Last week I visited The Parliamentary Archives at Westminster Palace. This visit was organised for The Society of Bookbinders (London & South Region) and about 16 of our members attended.
We had a tour of The Victoria Tower where the Archives are stored and learnt lots about it’s history, all whilst circling the open well at the Base of the iron staircase that runs up the Tower.
The entrance pictured is used by the Queen when she opens Parliament and armed forces are stationed within the Tower as security on such occasions.
The Victoria Tower was purpose built to house The Parliamentary Archives, in direct response to the devasting loss of records, in the fire that laid waste to Westminster in the 19th century.
The archives still hold an amazing collection and the library still holds stunning examples of books, records, documents and artefacts from both The House of Commons and The House of Lords. The House of Lords did not lose as many records, so they have a much older collection than the Commons. You can find stunning calligraphy, illumination, all on parchment.
The age old question that all bookbinders/conservators encounter, that of vellum v parchment, was raised by one of our members. Lara Artemis, the Collection Care Manager, explained that if in doubt, call it parchment. It is most commonly used for pages/leaves/textblocks; vellum, being thicker, is most commonly used for book covers/binding. Vellum is traditionally from calf, parchment from sheep.
It can be very difficult to differentiate, even for the experts, so a generic term of parchment may be used for both. The pictures below are fabulous examples of vellum bindings that the library holds.
The room that contains the most parchment, is truly the most awe inspiring!
We all squeezed into The Acts Room, the archive containing all the Royal Acts of Parliament.
Jaws dropped and there were squeals of delight.
The next images should help illustrate this, but only a visit of your own will give you the true experience of scale in this important archive. You stand within centuries of history, real history. If you close your eyes you can hear the scratching of ink, onto parchment, made by Monarchs of every age.
Each Act in each Regnal year, is clearly labelled, some private Acts are relatively small, others are 100s of metres long.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring trip. I urge you to visit this Archive and the many others here in London or in your local vicinity.
Every Borough holds an archive and most artefacts can be handled, a fantastic way to get close and personal with history; binding, books, documents, illuminations and extraordinary texts.