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Part 1: Manuscript Minutes, Committee Books and Voting Records of the House of Lords, c1620-1714

A Brief History of the Records of Parliament

In the course of its work over the last four and a half centuries Parliament has regularly preserved not only records of its own proceedings but also, in ever increasing numbers, the many petitions and other documents presented to it.  As a result, there has been formed at Westminster one of the major accumulations of historic documents in the country.

By 1509, the Clerk of the Parliaments and his assistants (today known collectively as the Parliament Office) had become separate from the Chancery, and in the course of the sixteenth century this newly independent office gradually expanded and formalised its record keeping.  The Journals of the House of Lords survive from 1510, Petitions from 1531 and Bills from 1558.  at first, the office was rather haphazard in its methods; for instance, Cardinal Wolsey, when Chancellor, seems to have removed all the Acts and Journals relating to one session.  It was at the beginning of the seventeenth century (the starting point for this microfilm project) that a more business-like administration began with the advent of two Clerks, Robert Bowyer (1609-1621) and Henry Elsynge (1621-1635).  Under these diligent and scholarly men the Parliamentary Archive took its modern form.  Petitions and many other forms of Papers coming to the Lords were carefully filed; continuous series of Manuscript Minutes and Committee Proceedings were preserved; and, not least in importance, the records were assigned a permanent home at the south-west corner of the Palace of Westminster, in the moated building known as the Jewel Tower.

The principal records of Parliament remained in the Jewel Tower from 1621-1864.  Meanwhile, in another part of the Palace, a second Parliamentary Archive had been forming.  From 1547 a Commons Journal survives and, parallel with the growth of the main Parliamentary Records of the House of Lords under Bowyer and Elsynge, a separate series of domestic records of the Commons were formed.  These were the Petitions and Papers (from the reign of Elizabeth), Return Books of Elections (from 1625) and the Minute Books (from 1623).

By the early nineteenth century these documents were considerable in quantity, but tragically, on one night in 1834 almost the entire range, with the vital exception of the Journals, was consumed in the ‘Tallystick Fire’.  This conflagration destroyed not only the enormous accumulation of wooden tallysticks in the House of Lords but also the greater part of the fabric of the Palace of Westminster.

That the main Parliamentary Archive survived the fire of 1834 was due to the isolated position of the Jewel Tower and also the inspired efforts of a Lords clerk, Mr Stone Smith, who rescued numerous bundles of Lords papers that had not been deposited in the Jewel Tower.  For the seventeenth century, this microfilm project brings together the most important original manuscripts and records which survived the fire.

In the present century there have been two landmarks in the history of the records.  The first occurred in 1927 when the Clerk of the Commons resolved to transfer to the Tower the important post-1834 series of Private Bill records, whilst retaining ultimate ownership of them himself.  This precedent has been followed by succeeding Clerks of the Commons, and in 1957 the central records of the House, the series of some two hundred and forty original manuscript Journals, dating from 1547 to 1800, were likewise deposited in the Victoria Tower, by authority of the Speaker of the House.

Secondly, in 1937, the then Clerk of the Parliaments, Sir Henry Badeley, initiated a survey of the entire archive.  This revealed the need for full time staff to undertake boxing, repair and production of manuscripts.  In 1946 the House of Lords Record Office was set up and charged with the immediate care of the contents of the Victoria Tower and the creation of a Search Room to be open to members of both Houses, researchers and members of the general public wishing to consult the original documents.


A Short Guide to the Records of Parliament

by Maurice F Bond, Clerk of the Records

(House of Lords Record Office, 3rd ed. 1980)



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