Parliamentary Archives: Inside The Victoria Tower
Less famous than its sister tower that houses Big Ben, The Victoria Tower still cuts an iconic shape across Westminster.
Today it houses the Parliamentary Archives – millions of records with historical, constitutional and political significance. Join me on a tour inside…
In total it’s 14 floors high, 12 of which are used by the archive department, and – incredibly – it contains around 6 miles of shelving.
But first we have to get up there…
Once we’d got our breath back we could appreciate our surroundings in the heart of Westminster.
Given the stained glass windows, it was tricky to photograph, but hopefully these give you a sense of location.
It’s here that we first got a chance to see some of the priceless collection of documents.
Today Parliament have records dating back to 1497, apparently at that time a clerk decided to keep some records for himself, starting a tradition of records being held on site. Everything earlier is kept at the National archives in Kew.
Disaster struck in 1834 when a huge fire engulfed the old Palace of Westminster. Thankfully however, most of the collection of the House of Lords as well as other very precious items, were saved by quick-thinking staff who threw them out of windows in waiting boats on the Thames.
As you can imagine, this being our nation’s seat of democracy, the archives contain politically charged items.
Below is a banner unfurled by two suffragettes in the House of Commons. Muriel Matters and Helen Fox later chained themselves to the grill of the Ladies’ Gallery and the authorities had to remove the grill before attempting to file down the locks. Even today you can’t bring padlocks into Parliament for that reason!
Dating from 1793 the next document was a more sobering one. A certificate of slaves taken on board the ‘Express’.
It details the number of slaves taken on the journey from Africa to St Vincent after leaving London ports between 23 February and 4 October 1793. It also details the number of deaths in cold, clinical charts as if it were any other cargo.
Though painful to look at, these documents were a vital tool in the abolition movement and were used as evidence to bolster the eventual end to the slave trade.
We also saw evidence from another prisoner, Archbishop Laud, who was held in the Tower of London in 1641.
It’s clear that Laud – aged 66 – was shocked at the lack of Tower prison facilities, because he petitions the House of Lords to grant him “a buttler and cooke, without which he knows now howe to live”. It’s unknown whether Laud got his wish, but we do know that he was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1645.
We then headed to the highlight of out tour, but the route we took gave us an unexpected treat…
Don’t Look Down!
At the base of Barry’s spiral staircase is a ‘well’ which looks down onto the Sovereign’s Entrance; the entrance used by HM Queen when she arrives for the State Opening of Parliament.
Here’s what it looks like when she arrives;
Image Copyright: Parliamentary Archives
And, because you should always look up, here’s the view above us!
But the real highlight of the tour was…
Original Acts Room
Held on these rows of shelving are 64,000 Acts of Parliament dating back to 1497.
Each scroll a hand written in ink on vellum and they are categorised in a brilliantly simple way.
The paper labels indicate, for example, 21 10.G3 and this means it was the 21st Act made during the 10th year of George III’s reign.
It can get complicated though. Say, when we decided to be a republic in the late 17th century…
Charles I was executed in 1649, labelled as the 17th and 18th year of his reign on the shelves;
Right next to these though, we have laws passed under Charles II. He decided that any laws passed during the 11 years Oliver Cromwell was in charge were null and void, burning them all.
We therefore have laws marked as 12.C2 (12th year of Charles II’s reign) when technically it should be 1.C2 (1st year of Charles II’s reign).
Geeky archival practices aside, let’s look at the really juicy stuff. These scrolls contain the hand written words that changed the course of our country.
Above is an Act under Henry VIII, sentencing his once advisor Thomas Cromwell to death. And it’s even signed by the King himself;
Another signature that – I’m not ashamed to say – made me a bit giddy was his daughter; Queen Elizabeth I;
We were also shown Modern Acts of Parliament, printed on booklets which were no less impressive.
Today they don’t use vellum (animal skin) and have a cover in parchment with the rest printed in archival paper.
And one last thing. We couldn’t leave without seeing the largest Act of them all. When unfurled it’s 1/4 mile long, as long as the House of Parliament!
Its topic? The 1821 Land Tax Act. It’s so long because it lists over 65,000 individual commissioners’ names and they were responsible for administering the tax collection in each county of England, Scotland and Wales.
Visit the Archives
If this has piqued your interest, you’ll be delighted to hear that anyone can visit the Parlimentary archives for research anytime. You just need to make an appointment in advance. More information can be found here.
Tours aren’t run regularly but for more information you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
More London Inspiration
Hundreds of London buildings are available to snoop around on 4-5 September 2021 (for free!) Here are my recommendations...