Hansard can be traced back to the early years of 19th century London. The story follows a complex and tortuous series of events of a financial, political and even criminal nature.
Secret diplomacy is familiar in foreign affairs, but it is not so well known that secret discussion of home affairs was jealously maintained by the House of Commons for many centuries of its history. The record of things done was available in the printed Votes and Proceedings of the House and in the Journal, but the publication of things said was punishable as a breach of the privileges of the House.
The first breaches in that tradition of secrecy were made in the 17th century, when propaganda for the parliamentary cause in the civil war led the House to ignore occasional unofficial printing of speeches in Parliament. By the middle of the 18th century there was increasing demand for reports of parliamentary debates and thinly disguised accounts of what Sir R-b-t W-lp-l said were being printed in the new monthly magazines.
Editors and printers were summoned and fined, but the reports continued as debates of fictitious political clubs, such as the Proceedings of the Lower Room of the Robin Hood Society. One of the most famous was the Report of the Senate of Lilliputia, which appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine, edited for some years by Samuel Johnson.
Direct suppression ceased after 1771, following a legal battle in which the famous John Wilkes played a part, campaigning for freedom of speech.
The real advance to a more impartial account occurred during the Napoleonic wars, when William Cobbett followed his History of Parliament 1066 to 1802 with the printing of parliamentary debates as a supplement to his Political Register, which had a large circulation for that time of 6,000 copies at one shilling weekly. Debates was the first structured attempt to record the proceedings of the British Parliament.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Luke Hansard was the British Government's printer. He had three sons, one of whom was Thomas Curson Hansard, known as TC, who left the family printing business in 1803 to set up on his own account in Peterborough Court off Fleet Street. In 1809, Cobbett gave TC the contract to print Debates. It was to TC that Cobbett also turned in that year to produce a pamphlet condemning an incident in which British soldiers had been flogged for mutiny, having been rounded up and guarded by German mercenaries.
Picture of Luke Hansard
The Army was furious, and the Government had had enough of Cobbett and the inflammatory trouble-making that was his hallmark. He had put a great deal of effort into being a thorn in the side of the Establishment. As a result, he, TC and two others were charged with seditious libel and put on trial in Westminster Hall in 1810.
Like many before them who had been tried in those historic surroundings, including William Wallace, Guy Fawkes and Charles I, all three were found guilty. Cobbett was given two years in the infamous Newgate prison, and TC was sent to the King's Bench prison for three months. In his autobiography, Luke spoke of the "heart-rending disgrace" of his son's imprisonment.
Cobbett's financial affairs were in an appalling state and he had outstanding printing debts to TC, so to raise money he sold his interest in Debates to TC in 1812. Under Thomas's proprietorship, the business flourished. The publication was initially based on reprints of reports of speeches culled from the press, but checked with the Member. Subsequently, however, it became the original work of Hansard's own reporters. The product went on to command respect as the most authentic and accurate account of parliamentary proceedings.
In 1829, TC decided that the title page should bear his name. That name was to become one of Britain's lesser known but enduring exports. In Canada and Australia Hansard became the recognised title of parliamentary reports as Parliaments in those countries followed the Westminster model, adapting it to their own needs and circumstances.
In 1889, TC's son, also Thomas Curson, sold the copyright of the publication to the Hansard Publishing Union, which was under the control of the infamous Horatio Bottomley, one of the 19th century's most accomplished con men. The company failed and matters moved from bad to worse as the House appointed a succession of contractors who attempted in vain to produce a reliable report. By now, as was pointed out by one Member, the Parliaments of France, Germany, the United States and many of the Colonies had their own official reports of proceedings, having dispensed in some cases with private contractors.
One example was the Parliament of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia. From the establishment of the Parliament in 1856 until 1865, the Melbourne Argus newspaper has provided a record of parliamentary debates under the title Victorian Hansard. In that year, however, it was proposed that the Parliament employ its own staff, and the new arrangement took effect from 12 February 1866 under the bland title Parliamentary Debates. Old habits die hard, and here was no exception. The newly formed department of the Parliament and the publication continued to be known as Hansard, which remains the case today.
Luke Hansard's autobiography, written in December 1817, and inscribed "To His beloved Son James by His affectionate Father"
In 1907, history seemed to repeat itself. The House of Commons at Westminster established a Select Committee to examine the arrangements for reporting its proceedings and to make recommendations. In the course of taking evidence from a wide range of witnesses - Members of Parliament, newspaper journalists and printers - the Committee heard from a Mr Arthur H. Lee, who sat for Fareham in Hampshire and who had been for some years a military attaché in Washington and Ottawa. He was impressed by the Ottawa report:
"which curiously enough they call Hansard, although there has never been any Hansard in Canada (it shows a sort of sentimental preservation of British institutions)."
In comparing the Congressional Record and the Ottawa Hansard, he said:
"I will commence with the Canadian system because I believe that it is the best in existence; it is greatly superior to the American system, and I believe it is the best in the world. It has often been suggested that the duties there are less, that the hours, and so forth, are easier for the reporters. That is certainly not the case in Canada. The House of Commons at Ottawa meets at 11 a.m., and almost invariably sits till midnight."
In making its recommendations to the House of Commons, the Committee issued a reminder that a predecessor Committee, which had conducted an inquiry in 1893, had recommended the creation of a report with terms of reference which stated that it should be a full report, in the first person, of all speakers alike, a full report being defined as one
"which, though not strictly verbatim, is substantially the verbatim report, with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes corrected, but which on the other hand leaves out nothing that adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument."
The Committee pointed out that the recommendation was never implemented, but it went on to say that it should now be so. The Official Report was thus born, but the name Hansard was dropped. In popular usage, however, the old name continued to be used. Eventually, the name was reinstated in 1943. Today it appears on the front cover of Westminster's Official Report, a reminder of the origins of a series of publications around the Commonwealth whose name has become woven into the very fabric of Parliaments.