Different types of archival paper were in the news in the build up to the Queen’s speech and the State Opening of Parliament (see my previous blog). The Queen’s speech is written on goatskin paper whilst all Acts of Parliament (excluding private bills) are recorded on vellum.
I went to see an awful lot of vellum whilst having a look around Parliament’s archives in the Palace of Westminster last month. The archives are held securely in the Victoria Tower (the tower at the other end of the Palace to Big Ben). It’s an impressive tower, standing at 98.5 m and home to over 3 million documents, many of historical and national importance.
Interestingly, the Tower marks the sovereign’s official entrance to the Palace of Westminster. There’s a hole in the centre of the first floor just for this purpose, it allows a soldier to watch for the moment the Queen enters the Palace grounds, then they can walkie-talkie up to another soldier near the Tower’s flag post, ensuring the Royal Standard is hoisted at just the right time to signal that her majesty is in residence.
The great fire of 1834 resulted in many of the archival records of Parliament being lost. After the fire, the Palace of Westminster had to be rebuilt and there was a competition in 1835 to design a new Palace. The architects who won the contract were Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. As part of the new Palace, they were responsible for designing a new, fire safe archive… And they produced the magnificent Victoria Tower.
The Victoria Tower was designed to be a safe archive for any documents related to Parliament, and a host of others which the archive has been gifted over its long history. From the private letters of David George-Lloyd to Charles I’s death warrant, from accounts of the suffragettes to all the private bills granting divorces when such procedures went through Parliament… the Victoria Tower preserves a whole range of history.
The archive tour took us to the Original Act room. Roll upon roll of vellum, categorised and stacked to the ceiling: an extraordinary site. The rolls vary from 2 cm diameter through to the largest which was over 30 cm (I’d guess). Disappointingly the fattest rolls are generally tax related. The largest roll is allegedly over a quarter of a mile long when unrolled! They are all perfectly catalogued, so you can quickly read off, for example, that a particular scroll is the 134th Act of the 49th year in the reign of George III (in case of interest, this specific one is a fairly small scroll, so probably not something tax related!).
We saw Henry IIIV’s signature on an Act about the wool trade, and Elizabeth I’s beautifully ornate signature – I’m impressed she had the time to inscribe that every time they needed her signature. There was even an Act banning witchcraft which we were shown.
The Acts haven’t been kept here continuously since the Tower was built, during the air raids of WWII, the Acts were sent away from Westminster to ensure their preservation. Today the Acts are all stored to international archival standards (as you would expect), at the correct humidity, temperature and pressure conditions. However, given the pressing need for renovation at the Palace of Westminster and the impracticalities of such an old building for archiving, there’s talk that all these Acts may move in the next decade or so to a new location, but this is still to be decided. After all, they are a beautiful national treasure and we should do all we can to ensure their longevity for generations to come.