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When we think of Hansard, we might think of the BBC Par­lia­ment Chan­nel where fiery ex­changes in Prime Min­is­ter’s Ques­tions and oc­ca­sions like the State Open­ing of Par­lia­ment are broad­cast live for us all to see. But this is a rel­a­tively new way of record keep­ing, only in­tro­duced in the 1980s be­cause prior to that, MPs and peers were wor­ried it would triv­i­alise pro­ceed­ings. In fact, Hansard refers to the writ­ten record of par­lia­ment, a his­toric ver­sion of which is avail­able on­line and is fully search­able for free at http:// hansard.mill­banksys­tems.com/.

De­scrip­tions of de­bates were first of­fi­cially pub­lished by jour­nal­ist (and later, MP) Wil­liam Cob­bett in 1802, and were then sold on to Thomas Cur­son Hansard (1776-1833), a printer for the gov­ern­ment, from which the name for the of­fi­cial record de­rives. Be­fore this time, un­of­fi­cial re­ports of de­bates in par­lia­ment would ap­pear in news­pa­pers, but only the ac­tions of par­lia­ment could be recorded be­fore the 18th cen­tury: record­ing de­tailed de­bates of ei­ther House of Par­lia­ment was il­le­gal. Thinly veiled ac­counts would there­fore ap­pear in news­pa­pers us­ing ti­tles such as the ‘Pro­ceed­ings of the Lower Room of the Robin Hood So­ci­ety’.

Hansard there­fore only

Do note that ti­tled par­lia­men­tar­i­ans may be in­dexed by their sur­name and not by their ti­tle

cov­ers the 19th and 20th cen­turies, with more re­cent records cov­ered on a sep­a­rate, reg­u­larly up­dated, Hansard web­site ( https:// hansard. par­lia­ment.uk).


The most ob­vi­ous way that Hansard can be used is to trace the par­lia­men­tary ca­reer of an MP or peer. By se­lect­ing the ‘peo­ple’ link from the home­page, you will be taken to an al­pha­bet­i­cal list of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. It’s use­ful to note that in­stead of scrolling down the en­tire page you can use the search fa­cil­ity of your browser or com­puter (the short­cut is cmd+f on a Mac) to find the rel­e­vant per­son. Also, do note that ti­tled par­lia­men­tar­i­ans may be in­dexed by their sur­name and not by their ti­tle so, for ex­am­ple, you will find the Vic­to­rian Prime Min­is­ter, Vis­count Mel­bourne, un­der ‘Lamb, Wil­liam (Mr)’.

Once you’ve found the MP or peer you are look­ing for, their per­sonal page will dis­play the con­stituency they rep­re­sented (if ap­pli­ca­ble), and for how many years they were elected, as well as any ti­tles and po­si­tions they held.

Cru­cially, the records will also tell you how many ‘con­tri­bu­tions’ they made in to­tal, and when they were first and last recorded as speak­ing in ei­ther house. You can also scroll through their con­tri­bu­tions year by year, and see which de­bates and com­mit­tees they spoke at. You can also search not just the en­tirety of Hansard by any search term but also just by the con­tri­bu­tions made by one par­lia­men­tar­ian, which is very handy if you are in­ter­ested in their views on a par­tic­u­lar topic, as scrolling through the en­tire record may re­turn many ir­rel­e­vant re­sults.


Hansard can be used not just for re­search­ing politi­cians in your fam­ily tree, but also for track­ing down or­di­nary mem­bers of the pub­lic – ‘strangers’ – who hap­pened to be men­tioned in de­bates, or who ap­peared as wit­nesses at com­mit­tees. Tak­ing the suf­fragette and women’s rights cam­paigner Sylvia Pankhurst as an ex­am­ple, we can see that a gen­eral search for ‘Pankhurst’ gives 275 re­sults. It may be worth omit­ting your ances­tor’s first name, par­tic­u­larly if they had an un­usual sur­name, as your ances­tor may have sim­ply been re­ferred to as Mr or Mrs X. This is the case with Sylvia, who is named as Mrs Pankhurst in many of the de­bates.

You can nar­row the search down by cen­tury and then fil­ter by decade – and you can also limit your search to all men­tions by one par­tic­u­lar par­lia­men­tar­ian. There­fore, we can see that the Labour Party founder Keir Hardie men­tioned Sylvia Pankhurst 25 times and Regi­nald McKenna, the Lib­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter, 26 times.

You no longer have to wade through hard copies of the de­bates to find what you want

Hansard is a valu­able source of in­for­ma­tion about in­di­vid­u­als (whether peers or ‘com­mon­ers’) and their pol­i­tics

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