Challenging Reference Question: Searching Hansards and British Parliamentary Papers

Here was a challenging reference question I received at the Young Research Library reference desk that was ultimately solved by a couple of my colleagues.

A patron was looking for a transcript of a debate that took place in the British Parliament in 1937 about, as the patron asked, whether any black representatives would be able to (allowed to?) attend the coronation of King George VI in 1937. She was trying to find out who raised the debate in the House of Commons and what the debate was about. The patron mentioned that she was looking for a resource known as a Hansard, which was new to me, but after a quick Google search I discovered that Hansards are the official name of the print versions of British parliamentary transcripts.

As a side note: King George VI was the member of the royal family who became King after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in late 1936. This was the event that was portrayed in the 2010 film The King’s Speech.

British parliamentary papers and British government documents are a little outside of my area of expertise, but I started off by searching the following materials from our reference collection:

1. Ford, P. and G. Ford. A breviate of of parliamentary papers. Volume II 1917-1939. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, [1951].
2. A bibliography of parliamentary debates of Great Britain. London: H.M. Stationery Off., 1956.

These resources were a starting point, but ultimately they didn’t help us figure out who raised the issue in the House of Commons or what exactly the debate was about. Later that evening two of my colleagues discovered an amazing website that provides full text access to Hansard transcripts online from 1803-2005! The resource, Hansard Millbank Systems, allows you to search transcripts of parliamentary debates by decade and by the House of Lords sessions, House of Commons sessions, or by Westminster Hall sessions. According to the website, this data was “provided by the Hansard Digitisation Project, led by the Directorate of Information Services of the House of Commons and the Library of the House of Lords.” The site, as I found out later, is also linked through our library’s Research Guides for Government Information and British Parliamentary Papers.

My colleagues played around with search terms for a while, since 1930s British parliamentarians would not have used terms like “African Americans.” But using the terms “African” and “Coronation,” my colleagues found that on January 27, 1937, Lieutenant-Commander Reginald Fletcher of the British House of Commons asked Mr. William Ormsby-Gore, Secretary of State for the Colonies:

“what decision has been reached with regard to enabling any African chiefs to attend the Coronation ceremonies; and what is the reason for the decision taken?”

Mr. William Ormsby-Gore replied:

“This question is at the present time under consideration, and I am not in a position to make any statement at the moment. I should add that several Africans will in any case be attending the Coronation as official representatives of the Colonies in which they reside.”

So it turned out the Fletcher and Ormsby-Gore were debating whether African representatives from Great Britain’s African colonies would be attending the coronation in London. Debate over this issue, according to the search results online, continued for several months, up until King George’s coronation in May 1937.

The Hansards Millbank Systems website is available free to the public and is a great resource for anyone who needs access to a true wealth of primary British government resources.

UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library, LibGuide for British Parliamentary Papers: http://guides.library.ucla.edu/bpp
Hansard Parliamentary Debates, Millbank Systems: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/
Image from Wikipedia

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