A guest post by London Historians member, Peter Twist.
Were Her Majesty the Queen to look upwards when she arrives at the magnificent Sovereign’s gate of the Palace of Westminster for the formal opening of the Houses of Parliament, she would meet the eyes of a lone soldier perched high above her. His duty is to report the moment that the monarch steps into the Palace so that the Union Jack Flag flying from the sky-scraping flagpole of the Victoria Tower directly above could be replaced by the Royal Standard. He would be looking down upon Her Majesty through an octagonal viewing hole in the roof, a metal trapdoor having been earlier slid open to afford him a dizzying view of this spectacle. Here’s a video clip.
It is no exaggeration to say that the twelve intrepid members of the London Historians who visited the Parliamentary Archives of the Houses of Parliament on Thursday 26th April 2012 were also treated like royalty. We were there as guests of fellow London Historian member Caroline Shenton, the Clerk of the Records at the Parliamentary Archives, which are housed in the Victoria Tower. The Tower was completed in 1860 by Charles Barry to house the historic records of Parliament. It continues to serve this purpose today, storing approximately 3 million records of the House of Lords and House of Commons on parchment, paper and film, all of which are available to the public at no charge online or in person, by appointment, in the dedicated search room.
After rigorous security checks, including having to substitute our pens for special pencils, Caroline escorted us upwards in a succession of ever smaller lifts. She exercised great strength by turning a large capstan handle which opened the metal trapdoor in the roof of the Sovereign’s Entrance. Fortunately we were excused the necessity of climbing the 553 steps. Pride of place in our visit was our admission into one of eight strong rooms which house the archives in a carefully climate controlled environment. All around us were thousands upon thousands of carefully rolled parchment scrolls, representing every Act of Parliament passed, the longest of which is a Land Tax Act passed in 1821, made up of 757 membranes and estimated to be a quarter of a mile long unrolled.
Of particular interest to London Historians are all the Local and Personal Acts of Parliament passed, including many diverse Private Acts, such as one enabling Handel’s naturalisation. It is truly an unappreciated cornucopia of material for all aspects of historical research, including family history, social, constitutional and political history, town planning and railway and road building. They are complemented by remarkable collections of personal political papers, including the papers of Lord Beaverbrook, Andrew Bonar Law and David Lloyd George.
For our special interest, Caroline had laid out a small selection of treasure from the Archive. These included the Royal Commission for the prorogation of Parliament, 12 October 1573, signed by Elizabeth I, and a Suffragette banner unfurled from the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons on 28 October 1908. These are beautifully described and illustrated in the Houses of Parliament publication, ‘Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives‘, published in 2010, which Caroline has jointly written with two colleagues, available from the Archive at £12.99.
Sadly on the night of 16 October 1834 a devastating fire broke out in the Palace and most of the records of the House of Commons were lost. The gripping story of the fire over the course of that fateful day and night is the subject of a new book by Caroline Shenton, ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down‘, due to be published by Oxford University Press on 9 August 2012.
Records held in the Victoria Tower are described in the online catalogue Portcullis at www.portcullis.parliament.uk. More information about the work of the Parliamentary Archives can be found at www.parliament.uk/archives.
We were extremely grateful to Mike for arranging this visit and to Caroline for making it possible.
Peter is presently a Student City of London Guide, hoping to qualify in June 2012.
*Further photos on Flickr by LH member Andrea Vail, here.