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Understanding Common Record Types: Constitutions

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn't obey the rules”

Alan Bennett, Getting On 

Introduction to constitutions

Governance documents that are created when an organisation is established, and which are updated if changes are made to the way an organisation operates.

Why they were created

Created to record the purpose of an organisation and to outline the administrative rules under which it operates.

Who might have created them

Created by individual organisations.

Where you might find them

Usually found with documents relating to the governance of an organisation, such as minutes and annual reports. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Businesses
  • Societies
  • Trusts
  • Charities

Period from which they most commonly survive

Commonly appear from the 19th century onwards.

Key features

Physical features

  • Paper
  • Printed text
  • Multi-leaf document in pamphlet format
  • Occasionally written in to the minutes of meetings held by the organisation, often as the first entry in the first minute book

Informational content

  • Aims of the organisation
  • Objectives of the organisation
  • Principles under which the organisation operates
  • Composition of governing body/bodies
  • Arrangements for appointments to offices
  • Rules for the conducting of business

U DAR2/6/1

Constitution and Rules of the Socialist League, 1885

U DCL/75/1a

Constitution of the National Council for Civil Liberties, c.1934

U DDC/5/426

Constitution and Rules of the Union of Democratic Control, 1928-1929

U DJH/3/1

Constitution of the Militant Labour League, c.1938

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Constitutions outline an organisation's formally agreed operating system, which might not always reflect the reality of how an organisation operates
  • A constitution might be periodically revised, subsequent to the initial formation of an organisation, in order to reflect an evolution of practice or to revisit elements that no longer work

Potential research uses

Constitutions can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Aims and objectives of an organisation
  • Comparison of the basis upon which similar types of organisations are established
  • Basis upon which an individual organisation operates
  • Change over time of the aims, objectives and method of operation of an individual organisation

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Understanding of key terms associated with committee and board formation, i.e. quorum

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of constitutions using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as constitution, rules, and bye-laws.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of constitutions held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

The following secondary literature provides examples of how records such as constitutions have been used by researchers to study business history: