Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates

In 1771, the ban upon publishing accounts of British parliamentary debates was effectively lifted. Beginning in 1774, limited accounts of Parliament’s proceedings began to be published and made available to the public in an officially sanctioned format for the first time. These publications increased the freedom of the British press and helped to institute new standards for an informed British electorate.

Summary of Event

Until and throughout most of the eighteenth century, the proceedings of the Parliament of Great Britain were conducted largely in secret. The official actions of Parliament were reported in the press, but publishing the remarks of individual members of either the House of Commons or the House of Lords was a breach of parliamentary privilege. Reporters and observers could attend the debates in a visitor’s gallery, but each house prohibited the transcription and dissemination of speeches or debates. [kw]Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates (1774)
[kw]Debates, Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary (1774)
[kw]Parliamentary Debates, Hansard Begins Reporting (1774)
[kw]Reporting Parliamentary Debates, Hansard Begins (1774)
[kw]Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates, Hansard (1774)
Parliamentary reporting
[g]England;1774: Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates[2060]
[c]Communications;1774: Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates[2060]
[c]Government and politics;1774: Hansard Begins Reporting Parliamentary Debates[2060]
Hansard, Luke
Hansard, Thomas Curzon
Almon, John
Cobbett, William
Wilkes, John

Those restrictions were frequently challenged by the press, as well as by members of Parliament themselves. Unofficial accounts of the proceedings were made in publications such as Gentleman’s Magazine
Gentleman’s Magazine[Gentlemans Magazine] and London Magazine, London Magazine which published accounts of parliamentary debates, thinly disguised as stories about fictitious clubs or societies.

In April of 1763, a legal battle erupted over newspapers’ Newspapers;England publication of reports of debates in the House of Commons. John Wilkes, a newspaper publisher and former member of the Commons who had been expelled, was convicted of libel for criticizing the government in his newspaper, the North Briton. North Briton (newspaper) Wilkes believed in the principle of freedom of the press, Freedom of the press;England and he thought this principle extended to reporting the comments of members of Parliament. Although imprisoned for acting on this belief, Wilkes was elected an alderman of London in 1769, while still in prison, and became the city’s sheriff in 1771. As sheriff, he effectively prevented the House of Commons from enforcing its decrees of breach of privilege against printers within the city, which was home to the majority of the printers in England.

Luke Hansard published the first official report of parliamentary debates in 1774. Hansard had learned the printing trade in Norwich, publishing books as well as political circulars. He left for London and joined the firm of John Hughes, then printer to the House of Commons. Hansard soon took over the business. The printer to the Commons was appointed by the speaker of the Commons and was responsible for printing parliamentary papers, including bills under consideration, statistical information, and the official reports of committees and commissions. Parliament demanded that items be transcribed, printed, and delivered quickly and efficiently, and the volume of reports grew steadily. Hansard established a reputation for being reliable, precise, and prompt. Hansard published the Journals of the House of Commons (1774-1828). These journals however, did not report actual debates but served as an official record of proceedings.

Hansard had competition. John Almon and, later, his partner John Debrett published the Parliamentary Register (1774-1780), an account that included not only official actions and motions but also speeches of members. At least some of the text was supplied by members of Parliament themselves.


It was not until 1803 that the radical reformer William Cobbett (who used the pseudonym Peter Porcupine in North America) attempted to reproduce a complete and accurate record of the speeches and debates of Parliament. Cobbett edited the Political Register, a weekly periodical of news and political commentary. As a supplement, Cobbett gathered information on the speeches within Parliament gleaned from newspapers and other sources. Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates tried to create a nonpartisan account of the discussions within Parliament. The venture proved successful, and he brought on others, including the printer Thomas Curzon Hansard, son of Luke.

Cobbett’s political views, however, got him into trouble. In 1810, he was tried for sedition and libel for a pamphlet that criticized the British government over an incident in which British soldiers were flogged for mutiny by German mercenaries. Cobbett was fined and imprisoned for two years; T. C. Hansard and others received shorter terms. Eventually, Cobbett sold his interest in the publishing enterprise to Hansard. In 1813, Hansard’s name joined Cobbett’s on the title page.

By 1829, the record of parliamentary proceedings became Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. Initially, Hansard reprinted newspaper accounts of speeches (usually confirmed with the members who had given them). Eventually, Hansard had its own group of reporters in the galleries of each House to record accurately the authentic statements of members. The publication remained in the family until 1889. The family firm headed by Luke and his sons, Thomas Curzon and Luke Graves Hansard, became renowned for accuracy and neutrality in publishing official reports and accounts of debates within both houses of Parliament.

The name Hansard has since become synonymous with written coverage of parliamentary debates. Although the term was dropped from the publication’s cover page when the Stationery Office of the British House of Commons took over printing the Parliamentary Debates in 1909, the title was reinstated in 1943 as Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates. It was not until 1909, however, that the Parliamentary Debates became a (nearly) verbatim report of the speeches of Parliament. “Hansard” is also the term used for written proceedings in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

The release of official, authoritative reports of legislative debates has become an assumed feature of democratic governance. The secrecy of Parliament’s proceedings originated in members’ desire to protect themselves and their institution from the monarchy. As the power of the king declined and the power of Parliament grew, public opinion demanded more accountability. Publication of Parliament’s proceedings became necessary if electors were to make informed decisions about which politicians, parties, and policies they preferred. The decades from the 1770’s to the 1800’s, during which these publications developed, became critical for the growth of meaningful representative government.

Further Reading

  • Ford, Percy, and Grace Ford, eds. Luke Graves Hansard, His Diary, 1814-1841: A Case Study in the Reform of Patronage. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1962. Diary of the son of Luke and brother of Thomas Curzon, who took over the printing firm.
  • Hansard, John Henry. The Hansards: Printers and Publishers. Shannon, County Clare, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1970. A concise summary of the history of the Hansard family of publishers.
  • Law, William. Our Hansard: Or, The True Mirror of Parliament. London: Pitman, 1950. A brief history of the Hansard and its reporters.
  • Myers, Robin, ed. The Auto-biography of Luke Hansard: Printer to the House, 1752-1828. London: Printing Historical Society, 1991. Primary source material from the man who established the family business and tradition as a reliable publisher of reports for the British parliament.
  • Rogers, Deborah D. Bookseller as Rogue: John Almon and the Politics of Eighteenth Century Publishing. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. This biography of the writer and editor of the Political Register discusses contemporary politics and printing and the freedom of the press.
  • Thomas, Peter D. G. John Wilkes: A Friend of Liberty. New York: Clarendon, 1996. A biography of the radical politician and journalist who fought for the right of the press to criticize the government and report the deliberations of Parliament.
  • Trewin, J. C., and E. M. King. Printer to the House: The Story of Hansard. London: Methuen, 1952. Authoritative history of the Hansard family of publishers. This volume relies on the diaries and letters of the principal family members.

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