How it began

Back in the mid-1990s, when searching for old transcripts, I stumbled across a treasure trove of brown paper parcels tied up with string (well pink legal tape to be accurate) in a storeroom in the Tasmanian Supreme Court.

All the parcels had labels attached that were inscribed, intriguingly, with regnal years and numbers up to 1947 when the practice of using regnal numbers was replaced by calendar years.

When I carefully started to unwrap some of the parcels I discovered each parcel contained the Acts of Van Diemen’s Land (later Tasmania) for the regnal or calendar year written on the label, starting from 1833. The first Act in the collection I had uncovered, 4 William 4, No 1, dealt with the licensing of public houses, the subject of much legislation in the years to come. Exciting as it was to see the original copy of the 1833 Act, it immediately posed the question as to where the Acts from 1826-1832 were – a mystery to ponder on another day.
Then another question presented itself – why handwritten on vellum, when copies of the Acts had been printed in the Hobart Town Gazettes since 1826. Up until 1852 all the official copies of Acts held by the Supreme Court had been handwritten on vellum sheets of various sizes (up to 63cm x 77cm). Often the scribe had added many artistic flourishes and embellishments to the letters. Large sheets had been folded for storage purposes and opening them up is a tricky process because the vellum, made from the skins of young mammals, has a muscle memory and once folded for a period of time, will resist being laid flat. The sheets are also of varying thickness, some quite thin and others much thicker. From 1852 page sizes became slightly more standardised, with smaller dimensions that meant no folding was required.

The Acts are signed by the relevant Lieutenant Governors, including Colonel George Arthur, (see below) Sir John Franklin, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot and Sir William Dennison for the period 1833-1852.


The tradition continues today with the Governor giving the Royal Assent to every Act passed by the Tasmanian Parliament. In July 2013 the practice of delivering these signed Acts to the Supreme Court, there to be signed by the Registrar as being received .and enrolled within the records of the Court, ceased. The Acts are now sent directly to the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office (TAHO). This came about because the Supreme Court was unable to provide appropriate storage for, or allow public access to, these historic documents. Space in cupboards and shelving space was fast disappearing. Something needed to be done.

In 2008 the Chief Justice approached the Premier about changing the legislation to allow for more suitable storage and access arrangements. This finally culminated in an amendment to the Legislation Publication Act 1996 making the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office responsible for storing this legislation. The Acts are now delivered directly to TAHO which I believe is quite unusual in archiving practice.

Passing legislation is one thing – carrying it out has proved to be no simple task since no additional staff or funding was provided. Although the Court no longer receives the official copies of legislation, there are over 10,000 Acts which have to be checked, cleaned, put into folders and boxed, and many of the 19th century Acts have wax seals that are cracking and breaking. There are also Acts that have been affected by mould because of less than perfect storage conditions. In addition many of the Acts require custom-made boxes and folders and this has necessitated writing grant applications to obtain sufficient funding to get the project started. The details of every Act have to be added to the archives disposal schedule before they can be transferred to Archives. TAHO and the Law Foundation of Tasmania have been crucial to this phase, and with their financial assistance and specialist conservation advice we had all the materials needed to prepare the 2000 + Acts from 1833 to 1900 for transfer to TAHO. This was achieved in 2017 and the remaining Acts from 1901-2013 should be ready for transfer by the end of 2019.

So far all the work has been done by volunteers – without their cheerful dedication the dust would still be building up on the piles of brown paper parcels that hold this unique collection of Tasmania’s history.

But this story is not just about the archiving process: it is about the stories behind the legislation; the mysteries of the missing Acts; the significance of vellum and parchment; and the ongoing evolution of Tasmanian law from total reliance on UK statutes to its own body of law that reflects the values of all Tasmanians: first peoples and those who arrived from across the seas, whether unwillingly or willingly.

It is a journey of discovery to share with others through regular postings on things past and things present and the loose connections that link them and carry them into the future..

About dashea2014

A Law Librarian with extensive experience in general legal and court libraries. Editor of the Australian Law Librarian for 4.5 years (2008-2012) and active member of Law Libraries Tasmania. Special topics - Tasmanian legislation and case law. A passion for maintaining access to print resources.
This entry was posted in Archiving Project, Discovery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How it began

  1. A Researcher says:

    The British House of Commons started using vellum in 1849:

  2. dashea2014 says:

    Great to have this update on the UK situation – hopefully the UK company producing the vellum will survive. A few additional comments about the practice of using vellum/parchment by the Tasmanian parliament.
    Following the separation of Van Diemen’s Land from the colony of New South Wales in 1825 the first Acts of the new colony were passed on 1 August 1826. From that time on all laws passed by the Legislative Council had to be transmitted to the Supreme Court for certification that they were not repugnant to the laws of England. These handwritten documents on vellum sheets (referred to as skins) were copied by a clerk of the Supreme Court into a large book, presumably for reference by the judges when in court. Whether the originals were kept by the Court at this time or returned to the Legislative Council is unclear, but the Acts Custody Act 1858 stipulated that all Acts of the VDL Legislative Council should be held in the records of the Court, along with all future legislation of Tasmania. This practice continued until July 2013 when the Tasmanian Government changed the legislation (Legislation Publication Act 1996, s32). The authorised copy of each Act (still printed on vellum sheets) is now sent directly to the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office. There does not appear to be any push by the government to save money by using archival paper.
    The grounds for arguing that archival paper is as durable as vellum parchment for official records was raised as long ago as 1887 when the Chief Justice of the Tasmanian Supreme Court, in the case of Charles Grueber and the Californian Thistle Act (Tas) queried the need to return a writ of certiorari to the magistrates of Green Ponds: “I am almost sorry to see such a distinction kept up–when a return is rated in form on paper, that it should be unrated because it is not on parchment. I suppose it is on the principle that being required for record it should be on parchment. It evidently dates from the days of bad paper, because good paper can now be obtained. Probably a piece of parchment could not be obtained in the district.”
    Given that the Supreme Court Library in Tasmania has books from the 1600s in its collection where the pages show no signs of deterioration, perhaps it is not too far a stretch to equate “good paper” to “archival paper”.

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