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The Parliamentary Archives (U.K.)

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The Parliamentary Archives occupy the massive Victoria Tower at the far end of the Houses of Parliament from Big Ben, the entry being by way of Black Rod's Entrance in Victoria Tower Gardens. The Tower was built in 1857 to house the records saved from the great fire of 1834 that destroyed the earlier building and most of the records of the House of Commons. It is 346 feet high and was, when built, one of the tallest towers in the world.

The Archives was founded and developed as a department of the House of Lords and was long known as the House of Lords Record Office, but as it serves both Houses of Parliament has adopted the name Parliamentary Archives. The collections are of major importance for the history of the country but they contain much of interest for the local and family historian. The main groups in the latter category are here described.

Victoria Tower.jpg

Journals and Debates[edit | edit source]

In medieval times, records of the proceedings in Parliament, including petitions were regularly transferred to Chancery and recorded on the Parliament Rolls (now in The National Archives), but the recording there of anything other than Acts of Parliament became less common in the 16th century and had ceased by 1628. An electronic edition of the Rolls is available at

Thus the records in the Parliamentary Archives start in 1497 and, from the early 17th century, become quite formidable in size. The originals Journals of the House of Lords, recording the daily business of Parliament but not the Debates, survive from 1510 and have been published from that year. The Journals of the House of Commons similarly, including the receipt of petitions and the passage of bills, survived the fire and have been published from 1547. Libraries containing sets are listed in D. Menhennet, The Journals of the House of Commons: A Bibliographical and Historical Guide (1971) [not in FHL]. Many are available online: see

Verbatim accounts of debates in Parliament, the Parliamentary Debates, have been printed only from 1803, originally by William Cobbett, and from 1812 by Thomas Hansard. The digitised texts are available online from 1803 to 2004 at

Members of Parliament[edit | edit source]

The Archives has little information about individual Members of Parliament, but photographs of some late 19th and 20th century Members are found in the deposited collections.

An official Return of the name of every Member of the Lower House of Parliament 1213-1874 [not in FHL] providing their names and constituencies (taken from the original writs and returns now at The National Archives) was issued as a Parliamentary Paper in two parts, each consisting of one volume of text and one of index, in 1878-9. A 65-page Notices of Various Errors and Omissions Found in the Returns 1603-1830 was published by W.W. Bean (London, 1883) [not in FHL].

However, very detailed biographies of Members of Parliament and constituency histories are being published by the History of Parliament Trust. Sets of volumes covering the periods 1386-1421, 1509-1558, 1558-1603, 1660-1690, 1690-1715, 1715-1754, 1754-1790 and 1790-1820 have appeared [not in FHL] and most of the remaining years before 1832 are being worked upon. See the Trust's website at

Pedigrees of Peers[edit | edit source]

Claims to peerages and disputes about precedence were heard by the Committee of Privileges of the House of Lords and the resulting papers contain much genealogical information. The first Peerage Claim dates from 1604 and the Minutes of the Committee survive from 1660. In 1767, it was agreed that claims would not be heard until the details had been printed, together with "an abstract of the proofs and authorities upon which such claim may be founded". References to the pedigrees in the Sessions Papers, printed by order of the House, may be found in G.W. Marshall, The Genealogists' Guide (1903) [FHL book 942.142 M356g].

Between 1767 and 1802, when a new peer was admitted, Garter King of Arms had to place on the table a pedigree of the peer's family "fairly described on vellum" and these are also filed.

Acts of Parliament[edit | edit source]

A large part of the records in the Archives consists of the original texts of Bills and Acts of Parliament, with their connected petitions and papers, about 60,000 being held. Amongst the Acts are those promoted by individual people or by particular parishes, local authorities or companies, for some specific purpose.

Local Acts[edit | edit source]

Local Acts involving compulsory purchase of land may relate to bridges, canals, docks, drainage, electricity and gas, inclosure, ferries, harbours, markets, piers, ports, quays, railways, roads, reservoirs, rivers, subways, trams, tunnels, turnpikes and waterworks, anywhere in the United Kingdom and Ireland. In 1794 both Houses required promoters of canal, navigation and water Bills, involving compulsory purchase, to submit detailed Plans together with Books of Reference indicating the owners and occupiers of the properties affected, and this was extended to docks and harbours in 1800, railways and tramways in 1802, town improvements, streets and paving in 1811, and to turnpike roads and bridges in 1814. The short railway from Ramsey to the nearby village of Holme, for instance, touched some 88 properties in five miles; all are listed together with their occupiers' views on the project.

Many proposed schemes were disputed by local residents and an important database of the witnesses who appeared before the Committees on opposed Private Bills covering the period 1771-1917 (and covering some five million pages of evidence) has been developed and may be searched at the Parliamentary Archives by name, place and occupation. This index is not available online. A witness might be an unemployed agricultural labourer worried about his rights of the common or a widow whose investment in a local turnpike would be undermined by a projected railway. The index is described in Witnesses Before Parliament (House of Lords Record Office Memorandum, No. 85, 1997) [not in FHL].

Personal Acts[edit | edit source]

Discussions about Personal Bills occupied much of the time of the House of Lords in the 18th century. A small proportion related to divorce, change of name and to naturalisation, but the majority concerned private estates.

Divorce. Some 317 divorces by Act of Parliament took place between 1670 and 1857. There were very few after 1857, the last being in 1923. References to them may be found in the indexes mentioned below.

Change of Name. Surnames may be changed by Act of Parliament, but the last occurrence was in 1907. As well as the indexes mentioned below, the majority of changes are indexed in W.P.W. Phillimore and E.A. Fry, An Index to Changes of Name, 1760-1901 (London, 1905) [FHL book 942 D4p].

Naturalisation. Before the 19th century, aliens who wished to acquire equal rights of citizenship to those born in England could promote a personal Act of Naturalisation. Many who did this were children of Englishmen born abroad. The genealogical information in the original Acts has been printed in the Publications of the Huguenot Society of London, 1509-1603 (vol. 8) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.8; film 824513.1], 1603-1700 (vol. 18) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h; film 824513.2 v.18] and 1701-1800 (vol. 27) [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.27; film 824514.1]. The index in volume 27 accidentally omitted 1,200 people listed on pages 209-40 as having been naturalised in Ireland and these are indexed in volume 35 which also contains some supplementary entries [FHL book 942.1L1 B4h v.27 & 35; film 824514.1]. Additional information in the form of petitions and Sacrament Certificates may occasionally be found. Those few persons naturalised by Act of Parliament since 1801 are indexed in the books mentioned below, the procedure becoming very rare after 1844. There was no instance later than 1911 until James Hugh Maxwell was naturalised by Private Act in 1975.

Estates. In the mid-18th century, perhaps half the land of England was entailed in a system of "strict settlement" by which the owners were really only life-tenants. By 1848, probably two-thirds of the land was held in this way. Such entails could be broken by Act and, in the 17th century, Parliament showed itself willing, when estates were in debt, to vest the property in trustees until the debts were paid. Very precise statements about the property and its tenants were required.

The first Estate Act was in 1512, but their numbers increased rapidly after 1660 and reached a climax in the reign of George II (1737-1760) when there were 1,672. Such Acts are found until the Settled Land Act of 1882 gave life tenants the power to sell their lands. They were obtained by many old land-owning families that had fallen on hard times but the properties of doctors, clergy, businessmen and impoverished widows may also be found. Their names appear in the indexes mentioned below, but there are no indexes by place.

Their value is described in 'Estate Acts of Parliament' in Short Guides to Records: First Series (Historical Association, 1994) [FHL book 942 A3t v.1; film 990062.7].

Indexes to Acts[edit | edit source]

Although the Parliamentary Archives has the original texts of all Acts of Parliament, the great majority have been printed. Some, such as the Personal and Estate Acts, have not.

Useful indexes are Index to Local and Personal Acts 1801-1947 (HMSO, 1949) [not in FHL] and Rosemary Devine's Index to the Local and Personal Acts 1850-1995 (HMSO, 4 vols. 1996) [not in FHL]. Acts from 1947 are listed year by year in Statutes at Large. George Bramwell's Analytical Table of Private Statutes 1727-1812 (1813) [not in FHL] covers a particularly useful period for the Estate Acts. The progress of any particular Bill can be followed (under its short title) in the Indexes to the Journals of the two Houses.

Parliamentary Papers[edit | edit source]

A great number of official papers were called for and presented to Parliament in the late 18th and 19th centuries, including the reports of many committees and royal commissions relating to such subjects as charities, churches, coal mines, education, factories, friendly societies, housing, land ownership, municipal corporations, the Poor Law, public libraries, railways, rivers and canals, roads, theatres and trade unions. Upwards of 9,000 of these "Blue Books" and "White Papers" have been printed and many of the most valuable have been reprinted by the Irish University Press in its series of British Parliamentary Papers and are available in the Family History Library [FHL at 942 N2bLe] and other major libraries.

In 1875, a twelve-year old girl, Sarah Chandler, of Spalding, was put in prison for fourteen days with four years in a reformatory, for picking a geranium in an almshouse garden. An investigation of the case was published as a White Paper.

In 1892-3 the Royal Commission on Labour interviewed hundreds of witnesses from many areas and occupations, and produced 49 volumes of evidence and reports.

These two examples, taken from W.R. Powell's Local History from Blue Books: a select list of the Sessional Papers of the House of Commons (Historical Association, 1962) [FHL book 942 H2a no.64; fiche 6024444], illustrate the wide variety of information that may be found.

Petitions[edit | edit source]

In earlier times, the House of Lords received a great number of petitions signed by small groups of people, ranging from half a dozen to 50 or 100 and occasionally to many more, in particular trades and localities, in connection with a vast range of grievances. References to them may be found through printed Calendars that cover most of the early papers of the House of Lords, 1497-1693, and were published by the Historical Manuscripts Commission in appendixes to its first nine Reports (1874-96) and continued in The Manuscripts of the House of Lords 1693-1718 (12 vols. 1900-1977) [FHL has 1678-1693 only, fiche 6021584-6021628]. See also H.S. Cobb, A Guide to the House of Lords Papers and Petitions (1959) [not in FHL].

Appeals, Impeachments and Trials[edit | edit source]

The House of Lords' judicial activity (as 'the Law Lords') grew considerably from 1621 onwards. In the twenty years 1832-52, for example, some 2,300 cases were heard. The records usually provide a full account of the previous trial and may be somewhat easier to consult. About a third of the appeals concern land and inheritances, others deal with the performance of trusts or with cases of debt or fraud. Those prior to 1714 are listed in the printed Calendars mentioned above.

In 1621 the House was persuaded to revive the ancient process of impeachment and, from that date to 1805, 60 cases were heard, some, like that relating to Warren Hastings, being voluminous in their proceedings.

Further files came from the former right of peers to be tried by their fellow peers, a right last exercised by Lord de Clifford in 1936, and since abolished.

Protestation Returns 1641/2[edit | edit source]

A resolution of the House of Commons on 30 July 1641 required all those in England and Wales, aged 18 or over, to subscribe to an oath to defend the Protestant religion, the king's person, honour and estate, the privileges of parliament and the liberties of the subject. Returns survive for about a third of English parishes and for the boroughs of Denbigh, Holt and Ruthin in Denbighshire. For these places virtually all the male inhabitants are recorded, and women also very occasionally appear. The names of those who refused to sign or evaded are also given. Full details of these returns, indicating those that have been printed, are provided in The Protestation Returns 1641-1642 and Other Contemporary Listings by Jeremy Gibson and Alan Dell (Federation of Family History Societies, 1995) [FHL book 942 K23g].

Roman Catholics[edit | edit source]

Other well-known returns in the Archives relate to Roman Catholic in the years 1680, 1705, 1706, 1767 and 1780. Not all contain names. They are described in some detail in the National Index of Parish Registers Volume 3: Sources for Roman Catholic and Jewish Genealogy and Family History (1974) pages 906-10 [FHL book 942 D27ste v.3]. The return for 1767 was edited by E.S. Worrall as Returns of Papists, 1767: Diocese of Chester (Catholic Record Society, Occasional Publication, vol. 1, 1980) and Dioceses of England and Wales Except Chester (vol. 2, 1989) [FHL books 942 K25ca v.1 & 2].

Parliamentary Archives[edit | edit source]

The search room is open to the public, preferably by prior appointment, Monday to Friday, from 9.30 am to 5 pm. It is closed for the last two weeks in November. Searchers should write to the Parliamentary Archives, Houses of Parliament, London SW1A 0PW. Telephone 020-7219-3074. Email Website There is a partial catalogue at

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Maurice F. Bond, Guide to the Records of Parliament (HMSO, 1971) [FHL book 942 A3bo].
Maurice F. Bond, The Records of Parliament: a Guide for Genealogists and Local Historians (Phillimore, 1964) [FHL book 942 A3bma].
A Short Guide to the Records of Parliament (1980) [not in FHL].

[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'The Parliamentary Archives: Sources for Genealogists' in Family Tree Magazine (UK), vol. 17, no. 9 (July 2001) pages 12-14].