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).
TRACKING DOWN AN MP OR PEER
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