Vellum has been used for printing or writing Acts of Parliament almost since they were first recorded. In 1999 there was a move to print these Acts on paper, which was defeated. However, on 14th October this year, William Cowley, who are the last vellum and parchment makers in the UK, heard from their MP, Mark Lancaster, that there was to be a House of Commons meeting where the end result could well be that printing on vellum would cease.
I was actually at a committee in the Houses of Parliament when I got this message, and went on to a meeting just after with one of the Heritage Craft Association’s patrons, Lord Cormack. He kindly agreed to write a letter in support of the continuation of the use of vellum, and also gave me invaluable advice.
A phone call with Paul Wright of William Cowley that evening, and a further conversation with Lord Cormack clarified the situation. The House of Lords agreed in 1999 to discontinue printing on vellum, however the House of Commons disagreed and so the use of vellum has continued. The discussion and vote was to be by the Administration Committee, chaired by Sir Paul Beresford MP (http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/sir-paul-beresford/103).
I wrote to Sir Paul Beresford and contacted as many people as I could who worked in conservation, museums, libraries, as book binders, and also other practitioners. I explained the situation briefly, and asked them to contact Sir Paul themselves.
There are three main points about paper and vellum and then one about the craft:
- Vellum lasts. We have vellum documents that are over 2,000 years old, and whole books from around 350 AD (see right: Codex Sinaiticus in the British Library) which can still be consulted and used, pages turned etc. If vellum had not been used, the new Archbishop of Canterbury would not be able to kiss the St Augustine Gospels (brought over in 597 with St Augustine) when enthroned, we wouldn’t have the Domesday Book (1086), nor be celebrating 800 years of the Magna Carta with all the significance of the rights of people. Paper does not last anything like as long. Archival paper lasts for about 250 years; it may last longer if it is stored in special conditions, but no specialist will actually guarantee the ‘500 years’ that has been suggested. In any case, this is not 2,000 years!
- We have been told that the cost of printing Acts of Parliament is about £103,000 per year. We know from William Cowley that they receive about £47,000 per year for supplying vellum. This means that printing and other costs are £56,000. These costs will apply whether printing is on vellum or on paper, as there are no extra costs for printing on vellum nor any different inks needed. So the saving would be the cost of vellum, £47,000, minus the cost of archival paper, which we have been told is about £20,000. The saving is, therefore, £27,000. This relatively tiny amount is what the decision rests on!
- Vellum isn’t only green but green-plus, as it is a byproduct of the meat and dairy industry. Male calves are killed for veal (veal and vellum have the same derivation) when they are a certain size if they aren’t selected for breeding and as they can’t produce milk. Once processed, their skins go to be tanned for the leather industry, more than we think go to landfill as we produce more skins than are required, and a few are used for vellum. No forests are cut down, no harmful chemicals are used, no energy-using machinery is required to produce vellum. The only energy is that of the parchmenter, who has taken 7 years to learn the craft skills.
- William Cowley is the last vellum and parchment maker in the UK, and takes the passing on of skills seriously. It takes 7 years to train an apprentice to journeyman level, and they have one being trained at the moment. Supplying skin to parliament considerably boosts the sales of vellum and the effect cannot be over-estimated. It will have a serious effect on William Cowley if this supply stopped. We are losing too many of our heritage crafts by default and many of them are, like Cowleys, currently thriving businesses. (for the difference between parchment and vellum etc see: https://www.patricialovett.com/vellum-and-parchment-and-a-special-offer/)
On Saturday 24th October, there was an article in The Times*, and also a piece in their ‘comment’ section. Both were broadly positive, although there were errors. First, the cost of vellum is nothing like the £80,000 per year quoted, and secondly, no calves would be ‘saved’ by not printing on vellum, simply more calfskins would go to landfill. I sent email a letter to the Times correcting these facts but sadly my letter wasn’t published! *(http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4594895.ece)
During that Saturday, I was asked if I would be interviewed for BBC World Service, the PM Programme, and Radio 5, which I did. During Sunday I was asked if I would be interviewed for BBC2’s Daily Politics programme on Monday (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06myj7x/daily-politics-26102015) . I was able to make all 3 main points on vellum vs. paper, and also raise the fact that William Cowley were the last makers of vellum producing a world-class product. Wonderfully, the two MPs also being interviewed agreed with me, the Labour MP pointing out that we were the sixth richest country in the world and were arguing over such a small sum. To round off this ‘media frenzy’ (!) I was interviewed a few weeks later by Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, where we had half an hour, interspersed with music, to flesh the debate out more.
The House of Commons committee, meanwhile, had voted ‘unanimously’ to discontinue the use of vellum. One member of the committee, James Grey MP (http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/james-gray/261) was slightly delayed to the meeting and would have voted against the proposal to print on paper. In the House of Commons later that day, James Grey made a Point of Order where he said that it was recorded that the vote of the committee was unanimous, when in fact he had objected to it, and also that this vote should be one needing a vote of the full House. He went on to say that he thought this ‘a disgraceful piece of heritage vandalism’.
So it is likely that there will be a debate in the House of Commons, with a free vote.
In addition, Sharon Hodgson MP, who is also Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design Education has taken this matter up, and has tabled a series of excellent and pertinent questions. (http://www.parliament.uk/biographies/commons/mrs-sharon-hodgson/1521). These relate to the actual cost (we have queried the £80,000 figure), how much would be saved by not using vellum, how much it would cost to create a special storage environment, what the advice is from archival experts in terms of the longevity of paper, how much it would cost to reprint the Acts of Parliament when the paper has deteriorated, and so on.
So the matter is not closed and I would urge everyone in the UK to write to their MP to point out that the cost implications are not the only thing to bear in mind when the continued supply of vellum and parchment is questioned, and the cost of the conservation of paper and re-printing of the Acts of Parliament at some time in the future need also to be taken into account. Many thanks to those of you who have kindly already written to your MPs. It is important and it does matter!