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Parliamentary history: a research guide

Connected Histories contains a number of key sources for parliamentary history from 1500 to the 19th century, including both the series of primary sources included in British History Online, Parliamentary Records, and the History of Parliament.

Contents of this article

Minutes

The Journals of both Houses of Parliament provide a basic and usually authoritative minute of their proceedings, indicating for each day on which there was a sitting of one or other House such details as bills dealt with, committees appointed by and reporting to the House, orders and resolutions passed and so on. They were compiled by the clerks of either House. The series of Lords Journals begins in 1510; the series of Commons Journals begins in 1547. Both Houses maintain their Journals to this day. Although there are basic similarities, there are differences between the Houses in what is recorded and how it is recorded. The Lords Journals, for example, routinely record which of the peers and bishops (members of the House) attended; attendance lists are not provided for the Commons. A complete run of the Journals of both Houses from 1688 to 1834, produced by electronically scanning the text, is available through House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. British History Online includes a more limited run of the Journals, produced by rekeying of the text. It currently has 13 volumes of the Journal of the House of Commons, covering the period 1547-1699 and a single volume for the year 1830, and 38 volumes of the Journal of the House of Lords, covering the period up to 1793, plus three volumes for the 1830s.

Legislation

The main output of parliament is its legislation. The most authoritative edition of the pre-18th-century legislation of the English parliament is the Statutes of the Realm, of which three volumes are available on British History Online, covering most of the 17th century (1628-1701). They do not include the legislation passed between 1642 and 1660, during the civil war and interregnum. The official versions of this legislation were destroyed after the Restoration of 1660. This legislation has been reconstructed in the Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, also available on British History Online.

The House of Commons Parliamentary Papers provides access to some of the private legislation of the 18th century, which was not included within the normal run of statutes, and was printed separately. The series of sessional papers of the House of Commons for the 18th century include volumes of bills, mainly after 1750. The 19th- and 20th-century series of sessional papers also include bills in their main series.

Reports and other parliamentary publications

Parliament publishes other material as well as legislation, mainly the reports of its numerous committees. During the civil war in the 1640s parliament also published a great deal of propaganda material and orders and declarations associated with its struggle against the king. Most of these were collected together by John Rushworth, one of the clerks of the Commons, and published (together with much other material relating to early 17th-century political history) as Historical Collections: these volumes are available on British History Online.

Much of the later material published by parliament is available through House of Commons Parliamentary Papers. For the 18th century this is contained within the series of Session Papers of the House of Commons, 1715-1800, and of the House of Lords, 1714-1805, and the Reports of Committees of the House of Commons, 1715-1801. Committee reports for the 19th and 20th centuries are also included within the main series.

Debates

The current nearly verbatim account of parliamentary debates, known as Hansard was not produced before the early 19th century and only became an official publication in 1909. Up until the 1770s both Houses attempted to suppress publication of accounts of their debates. Despite this, many individual members took their own accounts of debates, and during the 18th century some journalists succeeded in publishing compilations of debates when parliament was in recess. A number of these accounts are accessible through British History Online: the debates taken down by Thomas Burton in the 1650s and by Anchitell Grey from 1667 to 1694; the compilations of debates in the late 16th century made by Heywood Townshend and Sir Simonds D'Ewes; and the compilation of late 17th- and 18th-century debates produced by the publisher Richard Chandler. The House of Commons Parliamentary Papers also has Chandler's compilation and the companion set of debates in the House of Lords from 1660 to 1743 produced by another publisher, Ebenezer Timberland. It provides in addition the periodical publication, The Parliamentary Register, which published parliamentary debates from 1774.

The text of Hansard itself from 1803 is now available online outside Connected Histories, although there are gaps in its coverage.

The History of Parliament

The History of Parliament is a large secondary work of reference created in an on-going project first formally instituted in 1940. It consists of detailed studies of elections and electoral politics in each constituency, and of closely researched accounts of the lives of everyone who was elected to Parliament between 1386 and 1832, together with surveys drawing out our understanding of the operation of Parliament as an institution. It includes 21,420 biographies, and 2,831 constituency surveys, miscellaneous surveys and articles.

Strengths and weaknesses

Researchers interested in parliamentary history have benefited enormously from the large-scale digitisation projects of the last 10 years or so, and many of the key sources are accessible through Connected Histories. Situating resources such as the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers and the History of Parliament alongside less central sources for parliamentary history, including Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online, newspapers and printed ephemera, will throw up hitherto unidentified connections and suggest new avenues for research. As noted above, however, researchers will still need to access the text of Hansard independently.

Search strategies

You may wish to begin your search by focusing on the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers and British History Online, the richest resources for the history of parliament. However, much useful information about individuals, important political events, and so on, may be gleaned from other sources, notably British Newspapers 1600-1900 and Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online.

As with other areas of research, where precision is required it is advisable to search for names and places using keyword searching. The natural language processing used for Connected Histories will have missed some instances of the individual or location in which you are interested.

Further reading

  • A Short History of Parliament: England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scotland, ed. C. Jones (Woodbridge, 2009)
  • Honour, Interest and Power: an Illustrated History of the House of Lords, 1660-1715, ed. R. Paley and P. Seaward (Woodbridge, 2010)
  • The House of Commons: Seven Hundred Years of British Tradition, ed. R. Smith and J. S. Moore (London, 1996)

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