House of Lords vellum row goes viral

By Jo Francis, Thursday 11 February 2016

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A House of Lords decision to scrap the centuries old tradition of recording Acts of Parliament on vellum has sparked an outcry, with the story going viral on social media with the #savevellum hashtag.

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Vellums in the Parliamentary Archive. Image: Parliamentary copyright

Historians, MPs and members of the general public have condemned the move, which emerged in a Telegraph story earlier this week.

The story went on to feature on the national news.

A House of Lords spokesman defended the decision: “Last year the House of Lords asked the Commons Administration Committee to revisit the issue. Earlier this year the Chairman of the Commons Administration Committee wrote to the Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords to say they considered it plainly a matter for the House of Lords and that it was unlikely time would be found to debate the issue in the House of Commons.

“We are therefore proceeding to replace vellum with archival paper. It is expected this will save at least £80,000 a year. Archival paper has a lifespan of several hundred years. Acts are now also preserved digitally. Currently the oldest paper records in the Lords date back to the early 16th century, and are only a few years younger than the oldest vellum record in the Archives which is an Act of Parliament from 1497,” he added.

However, the supposed savings have been challenged by England’s last remaining vellum manufacturer.

Paul Wright, general manager at Newport Pagnell-based William Cowley, said: “The vellum cost varies from year-to-year depending on the number of Acts passed. The average over 15 years is £46,000. When you think about the MP expenses scandal, they can claim a duck house costing £40,000 but we can’t preserve our history for a similar amount. So many people are unhappy about this, we are hoping the Lords will backtrack on it.”

Such is the interest in the story, it has caused the six-strong firm’s website to crash, and Wright has had calls from all over the world about it. It has spawned the Twitter hashtag #savevellum.

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Cowley has been making vellum and parchment since 1850.

Wright also questioned the likely longevity of the replacement archival paper. “You won’t find anyone who will give you any guarantees over 250 years, because they don’t know how our atmosphere might change and how this will affect the paper. Yet we know of excellent parchment and vellum that is more than 5,000 years old. No other medium can offer that. Had early civilisations not used it then our understanding of way back in time on the planet would be next to nothing,” he stated.

Print historian Caroline Archer, professor of typography at the Centre for Printing History & Culture at Birmingham City University, said: “This is a huge pity for all sorts of reasons. It’s already worrying that history is being lost in this digital age. This seems like a short-sighted decision.

“It won’t be a problem for us, it will be future generations who don’t have that privilege to smell and touch the records of the past,” she added.

Ironically William Cowley supplies vellum to other governments around the world who aspire to having records as long-lasting as those in Britain.

The House of Lords contract, while prestigious, is a relatively small part of the firm’s business. It also supplies vellum and parchment to bookbinders, calligraphers, furniture makers and musical instrument manufacturers.

Vellum is made from calf or goat skin, whereas parchment is made from sheep skin and involves splitting the skin, because sheep skin contains a fatty layer.

The printing of Acts on vellum is carried out annually by The Stationery Office. The House of Lords contract with TSO ends at the end of March when printing on vellum is expected to stop.

The House of Lords was unable to say what make of archival paper it proposes to use in future.

 

 

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