- Longer than the length of three football fields?
- 200 years old?
- And made of animal skin?
It's the Longest Act!
To give it its proper title, it's the Land Tax Commissioners' Act 1821, which at 348 metres is the longest Act of Parliament held by the Parliamentary Archives. It contains names of 60,000 men across England, Wales and Scotland. They were appointed by Parliament to collect the land tax, a tax on land, property and personal property between 1693 and 1963.
Handwritten on 757 pieces of parchment, the Longest Act is one of our star documents. It shows a way in which middle-class people were connected with the work of Parliament at a time when the majority did not yet have the right to vote. As its 200th birthday approached, we made plans to send it out and about. Covid restrictions put paid to grander plans for a UK tour, but we were delighted that the People's History Museum in Manchester agreed to have it as a spotlight loan in autumn 2021. As the national museum of democracy, PHM were ideal hosts.
As luck would have it, another loan request came along at the same time! The Watts Gallery in Surrey approached us about the Stow Hill papers, a private collection we hold. Stow Hill is a family collection which includes the papers of politicians David and Frank Soskice, along papers of the Hueffer and Madox Brown families relevant to literature, music and art. The Watts Gallery borrowed a family photo album, a letter and pages from a memoir, and most splendidly, a palette used by the painter Ford Madox Brown. All items were condition checked and packed by the Parliamentary Archive Collection Care Team. High-end display cradles were created to display these beautiful items so that they could be displayed without impacting their stability.
Managing archive loans is a huge cross-team and cross-House effort. Once the Clerk of the Parliaments has formally agreed to the loan as the custodian of the records, everything swings into action. A loan contract is drafted and agreed, working closely with the House of Lords Legal Services team: this can be very complex, especially where private owners are involved. The items are valued for insurance purposes by an external specialist, which was done entirely remotely this time due to Covid. The borrowing museums send facilities reports containing information such as environmental readings in their galleries; these are checked and queried in detail by the Archives Collections Care Manager and by the Registrar, who is based in Parliament's Heritage Collections team.
Meanwhile, the items are undergoing all the necessary digitisation and collection care work to prepare them for their journey and for display. Sending a valuable item such as the Land Tax Act on loan was not a decision taken lightly. The team, made up of different specialists, must assess the risks, anticipate what can go wrong and collectively discuss and agree at every stage of the loan process.
The work of the Parliamentary Archive Collection Care team focuses on the materiality of the Act. First, it is important to assess its condition and identify if any treatment is needed prior to display. To condition assess a rolled item of 757 membranes of skin comes with its own unique challenges. How do you unroll a scroll the length of 3 football fields, on a table no longer than 3 metres, amid a pandemic where social distancing is still in place? How long will it take to unroll and roll back such a beast? What will we find in it? To make things more complicated parchment is a highly hygroscopic material. This result is that the parchment retracts and expands depending on how much moisture is in the air. What does this mean in practical terms? We had to work as fast and as decisively as possible to avoid any movement of the parchment. When the Act was unrolled, it became apparent that some of the stitches holding together the membranes were broken which made the rolling and unrolling even more challenging.
After four hours of continuous and painstaking unrolling, sewing broken stitches and condition checking, we could hand the Act over to our Heritage Photographers to digitise. The team then spent four more hours rolling the Act back to its original form.
The second part of the preparation focuses on transportation. The Registrar organises transport with an art handing firm, the Collection Care Assistant packs the Act so that no damage will occur in transit and the Collections Care Manager travels with the items to oversee the installation. Once the items are safely in their display cases, everyone can breathe a big sigh of relief!
Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Archives worked with the People’s History Museum and Parliament’s Education and Engagement team to create a programme of school activities. Whenever our archives are loaned, we like to work with the borrowing organisation on outreach activities that meet both our objectives and the borrowers. The team worked with audiovisual producers from Parliament’s Digital Service team to create promotional videos of the Longest Act, using footage of some of the Collection Care and Digitisation work. One of the videos was used to enhance the interpretation of the Longest Act and played on a tablet next to the Longest Act case while at PHM, one was used to promote the loan to attract visitors to the museum, and the other was used to promote our school activities. Short versions were also used on social media. The videos featured footage of the Longest Act and interviews with conservators and archivists. You can watch the video here, The Longest Act – 348 metres of history (secondary schools) - YouTube
Sending out the video in advance of the school sessions was a huge success. When asked if anyone had any questions about the Act and Parliament every single hand in the class shot up. With one pupil asking …
‘How can the Longest Act be allowed to leave Parliament? It’s so important!’
Year 6 pupil, Moss Park Junior School.
Over 2 days we worked with 124 pupils ranging from Year 6 to Year 9. The pupils learnt how Parliament works, how they can influence Parliament (expect an influx of petitions from Manchester schools) and how to register to vote from Parliament’s amazing Education and Engagement team. The archive session taught them more about the Act using images taken of the Act historically including this fascinating one from 1981.
And the beautiful images of the object including this one.
In the next workshop, the pupils made their own scrolls by sewing sheets of parchment colour paper together. This is a great inclusive and interactive activity where pupils can use their practical and tactile skills. While the pupils are making their scrolls, they are asked what they would like to change about the world and what they think is important.
Once the scrolls are completed, they are asked to create their own laws, thinking particularly about what they would like to change. The pupils took to this enthusiastically. Creating laws as varied as ‘No university fees’ to ‘Ban school uniform’ but the things that came up most often were around recycling and animal rights.
'Working with Parliamentary Archives was a fantastic opportunity for us to engage children and young people with the many different ways we can all be active citizens. Seeing the act in person really brought to life a part of our history that might have otherwise been overlooked. The conversations sparked around it inspired ideas for new laws such as a ban on homework to support wellbeing and mental health, and funding tuition fees with new taxes like how the sugar tax enabled funding to education.'
Liz Thorpe, Learning Officer, People's History Museum.
‘Your quick adaptations for our child with a visual impairment were excellent.’
Teacher, Moss Park Junior School
Overall, loans are a lot of work, but very worthwhile as a great way of broadening access to our fantastic collections and getting them seen by new audiences who may never visit Westminster. The Archives are happy to respond positively to loan requests from libraries, museums, galleries and archives who can meet the necessary security and environmental requirements.
The Longest Act is on display in the People's History Museum from 15 September to 5 December 2021. The items from the Stow Hill collection can be seen in the exhibition 'Uncommon Power: Lucy and Catherine Madox Brown' at the Watts Gallery from 28 September 2021 to 20 February 2022.
Mari Takayanagi, Katerina Laina and Penny McMahon, Parliamentary Archives