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Hansard is a report of both oral and written parliamentary proceedings. Parliamentary debates were first recorded in the seventeenth century when unofficial and often suppressed printings of debates in Parliament were published. Following a legal battle by John Wilkes, suppression was stopped in 1771 and in 1803 William Cobbett started printing records of debates. After he had became insolvent he sold the contract for the Debates to Thomas Curson Hansard, son of Luke Hansard, the British Government’s printer. The younger Hansard put his name on the report in 1829. The publication of Hansard was taken over by the House of Commons in 1909 and given the title ‘Official Report’. There were attempts to drop the name ‘Hansard’ in the early 20th century; these proved unsuccessful and the name was returned to the front cover of the proceedings in 1943.
Hansard is an edited record of what was said during Parliamentary sessions. It also includes votes, written ministerial statements and written answers to parliamentary questions. The report is published daily covering the preceding day and is followed by weekly and final versions. Members’ speeches are recorded by Hansard reporters and then edited to remove repetitions and mistakes. The report is then published the next day in printed and online formats. The Commons and Lords have separate reports.
Now Parliament’s Information Management Department is in the process of turning three million printed pages of Hansard into digitised text. The Department has sliced up original bound copies of Hansard (bought from Libraries) to obtain the pages for scanning. The prototype digitised historical Hansard is now available which contains reports which go back as far as 1803.
About fifty volumes need re-scanning and have not yet been loaded. Since it is a prototype, feedback is welcomed so that corrections can be made and suggestion for improvement considered. Robert Brook, a developer working on the project has said that the system aims to provide excellent metadata, with material linked by bill, MP, constituency and even monarch. If you have some time you will find that it is a fascinating resource to browse. Search for an historical event like Peterloo when in 1819 cavalry charged into a crowd of 60-80,000 who had gathered to protest about the lack of parliamentary representation and see how it is mentioned in debates throughout the two hundred years that the database covers. There are 120 hits for this including some which are as late as the 2000s which shows how potent the memory of an event can be. You will also find that MPs in the nineteenth century had the tendency to be rude to each other at times although perhaps they are not as insulting as the present day parliamentary body. Nineteenth century parliamentary speeches can be interminable especially when compared to those of today when politicians have less time to debate subjects at length. The historical Hansard will eventually prove to be an invaluable tool for the historian, political scientist and general reader.