smee Ayrton, a Liberal Party politician who was MP for Tower Hamlets (1853-1874) and First Commissioner of Works (1869-1973) during Gladstone’s first term. The lantern at the top of the clock tower of big ben was also named the Ayrton Light after him.
This paved the way for the other vast photographic collections held in the Parliamentary Archives, such as the Benjamin Stone and Pudsey photograph collections. Both are largely of the parliamentary building, politicians and events. Benjamin Stone has over 3,000 images dating from 1871 to 1916. Pudsey’s dates are between 1948 and 1983. Alongside the Commons Library Album, these collections provide a great snapshot of parliamentary history.
Parliament has held its records for many centuries. The archives document many firsts which directly impact and reflect the history of the country. They vary from the very early Acts and journals to the more modern mediums like photographs. New records have developed alongside the growth of the country and infrastructure with the plans of railways, canals, roads and more and as well as the changes within parliament with the introduction of an official record of debates through Hansard.
The Parliamentary Archive is still collecting records from Parliament. We continue to take in the new Acts of Parliament passed but also records that were born-digital and have never had a paper copy such as this recent transport committee records from 2016 that can be found on our online catalogue.