The Public Record Office (PRO) was established under the terms of the Public Record Office Act 1838 to provide suitable accommodation for the public records, and an appropriate service to their users. The public records are such records of central government and the courts of law as are considered worthy of permanent preservation (though all records pre-1660 are now preserved).
The PRO also housed collections of other records of a public nature, though not actually products of central government administration, especially when these comprised a large body of material – for example, the records of the railway companies, pre-1948 nationalisation. In addition, there are many thousands of private records, often originally provided as exhibits in legal cases – for example, private land deeds.
The oldest public record is the Domesday Book (compiled 1086), and records in a digital format are now accounted for in today’s accessions. These include the capture of government websites (the UK Government Web Archive). There are currently 178 kilometres of records held.
The workings of central government impinge on the lives of all of us, and have always done so, to a greater or lesser extent. This means that there is relevant material for a huge range of historical research, beyond the obvious of providing primary source material for political, administrative, government, constitutional, legal, social, economic, financial and military historians (among others). This range includes sources spanning many hundreds of years for historians of art, music, literature, textiles, costume, design, diet, health and medicine, the environment, all branches of science, industrial and agricultural development, crime and punishment, and education (again, among others).
Sources are rich for local history, often providing the central policy, operational and management material which complement local archive holdings on the same subjects. The public records are also a primary source for foreign and imperial policy, from the medieval period to the Commonwealth and modern foreign policy. This means that many users are foreign nationals, who have the same access rights to the records as United Kingdom citizens. Today about 70 per cent of users are genealogists; while a 1970 survey found that 70 per cent were students and professional academics.
The nub of the critical importance of the public records is that they provide the preserved evidence of the framework of relations between government and citizen. They are the primary impartial source for this. Many quotations illuminate this, and a sample follows:
‘Public Documents are the only sure foundation of historical truth’(1)
‘In an almost unbroken chain of evidence [the public records] contain not only the political and constitutional history of the realm and the most minute particulars with regard to its financial and social progress, but also the history of the land and of its successive owners from generation to generation, and of the legal procedure of the country from a time “whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary”’(2)
‘The public records are like a skeleton, and from the dry bones we have to arrive at some concept of the living past: to see it as it was’(3)
As the Scargill-Bird quotation demonstrates, one of the immense values of the public records is that they are so comparatively complete. This is particularly important for the medieval and early modern periods, where such survival rates are rare. There is a great deal of evidence of the conditions in which records were kept up to the building of the PRO (and beyond – as accessions backlogs took place over many years). The environmental and storage conditions in the many repositories were often appalling, with no proper sorting, arranging, shelving or cataloguing methods. The level of survival often seems nothing short of miraculous.
However, despite these difficulties many curators took their responsibilities very seriously, including the requirement of access to researchers, who, apart from researches for legal purposes, were almost entirely historians. As a result there was publication of the records, to disseminate their contents as widely as possible, from the 16th century. The most notable early publication was the Foedera of Historiographer Royal Thomas Rymer(published between 1704 and 1735) which reproduces key records from 1066 to 1383.
Some early curators also produced notable finding aids to the records in their care. In about 1292 a finding aid to the records of the Treasury of the Receipt was published, using pictograms (pictorial classification of records to denote subject – for example, Gascony records were denoted by grape-treading). Regular cataloguing began with William Lambarde, who presented Queen Elizabeth I with a guide to the records in the Tower of London, where he was record keeper, in 1601.
Indexes produced were often regarded as private property, and known by the name of their compiler, who would then sell them on to his successor. This tended to mean that they were incomplete and confusing, and might overlap. Early finding aids to records are still used today to some extent, and are often given the status of accessioned records in their own right.
The main pre-1838 publications, however, appeared between 1800 and 1837. In 1800 a Select Committee was appointed ‘to inquire into the State of the Public Records’.(4) This led to the appointment of six Records Commissions between 1800 and 1831, and these applied themselves assiduously to the publication of record texts, though did little to aid storage problems.
The PRO in Chancery Lane was built between 1851 and 1896 in three stages, and was constructed firmly with the historian user in mind. As well as proper repository accommodation, the second stage included two reading rooms, and a room for a calendaring department. (5)
The increased access offered to researchers by a proper records office with research facilities cannot be overestimated. However, there were two constant bones of contention. The first of these was the levying of fees – for a variety of permissions and services. These varied considerably over the years, but were always unpopular. The suggestion that arose from time to time, that they should be waived for historical (or broader ‘literary’) research, was, of course, always popular. While the fee system was constantly eroded due to pressure, fees were not totally abolished until 1962.
The second area of contention was access to records. Up to 1958 there was no consistent policy of access, and no official closure period. Clearly this was an area of interest to modern historians, and these were steadily on the increase from the beginning of the 20th century. The usual closure imposed was either 100 or 50 years, or a permit might be needed to view ‘modern’ records, with applications closely scrutinised.
Issues surrounding modern records were also discussed elsewhere. A Royal Commission of 1910 produced three reports between 1912 and 1919, which considered ways of ensuring the accessioning of these records to the PRO, and access to them. One interesting proposal was to have records sections in government departments – a precursor of the changes which were to come in the late 1950s.
The main interest to historians after access was the publication of record texts, the provision of calendars, and lists or other cataloguing finding aids. The Public Record Office Act of 1838 put publication firmly on the agenda, by stating that it would ‘cause to be printed, from Time to Time, such Calendars, Catalogues, and Indexes of the Records, and also such Records … as the Secretary of State may select, or the Master of the Rolls shall recommend as fit to be printed’.(6) In addition, free copies could be presented to appropriate institutions, and privately produced finding aids could be purchased.
As a result the 19th century produced a flourishing of publication series. The ‘Rolls Series’ (from 1856 to 1886) of Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages produced 250 volumes, of a variety of material, though only about 20 were directly related to public records. A very rich source were the Reports of the Deputy Keepers of the Public Records, from 1840,which were much more than annual reports, and had extensive appendices of calendars, indexes and other finding aids produced during the year in question. This was wonderful publicity, but they were extremely expensive to produce. The production of calendars, the mainstay of publication, and still continuing today, came to the forefront under Sir Henry Maxwell Lyte, who was Deputy Keeper of the Records from 1886 to 1926.
All these publications were clearly most appropriate for medieval and early modern records. Another sign of the upsurge of interest in more modern records was the start of the printed Lists and Indexes, in the 1890s. These were much briefer descriptions. They finally ended in 1936, to be replaced by typed lists, and, later, introductory notes to records series, which put them in their administrative context and provided a brief description and noted any related series. These were produced in binder form for ease of updating with new accessions. The concept of typing lists for modern records came slowly. It was stated in 1891 that ‘there was not a typed list or typewriter in the office’.(7)
By the middle of the 19th century there was clearly a need for a general guide to the contents of the PRO; and there were a succession of these, by F. S. Thomas,(8) S. R. Scargill-Bird (9) and M. S. Guiseppi.(10) This last was the first to arrange the records described in a way that reflected their creating bodies, and, thus, put them in their administrative context (the archival principle known as respect des fonds).
This arrangement endures to the present, and Guiseppi’s guide was updated in the 1960s. The importance of arrangement by creating bodies was highlighted during an unhappy experiment in the late 19th century whereby series of records were brought together by subject, rather than provenance, knowledge of which was lost; destroying the archival integrity of the records. These were known as Special Collections.
The production figures for publications were impressive. Between 1890 and 1899 alone 72 calendars, 10 volumes of Lists and Indexes and 22 volumes for the Rolls Series were published. However, the publications programme was often the subject of discussion and controversy, internally and with historians. They were not only expensive to produce, but also for academics to purchase. They were hugely resource intensive, and slow in production.
They also took resources from the work of sorting (sometimes of records so disarrayed that their provenance had been lost), arranging, preserving and listing, all of which were essential for making the records themselves accessible at all to the researcher, which could obviously be seen as more important than disseminating the content by publication. Between 1900 and 1958 there was a marked shift from publication to sorting and listing.
It was clear by the 1950s that the problem of accessioning modern departmental records and providing access to them needed to be addressed in a radical fashion. Acts of 1877 and 1898 had permitted controlled destruction of some records – but the results were often criticised as not operating properly.
A Committee on Departmental Records was appointed under the chairmanship of Sir James Grigg, and this reported in 1954.(11) Several historians, including the Director of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR), sat on the Grigg Committee. Its deliberations led directly to the Public Records Act of 1958.
Under this act some categories of records would automatically be marked for permanent preservation, and others would be subject to a dual review; at five years old, to consider continuing administrative use, and at 25 years, to consider both administrative and historical value. Records selected at this stage would be permanently preserved. Departmental Record Officers would be set up in departments, and within the PRO Inspecting Officers would work with them, and help to carry out the second review. Access to records would generally be closed for 50 years. By the 1960s historians were complaining that access was better in many other countries, to the detriment of their research. In 1967 closure was reduced to 30 years.
A development of great value to modern historians was the initiative known as the ‘accelerated opening of wartime records’. All departments agreed to open the permanently preserved records of the Second World War en bloc in 1972, instead of historians having to wait for access by annual instalments under the 30 year rule.
Records of purely local interest (for example, the lesser courts of law, hospitals or schools) are preserved in designated Places of Deposit. About 20 per cent of records are held thus. Another type of record tackled by the Grigg Committee was the Particular Instance Paper. These were records identical in format, and containing the same information for each individual or other subject. They existed (and exist) in huge numbers. Sampling processes of various sorts were recommended.
Currently appraisal, acquisition and disposal are managed by a number of initiatives. The Acquisition and Disposition Strategy of 2007 considers the impact of digital records, as well as Places of Deposit, and the possible presentation to other institutions than TNA for records not selected for permanent preservation (currently between two and five per cent of all records produced are selected for preservation). This strategy was developed by an Acquisition Advisory Forum, which included academic representation.
An Appraisal Policy and Operational Selection Policies (started in 2000, and for which input from academics is always welcomed) provide guidance for specific departments, areas, functions and types of records selection, and are supplemented by a Records Review Panel for selection decisions that fall outside these policies.
In 2005 the Freedom of Information Act 2000 came into effect; clearly another development of crucial importance to the modern historian. TNA has a Freedom of Information Centre to manage requests.
Today the ‘Grigg system’ is under scrutiny, and the 30 year closure period under specific review. The main reason for this, apart from Freedom of Information legislation, is that it is not a management process that is applicable to digital records. Digital information has an average life of five to seven years, and even if specifically preserved, the medium on which it is stored will rapidly become obsolete. This is a major challenge for government and archives, and various initiatives are joining historians and other academics, information managers, records managers and archivists in this debate.
Consideration of these issues is not new. As early as 1968 it was stated (12) that a working party would probably be set up to look at the problems of computer record selection. At TNA today the Seamless Flow Programme ensures that digital records are preserved and accessioned into Electronic Records Online (set up in 2005), and managed under a Custodial Policy for Digital Records. Datasets are preserved in the National Digital Archive of Datasets. The Digital Continuity Project is designed to protect semi-current records, and the Web Continuity Project ensures that digital links remain live.
Advantage of digital technology has been taken in the production of finding aids. The data from the paper lists and introductory notes was converted into electronic form in the late 1990s. Before that a new Guide had been produced in three parts, in the same binder form as the lists: departmental administrative histories, which were of great value to the academic historian; record series descriptions; and an index.
This data was also included in the conversion project, and the whole formed what is now known as the Catalogue, with a hierarchical structure for the content (from departmental data drilling down to item level data where appropriate). This is supported by a sophisticated search engine, known as Global Search, which also searches over other key sources than the Catalogue.
Since the conversion project there has been a programme of Catalogue content revision and improvement, to the benefit of all researchers. Sometimes this is ground-breaking for the historian. For example, a current project to catalogue the Chancery equity pleadings from 1714 to 1852 (series C 11 to C 14) has resulted in lost administrative procedures being rediscovered, and understood for the first time in many years. The Catalogue is complemented by the series of nearly 400 online Research Guides to the most popular subjects researched.
The PRO was an early exploiter of technology as a means of more effective dissemination of information, and was investigating this from the 1960s; particularly as an alternative to expensive printing. The Publications Committee of the Advisory Council on Public Records) began to call for investigation into the potential of computer indexing and text reproduction by reprographic and microform methods. (13) (For the Advisory Council on Public Records see below: Liaising and consulting with historians)
The office was involved with an early computerised index to the Star Chamber proceedings, being produced by Professor T. G. Barnes of the University of California, Berkeley. An in-house pilot for a computerised guide was begun in 1971. Today there is an extensive programme of digitisation of analogue records, mainly, but not exclusively, of genealogical interest, as well as a range of online exhibitions, and tutorials (in Latin and palaeography).
Published finding aids for this period have concentrated on handbooks (putting modern records in their historical and archival context), guides and catalogues, from the 1960s; either to specific departments (for example, records of the Foreign Office) or thematic (for example, the catalogues of seals). A series of map catalogues was also started at this time.
The gradual decline of traditional publication from the early 20th century was, and continues to be, the subject of discussion. As late as 1969 Harold Johnson, Keeper of the Records from 1966 to 1969, asked ‘Is the publication of record material in the traditional series and traditional manner still the most profitable contribution the PRO can make to historical scholarship as a whole?’(14) This publication continues today (as calendars, guides, translations and transcripts, for example) via commercial publishing partnerships, or with universities, or with the IHR, for example. It is often an outcome of external funding by one of the higher education research councils, or similar bodies, with TNA in partnership with an academic body.
Some reference has already been made to the input of historians to various initiatives, but in fact this was constant, and continuing, from the early days of the PRO. Whether the subject was tackling the backlog of unsorted records, or cataloguing and, today, digitising the records, prioritising against resources available has always been an issue, and user input and comment has always informed this in a variety of formal and informal ways.
In 1912 Sir Henry Maxwell Lyte set up an advisory committee of historians to assist in the formulation of policy, in response to the 1910 Royal Commission’s proposal for a board of historical scholars to direct the office’s publications. A publications committee was again established in 1947.
Historical researchers would also remind the office of changes in research trends, and the need to react to this. This became a particularly focused criticism in the course of the 20th century, when it was felt that the distribution of resources in the PRO did not reflect the increased interest in modern history, and proportionally declining interest in medieval and early modern history. By 1969 it was estimated that 60 per cent of research was into the records of the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of the most enduring methods of liaison has been the Advisory Council on Public Records. This body considers applications for access conditions at variance with the 30 year rule, as well as major issues and proposals for change which might affect the preservation of records and interest of users. It was set up in1958 under the Public Records Act. Historians are consistently represented.
Early on the Advisory Council set up a Publications Committee, comprised of academic historians, which again shows the enduring importance of this subject. Significantly, costs were always a big consideration in their deliberations. By 1961 the committee was calling for more emphasis on post-1800 records.(15)
In the early 1960s it canvassed 200 historians to find out whether the PRO’s resources were being used in ways most profitable to historical research. Probably not surprisingly, the medievalists and early modernists called for traditional publishing to continue, while the modernists wanted the Lists and Indexes reissued, and more of the same, with short guides. The reprinting was addressed by the company known initially as the Kraus Reprint Corporation, and the independent List and Index Society undertook the dissemination of unpublished series lists to subscribers from 1965.
Historians have always commented on the conditions they have worked in, and the facilities offered, when using the public records. They did not pull their punches. In 1967, complaining of the cramped facilities at Chancery Lane, the Faculty Boards of Modern History and Social Studies at the University of Oxford asked the Advisory Council what the use was in providing public money to maintain graduate students at their researches, yet failing to provide adequate facilities at what, for the historian or the social scientist, was the equivalent of a laboratory.(16)
Strong views were also expressed when the PRO split its holdings, in the 1970s, between Chancery Lane and the new building at Kew. Basically, modern records moved to Kew, while the others, but along with all legal records, stayed at Chancery Lane. This was always potentially confusing, and to some it was inconvenient. Modern historians particularly felt disadvantaged.
Today users are regularly canvassed in a variety of ways for their views on the services and facilities provided and expected in a 21st-century archive which fully exploits the potential offered by modern technology. In addition historians, among other users, are invited to share their expertise via TNA’s wiki – Your Archives.
Liaison with the academic community was boosted by TNA gaining academic analogue status (it is now called an Independent Research Organisation) with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), in 2006. Before and since then the organisation has made extensive, and successful, use of the funding potential of the research councils and other funding bodies, often with academic partners. This and other liaison is now underpinned by an Academic Strategy which aims to support the current academic audience in a variety of ways, and strives always to widen the user base, among historians and other academic disciplines.
The role of the PRO staff was an area of extensive discussion. Were they historians, archivists or administrators? The curatorial staff (Assistant Keepers) were undoubtedly scholars, for it was they who did the work of sorting, arranging, listing and publishing, and, clearly, their historical, linguistic and palaeographic expertise was critical here. This work was always expected of them, and out of office work which allied staff to the academic community was also encouraged. In the 1912 report of the 1910 Royal Commission it was stated that no candidate should be eligible for administrative work unless proficient in Latin, French and history.(17)
In 1840 Assistant Keepers were reminded of their obligation to give every information assistance in their power to searchers, not merely from the calendars and indexes but also from their own knowledge of the records. Any time not employed serving the public was to be ‘sedulously and unremittingly employed’(18) in the making of inventories, calendars and catalogues and sorting and arranging the records. The Master of the Rolls considered that this was one of the most important duties of the grade.
More than a century later Sir Hilary Jenkinson, Deputy Keeper of the Records from 1947 to 1954, said that editorial work was essential, as it led to familiarity with the records, which in turn led to an understanding of them and their administrative processes. Nor was the utilisation of expertise limited to these areas. The two works by R. F. Hunnisett, Indexing for Editors and Editing Records for Publication, published by the British Records Association in 1972 and 1977,(19) were definitive in their field.
Such scholarship was the foundation of the considerable reputation of the PRO; the preparation of calendars alone was said to establish an academic tradition within the office, and an academic reputation outside it. The office, however, was slow to employ modernists, there being few until after the Second World War.
Less enthusiastic was Stephen Wilson, Keeper of the Records from 1960 to 1966, and from an administrative background. He saw Assistant Keepers as professional historians who were unable to get university appointments, and believed that they saw the PRO as a home for medieval studies; and some would certainly have wanted it to be a centre for historical studies more generally. It was described, again in the 1960s, as ‘as much a seat of learning as a government department’.(20) Concern was expressed from time to time that it was essential that staff leave historical interpretation to the researcher, though it was reasonable to expound on the historical significance of a record.
The role of the staff most exercised those in authority at the time of the Grigg Report. Committee discussion favoured the new Inspecting Officer roles being carried out by Assistant Keepers, because, with their understanding of research interest, they would be qualified to exercise the historical criteria. Sir Hilary Jenkinson, who was not a member of the Committee, believed that neither the archivist (by which he meant Assistant Keepers) nor the historian should play a part in selection.
However, this ran contrary to the existing system of selection under the 1877 Public Record Office Act whereby Inspecting Officers (Assistant Keepers) played a decisive role in the composition of disposal schedules, in collaboration, when considered necessary, with historians. In the end the Committee did not specify a grade for Inspecting Officers. While a section in an earlier draft stating that the experience required for an Inspecting Officer was administrative and managerial was dropped, the final report did state that in the exercise of historical criteria Inspecting Officers should, where necessary, consult the archivists.(21) This suggests that the administrative grade was favoured. Ultimately the review and selection team was a mixture, being headed by the Assistant Keeper grade, with Inspecting Officers from the administrative side.
The appearance of the designation ‘archivist’ is interesting; all the more so given that Sir Hilary was instrumental in setting up the archive profession in the United Kingdom. He was a leading light in the establishment of the Archive School at University College, London, in the late 1940s, and his Manual of Archive Administration,published in 1922, was a definitive work.(22) However, as a body, the Assistant Keepers distanced themselves from the archive profession.
Today staff expertise (in history and other disciplines, archives, records management and information management) in TNA is disseminated widely, to a broad group of users, internally, nationally and internationally, as well as to government.
Reports of the Deputy Keepers of the Public Records, 1840–1958 (London).
Report of the Committee on Departmental Records,Cmd. 9163 (London, 1954).
John D. Cantwell, The Public Record Office 1838–1958 (London, 1991).
John D. Cantwell, The Public Record Office 1959–69 (London, 2000).
Aidan Lawes, Chancery Lane 1377–1977: ‘The Strong Box of the Empire’ (London, 1996).