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A visit to the Parliamentary Archives

July 9, 2013

Everyone is familiar with the Clock Tower of Parliament, housing what must be the most famous clock  in the world.  Tours up the tower to see the clock mechanism and the Big Ben bell itself are very popular with Bristol West constituents.  The Clock Tower is now officially named the Elizabeth Tower, in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.  But the taller and larger tower at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, named after the Queen’s great great grandmother, is far less well known.

But the Victoria Tower houses a treasure trove of artefacts much more significant than a clock. Here we are concerned with chronology rather than horology.  The tower is home to the Parliamentary Archives.  I’ve just had a fascinating visit to see a selection of the Parliamentary records and political collections held in the archive.  The primary collection is the original copy of every Act of Parliament.  I asked the chief archivist when was the first Act?  It’s not easy to identify the precise moment when Parliament became a legislature, initiating measures by itself rather than endorsing the wishes of the King.  But the first Act held in the Victoria Tower dates from 1497 and was for the regulation of apprentices working in the Norfolk wool worsteds trade.  Since then there have been over 64,000 Acts of Parliament!

The original Bills are written on sheep or goat skin vellum.  They are rolled up and stacked upon row after row of shelves, arranged by reign.  The fattest rolls are finance bills….and having just sat through several weeks of the Finance Bill 2013 (a mere 230 clauses and 49 Schedules) I can say nothing has changed!  The thinnest rolls are private family Bills, dating to the times when Parliament had to grant divorces.

Medieval Bills, like modern ones, were subject to amendment.  These days amendments are printed and if passed the Bill is reprinted for its later stages.  But to avoid the laborious process of rewriting rolls of vellum the medieval Parliamentary clerks devised a simple solution.  They wrote out the amendment and then sewed it onto the side of the Bill roll.  Sounds much simpler than dealing with “tracked changes” in a Word document!

The archives also hold some of the records of politicians.  The most famous is that of my hero, Lloyd George.  This was the actual reason for my visit, as a follow up to the recent exhibition in Parliament marking the 150th anniversary of his birth.  I was shown some notes passed across the cabinet table between Lloyd George and Churchill at the outset of the first world war.  The Lloyd George Archive is the most popular source consulted by visiting historians.

For more about the Parliamentary Archives see here http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/parliamentary-archives/

For my motion on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Lloyd George see here http://www.parliament.uk/2012-2013/931

 

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