1. Early years

The Library of the House of Lords came into existence in 1826, following a select committee’s recommendation that the Clerk Assistant of the House should provide “such a collection of English law books as, in his experience, he may consider useful to the House for reference”, together with “certain other books according to a list prepared for that purpose by this Committee”. One of the clerks of the House, John Frederick Leary, was appointed as the first Librarian, and the architect Sir John Soane prepared a room in the Palace of Westminster to house the new Library, which was ready by the end of 1826. Books owned by the offices of the House were placed in the Library, together with the new books that were bought to meet the select committee’s recommendation. Once the Library had opened, Leary made a list of the modest amount of stock, the vast majority of which consisted of law books, together with volumes of Hansard and various reference works. Leary was not allowed to buy any additional new stock until 1828, although the previous year the third Earl of Rosslyn became the first member of the House to donate books to the Library, a set of House of Lords cases from the early 18th century.

Over the next few years the Library grew steadily, although the focus remained firmly on the collection of legal and parliamentary material. By 1831 the original Library room had become so overcrowded with material that a second room was added to create more space, though within another three years this room too was becoming very full. Early in 1834, as space was once again becoming a serious problem, the French Chamber of Peers offered the Library around 1,800 books including parliamentary works, memoirs and histories, in exchange for publications of the British Parliament. The offer of this gift caused consternation, as the Library simply did not have room for it, and Sir Robert Smirke was duly ordered to fit up an additional room as a receptacle for Library stock, while Leary succeeded in delaying the arrival of the French gift. Then, in October 1834, a fire destroyed most of the old Palace of Westminster. The Library survived the conflagration, but its threatened books were nevertheless evacuated, passed along a file of soldiers, and taken to the safety of nearby St Margaret’s Church and the houses of clerks who lived close by. The Library continued to occupy its old premises in the wake of the fire, although they were now a temporary home until the new Palace had been constructed. Space also had to be found for the French gift, which finally arrived in 1836. Seemingly overwhelmed by the arrival of so many new books, Leary managed to get his brother James appointed as Assistant Librarian, in order to give him a helping hand.

Figure 1. Temporary House of Lords Library, 1845

Image of the temporary Library in 1845
(Illustrated London News. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives.)

2. The new Library

More than a decade would pass before the Library moved into its new home, during which time the Robing Room of the Lords Spiritual was turned into an additional Library room. The purchase of books declined, not helped by an 1842 resolution of the House that forbade the Librarian from buying any new material without the written order of three members of the Library Committee. In the meantime, the construction of Charles Barry’s new Palace of Westminster had begun, and in 1845 Barry set out his plans for the new Lords Library. They were accepted immediately, and the riverside suite of four rooms that is still in use today, with elaborate interiors designed by Augustus Pugin, was completed by 1848. The books were moved in during the autumn of that year, and shortly afterwards the Library’s stock was swollen by the addition of books from the old Irish House of Lords, including books on Irish history. In 1851, it was decided that the original death warrant of Charles I should be deposited in the Library, in order to give it greater protection, and it would remain there until the late 1970s.

A major addition to the collection occurred in 1856, when the widow of a former Lord Chancellor, Lord Truro, bequeathed the Library her husband’s huge collection of 2,896 law books, together with a bust of him sculpted by Henry Weekes. The collection was kept together, as Lady Truro had requested, and both the books and the bust were placed in the northernmost room of the Library suite, which is now known as the Truro Room. The bust remains there today, but in the late 1970s the collection was moved out and most of it was placed in cupboards on the first floor of the Palace, in what came to be called the Truro Corridor. Another former Lord Chancellor, Lord Brougham, also took a great interest around this time in enriching the Library’s law collection, and another of the rooms in the main suite, which contains the bulk of the Library’s law stock, is now named after him.

Leary died in 1861, and was succeeded as Librarian by James Pulman, who would occupy the office until 1897. Pulman’s long tenure was a fairly quiet one for the Library, as he was reluctant to acquire any works that were not law books or parliamentary papers. One of his Assistant Librarians, W J Thoms, did show more initiative, and during the 1860s collected a number of valuable historical works. Thoms was a lover of books and founded Notes and Queries, but his attempts to broaden the scope of the Library’s collection were discouraged after a few years. Pulman seems to have been so uninterested in expanding the collection beyond the legal and parliamentary that in 1875 he had to be ordered to resume the purchasing of important historical works.

One notable event in the late 19th century was the introduction of electricity to the Library, in about 1893. This replaced gas lighting, which had been installed in the Library at Charles Barry’s insistence when it was first constructed. Unfortunately, the use of gas had led to severe damage being done to books bound in leather, and it would not be until the 1980s that the damage was fully repaired. In 1897, the Library made its first major acquisition for many years with the purchase of about two thousand tracts on Irish affairs that had once belonged to Sir Robert Peel, the former prime minister. These ‘Peel Tracts’ remain in the Library to the present day, and are a highly valuable source for Irish history in the years leading up to the Union with Great Britain in 1801.

Pulman’s retirement in 1897 saw Sandford Arthur Strong take over as Librarian. An art historian and professor of Arabic, Strong was a livelier personality than his predecessor and compiled a new catalogue of the Library’s law books. He also oversaw the 1899 bequest to the Library by Sir William Fraser of a large and valuable collection of Gillray political cartoons, which again have remained in the Library ever since. However, Strong’s time as Librarian was sadly cut short in 1904, when he died at the age of just 40 after a period of illness.

3. Gosse, Clay and the world wars

Strong’s successor was Edmund Gosse, the well-known literary critic, author and bibliophile, and during his decade in charge the Library stock underwent something of a transformation. Gosse thoroughly enjoyed his time as Librarian, as the post gave him the perfect means to pursue his own interests. He purchased books covering a much wider range of subject matter than any of his predecessors, acquiring many works of English and French literature and history. He also bought Greek and Latin works, and had the Library’s collection of English Civil War-era pamphlets lavishly bound together. Most importantly, he compiled the first proper printed catalogue of the Library’s non-legal works, which was published in 1908.

Gosse retired in 1914, and it was his successor Arthur Hugh Montagu Butler who took the Library through the years of the First World War, when he had to manage without his Assistant Librarian, Charles Travis Clay, who was away fighting on the western front. After the war, Butler and Clay began the process of creating a new card catalogue for the law books, intended to replace Sandford Strong’s earlier catalogue. This project had not advanced far when Butler was forced to resign on health grounds in 1922; Clay succeeded him as Librarian, and would remain in post all the way up to 1956.

Clay was a keen historian, well respected for his work in editing medieval charters, and he was eventually elected a Fellow of the British Academy. He quickly established a new Library Committee, which provided a forum for him to discuss with members the management of the Library, and future improvements that could be made to it. Clay also oversaw the completion of the new law book card catalogue, and the Library’s parliamentary works were recatalogued on cards at the same time. He was also the first Librarian to arrange the books into subject order on the shelves, as up until then they had been shelved in a haphazard, disorderly fashion.

Despite the bomb damage sustained by the Palace of Westminster during the Second World War, the Library’s stock escaped unscathed. Clay ordered that all the books be pushed back into the recesses of the shelves, and had the shelves covered with curtains to protect the books from the impact of explosions, particularly from flying glass. On one occasion, a bomb hit the Law Lords Corridor and blew out all the Library’s windows, but thanks to Clay’s precautions no books were damaged. Some of the rarer material, including manuscripts, was sent to the Bodleian Library in Oxford for the duration of the war.

Figure 2. Derby Room of the House of Lords Library, 1943

Image of the Derby Room in the House of Lords in 1943
(Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives.)

Once peace had returned, Clay helped to set up an internal bindery unit in the House of Lords, which led to a reduction in the amount of material that needed to be sent out to external binders. The bindery, which was established in 1946 under the management of the Stationery Office (HMSO), still exists and continues to work with the Library, though it is now part of the Parliamentary Archives and has wider responsibilities for collections care and conservation. The Archives (then known as the House of Lords Record Office) was established in the same year by the Clerk of the Parliaments, in order to look after the archives of both Houses of Parliament in the Victoria Tower. In the years since, a sizeable number of historic and special items that used to be kept in the Library have been transferred to the Archives, where the storage conditions are more suitable for them; the death warrant of Charles I is the most notable example. The Library’s own archives and manuscript collections have now also been transferred.

4. Moves to modernisation: The 1977 working group report

During the final years of Clay’s tenure, the Library acquired a valuable gift in the shape of Viscountess D’Abernon’s bequest of 140 historic volumes from her own private library, including works dating back to the early 16th century. The D’Abernon gift arrived in 1954; two years later, Clay retired and was replaced by Christopher Dobson, who would oversee a major redecoration of the Library between 1969 and 1972. During that time, the main Library suite had its woodwork cleaned and restored, and the panels above the shelves, which featured the arms of the Lord Chief Justices of England, were repainted. In 1975, the Library also expanded its space by taking over the Salisbury Room, just south of the main suite, which had previously been used as a committee room. Dobson also had to deal with a steady increase in demand among members for the services of the Library, particularly research services. Traditionally, the Library’s chief focus had been on supporting the judicial work of the House, rather than the legislative and scrutinising functions, but things began to change in 1958, when life peers sat in the Lords for the first time. They began to make more intensive use of the Library than had been customary for members who were not part of the judiciary, and as their numbers grew over the next 20 years so did the work of the Library in trying to support them. The judicial focus was also diluted by the move of the Law Lords from offices very near the Library to the far side of the Palace at the start of the 1970s, which led to the establishment of a small, separate collection for the exclusive use of the Law Lords.

By 1976, it was clear that the Library’s services were in need of modernisation, and the Leader of the House therefore appointed a working group of members to consider how this could be achieved. Lord Eccles, a former minister, was appointed to chair the committee, which included members from all sides of the House. The report of the working group appeared in March 1977, and effectively created the Library service that exists today. The report recommended the creation of a proper research service for members, rather than relying on the House of Commons Library as had previously been the case. It also recommended the acquisition of more books relating to current affairs and the business before the House, the establishment of a separate room for the receipt of new material that would be away from the main suite, the establishment of a new centre for enquiries in the Queen’s Room, the introduction of IT facilities and, for the first time, the recruitment of librarians with professional qualifications.

5. The modern Library

Christopher Dobson retired a few months after the report was published, and it therefore fell to his successor, Roger Morgan, to implement the working group’s recommendations. By the time Morgan himself retired in 1991, great strides forward had been made. Library clerks were appointed for the first time to provide in-depth research for members, and professional librarians began to be recruited to look after reader and technical services. The old card catalogue was replaced with a microfiche one, produced by sending data to the British Library to turn into a microfiche format, and by 1991 the Library’s first online catalogue had been established, together with the automation of book acquisitions and the receipt of periodicals. Other developments in the 1980s included the arrival of POLIS, an electronic index of official parliamentary publications, also including the deposited papers received by the libraries of both Houses from government departments; POLIS would be superseded by PIMS in 2005, with Parliamentary Search in turn replacing PIMS in 2012. The Library also began to subscribe at this time to online databases such as Lexis/Nexis, which would later move on to the internet.

Figure 3. Queen’s Room of the House of Lords Library, 2023

Image of the Queen's Room of the House of Lords Library 2023
(Copyright House of Lords 2023.)

David L Jones took over as Librarian in 1991, and during his time in charge further developments were made to the Library service and collections. The Lords itself underwent an historic change in these years, with the removal of the majority of the hereditary peers from membership of the House in 1999. In the years since, the Library has served a membership that now largely consists of working life peers, many of whom make use of the services the Library provides. When David Jones retired in 2006, the Library experienced its own change of structure by becoming part of a wider Department of Information Services, headed by the new Librarian, Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith, comprising the Parliamentary Archives and the House of Lords Information Office. This arrangement lasted until Dr Hallam Smith’s retirement in 2016 and her replacement by Patrick Vollmer, since when the Library has sat within Parliamentary Services, overseen by the Services Committee.

Table 1. Librarians of the House of Lords

Name Tenure
John Frederick Leary 1826–1861
James Pulman 1861–1897
Sandford Arthur Strong 1897–1904
Edmund Gosse 1904–1914
Arthur Hugh Montagu Butler 1914–1922
Charles Travis Clay 1922–1956
Christopher Dobson 1956–1977
Roger Morgan 1977–1991
David L Jones 1991–2006
Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith 2006–2016
Patrick M Vollmer 2016–

In recent years, the Library has embraced the possibilities of the digital age, acquiring its own web pages and subscribing to a large number of e-journals, e-books and online databases, whilst continuing in its traditional role as a repository for parliamentary papers and other printed material. The Library’s printed law collection remains very large, though the long-standing connection with the Law Lords was finally severed in the autumn of 2009 when they moved to the new Supreme Court, taking their own library with them. The Lords Library, however, still retains its main law collection in the Brougham Room as a resource for all members, and it is the principal law collection in Parliament. The Library’s stock today is also very strong on works of history, politics and biography, and many of the more historic works are still on display both in the Derby Room (named after the 15th Earl of Derby, twice foreign secretary in the 19th century) and elsewhere.

The Library now stretches physically well beyond the core riverside suite of rooms, its expansion driven in no small part by the increase in the size of the collections, which by 2023 had grown from the small collection of 1826 to approximately 80,000 bound volumes, plus other documents such as official publications and pamphlets. Parts of the physical collection are stored in the basements, the Committee Corridor, and outside storage facilities such as Westminster Archives. The Library’s staff work in the Palace of Westminster, and in Millbank House. A branch library was first opened at Millbank in 2001 to serve the numerous members and their staff who had offices there. Following the subsequent acquisition by the House of Lords of the entirety of Millbank House, the branch library closed in the summer of 2009. It was replaced in 2011 by a new e-library and reading room, which had considerably more space.

This page is authored by John Greenhead, Library Collections Development Manager. It is based on earlier histories of the Library written by Christopher Dobson and David L Jones, while the section on the 1834 fire has benefited from research carried out by Caroline Shenton for her book ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’.

All images on this page are subject to copyright.