Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Parliamentary Archives’

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.

victoria tower westminster

victoria tower westminster

victoria tower westminster

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.

victoria tower westminster

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.

victoria tower westminster

Henry VII's autograph from 1498, one of the oldest documents in the archive.

victoria tower westminster

His grand-daughter - Elizabeth I - signed this proroguation document.

victoria tower westminster

Drawing showing proposed east end of the new embankment by Joseph Bazalgette from 1862-3.

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 Twist
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.

parliamentary archives london historians

London Historians group, 25 April 2012. Pic by Caroline Shenton

parliamentary archives london historians

London Historians group, 26 April 2012. Pic by Caroline Shenton

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

The beautiful Victoria Tower at the Palace of Westminster has always been overshadowed by its famous sibling for lack of a large clock. It is not an attention-seeker in that way. And doesn’t need to be.

The tower was one of the last parts of the new Palace to be completed, in 1860, twenty six years after the destruction by fire of the old Houses of Parliament, and a matter of days after the death of Sir Charles Barry, its creator.

the victoria tower

Architecturally, the function of the tower is to lend symmetry as a counterweight to the Clock Tower at the Thames end of the palace complex. But more important than this, the Victoria Tower is the home of the Parliamentary Archives and designed specifically for this purpose. While most of the Commons’ records were lost in the conflagration of 1834, the Jewel Tower, housing the records of the House of Lords, fortunately survived and these documents are included in the collection.

The archives are housed in the floors above the entrance archway in fireproof and atmosphere-controlled conditions. They comprise (among many other items, see Factsheet, below), thousands of Acts of Parliament on parchment scrolls dating back to 1497. These come in all shapes and sizes, the biggest of which is estimated, unrolled, to be 345m long!

parliamentary archives westminsterparliamentary archives westminster

The tower was originally to be named the King’s Tower after William IV, the sovereign at the time of the 1834 fire, but since its building only started some seven years after his death, it became the Victoria Tower instead. It is 120m to the tip of the flagstaff and has twelve floors of archive space, accessed – before a lift was installed in the 1950s – by a 553 step cast-iron spiral staircase.

victoria tower

The staircase, from below.

An intriguing feature of the Tower is the octagonal aperture in the roof of the entrance. Its function is to allow the winching of heavy materials up to the first floor level. Even now its sliding door has to be hand-cranked to open it. I resembles a perfect execution mechanism used by a James Bond villain to drop its victim some 60ft (my estimate) to the pavement below. It’s also used by the army during the Opening of Parliament. Fully opened, an observer can see the exact moment that the Queen passes below and signal to the chaps on the roof to pull down the Union flag and to hoist the Royal Standard.

victoria tower

The partially-opened aperture for hoisting heavy items into the tower.

victoria tower

Clearly visible from below.

victoria tower

victoria tower

View of the Clock Tower from atop Victoria Tower

To find out more about the Victoria Tower, there is an excellent book Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives by Caroline Shenton, David Prior and Mari Takayanagi. It is richly illustrated with stunning photographs. It’s available from the Parliamentary Bookshop at £17.99, here. (If you’re a London Historians member reading this, pull finger and enter the competition to win a signed copy by all three authors, per October members’ newsletter).

victoria tower treasures

My deepest thanks go to Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records (and London Historians member), for giving me a personal tour of the Tower. It was a privilege and a delight.

More information on the Parliamentary Archives.
Parliamentary Archive Services.
Factsheet (PDF file).

Read Full Post »