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Hansard during the second world war

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: History of Hansard, Reporting, Wartime, Workplace Culture

Hansard is a no-fail operation: come rain or shine, reports of debates in the Chamber and Committees are always published. In the second world war, that commitment was tested to the limit, with the Palace of Westminster damaged by air raids on 14 separate occasions.

House of Commons, view from West Division Lobby looking south, March 1942. Parliamentary archives, ARC/VAR/12/376.

Working conditions

On Thursday 7 November 1940, the Commons sat for the first time in Church House because of fears that the Chamber might be hit while the House was sitting. Sir Henry “Chips” Channon MP remembered:

The atmosphere was gay, almost like the Dorchester.

Churchill described Church House as “a port in a storm”, but working conditions were difficult for Hansard reporters. Their accommodation was cramped, and in the temporary Chamber they sat on a platform behind the Speaker, along with ministerial officials and parliamentary draftsmen. In the 7 November sitting, they heard Sir Henry Morris-Jones MP complain that the Official Report of the previous Tuesday’s sitting was not available until 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, which was “a matter of extreme inconvenience”.

Temporary Chambers in 1941-45 in Church House by unknown photographer, c. 1941. © Parliamentary Art Collection WOA 2529.

Getting the job done

London had endured 57 consecutive nights of bombing and a messenger had been killed in an air raid by the Italian airforce while taking copy to the printers at HMSO Pocock Street. Challenges mounted throughout the Blitz, with labour shortages, paper rationing, damage to machinery and the complete gutting of the Pocock Street press, but Hansard staff and print workers worked hard to make sure that MPs were not inconvenienced. Apart from the occasional delay, the Official Report was delivered to MPs in the London area early in the morning so they could read it at breakfast.

On 1 July 1942, the House sat for 15¾ hours to debate a motion expressing no confidence in the central direction of the war. All overnight proceedings were reported in Hansard, which was ready the next morning—something which The Daily Telegraph reported had been achieved “never before, even in peace time”. Meeting the deadline was not without difficulty: reporters had to write out the report in longhand after 11pm due to restrictions on typists’ hours, and a special van had to be arranged to take the copy to the printers. However, as Nye Bevan said in the debate in Church House on 7 November 1940:

We ought to put up with inconvenience if it is absolutely necessary, but only if it is absolutely necessary. The business of this House should be conducted as efficiently as possible if we, as Members, are to do our job properly.

List of reporters working in the Chamber, 10 December 1943. Private collection.

Part of the war effort

The importance of the Official Report to the war effort was recognised with an annual £60 bonus for reporters in 1944. Some members of staff signed up for military service—and at least three joined the parliamentary home guard—and there were questions on the Floor of the House about releasing “two of the most expert reporters from the Official Gallery” from RAF service so that they could return to reporting duties with Hansard.

In August 1943, the word “Hansard” was reinstated on the cover of the Official Report after a long absence. The rebranding chimed with the idea of Hansard being part of the war effort and the fight for democratic freedoms. During the war, sales trebled, with 8,300 copies printed daily by October 1944. The fact that parliamentary debates were freely accessible in print was a demonstration of those freedoms, as well as a signal that life was carrying on as normal—something championed by Commander Stephen King-Hall, who was elected MP for Ormskirk in 1939 and founded the Hansard Society in 1944. He paid tribute to Hansard as

the record of Parliament in action and therefore...the practical expression of the democratic ideals for which we are fighting.

To find out more about the House of Commons and the second world war, take a look at the Living Heritage pages of Parliament’s website, which include information on the damage caused to the Palace during air raids.

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