How to look for records of... Colonies and dependencies: further research

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find the main types of records held by The National Archives relating to the administration of British colonies and dominions.

These records are an invaluable resource for the study of British policy on individual territories, and the broader history of Britain’s approach to its empire.

2. Essential information

The National Archives holds the records of the British government relating to the British Empire, with the exception of records relating to India and Burma which are held at the British Library.

The local records of colonial administration in the individual territories are generally at the relevant national archives of the states that succeeded the former colonial territories.

The major exception are the records which were deemed sensitive and removed from the colonies on independence. Those that survive are in FCO 141, known as the ‘migrated archive’. For more information read Colonial administration records.

3. Key records

The records of the Colonial Office (CO) and Dominions Office (DO) are the primary sources of information.

These departments changed names and responsibilities. A timeline of the government departments responsible for foreign affairs is on our Labs site.

Use the table below for further details and to identify the best place to start your research.

Description Catalogue reference Date
Colonial Office: established in 1854, but the CO series include records of its predecessors from the 16th century onwards CO 1570-1990
Dominions Office: established in 1925. Had responsibility for semi-autonomous territories (such as Canada, Australia and South Africa) and some anomalous territories (such as the ‘High Commission territories’ of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland) DO 1843-1990*
Commonwealth Relations Office: established 1947 and incorporating the responsibilities of the former Dominions, India and Burma Offices DO 1843-1990*
Commonwealth Office: established in 1966, combining the Colonial Office and the Commonwealth Relations Office CO, DO and FCO
Foreign and Commonwealth Office: established in 1968. See the research guide to Foreign and Commonwealth records from 1782 for more details.

* Contains records from various High Commissioners and Acts, Sessional Papers, Government Gazettes, Confidential Print and other papers from the dominions prior to 1925.

Types of records

The main types of record you can find within CO and DO are:

1. Original correspondence: correspondence received by the Colonial/Dominions Office. Before 1926 this is divided into:

  • Despatches: formal reports and letters from governors of high commissioners usually asking advice or permission or informing London of decision taken
  • Offices: letters from other government departments
  • Individuals: letters from individuals

2. Sessional papers – printed proceedings of local legislatures: assemblies, executive councils and legislative councils, depending on the constitutional arrangements within each territory.

3. Entry books and registers of letters – outgoing correspondence. Earlier dates are copies of correspondence; the later registers contain one-line summaries.

4. Gazettes – the official newspapers of a territory’s government which can contain very varied information from new legislation to court cases. Earlier versions are more varied as they may have been the only regular newspaper of the time.

5. Miscellanea – Mostly these comprise of ‘blue books’ of statistics, providing information on the economy and administration of territories. Some blue books contain lists and details of colonial officials. Miscellanea series can also contain shipping returns and sometimes newspapers (generally up to mid-19th century). See Administering the Empire, 1801-1968 by Mandy Banton, (London, 2008), Appendix 3, for a list of colonial newspapers within the CO series.

4. How to search for records

How you search for records depends on the type of record and the date you are interested in.

For original correspondence before 1926

You will need to first consult original indexes and registers to find records. You will need different registers depending on your research period. See section 5.

Please note, much early correspondence has been comprehensively summarised and published in Calendars of State Papers Colonial online (1635-1739) and in other publications (see further reading).

You may be able to complete your research using these publications, without needing to use original documents.

For original correspondence after 1926:

Use the Advanced search option in our catalogue to search for relevant records. You can search using

  • the name of the colony/territory. For example, Kenya
  • a topic of interest. For example, civil aviation

Search within department code CO and/or DO.

You can also restrict the search by date.

If you are searching after 1951 then you will need to search by region NOT by individual territories for example, East Africa rather than Kenya.

For other record types: sessional papers, gazettes, entry books and miscellanea

For these records you can only search by place and date.

Use the Advanced search option in our catalogue. Search using:

  • name of colony/territory
  • type of record. For example, ‘gazette’

Search within department code CO and/or DO.

You can restrict your search to a date range.

5. Early indexes and registers (1635-1849)

Index volumes to early original correspondence (1635-1782), entry books and Board of Trade Journals are in CO 326. For the period up to 1758 search within CO 326, by name of territory to locate the correct volume. For records prior to 1739 use the Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies.

From 1758-1782 the indexes (now with accompanying registers) are no longer arranged by colony, but a general index to the correspondence.

There are no registers from 1782-1810 in CO 326, see Banton, Administering the Empire, 1801-1968, for a list by colony of registers and correspondence.

Later registers in CO 326 (1822-1849) are again arranged by territory name. They give summaries of original correspondence only and provide sufficient information to locate the correct records within the original correspondence series. See Banton, Administering the Empire, 1801-1968 for further information.

The filing system uses a letter code to identify the ‘bundle’. To find the original correspondence identify the colonial correspondence series, such as Barbados, CO 29, search for the Bundle letter code within the exact year.

Other indexes and registers include:

  • précis books in CO 714 (1795-1874)
  • daily registers in CO 382 (1849-1929)

See Banton, pages 72-81, for more details on these index and registry systems.

6. Using registers to find original correspondence 1849-1926

Registers relating to different territories are in their own series.

Find these series by searching our catalogue for ‘territory name’ AND ‘register of correspondence’ within CO and DO. For example, Uganda register of correspondence.

The registers will tell you if a document has survived and provide you with the information you need to find the original correspondence. The registers are divided by tabs into each of the three correspondence types:

  • despatches
  • offices
  • individuals

They give the following information on each item of incoming correspondence:

  • registry/date: date of registry (date of receipt at the government department)
  • registry/no.: registry number (the unique number allocated to the piece of correspondence in chronological order by date of receipt)
  • name: name of sender
  • date: date of sending
  • no.: the number assigned to the piece of correspondence by the sender
  • subject
  • former and other papers: cross references to other relevant documents. The cross references usually give an abbreviation denoting the type of correspondence (for example, Gov. = from the governor), the registry number and if the year is different, the year. If the cross-referred correspondence is in the register for another territory, the abbreviated name of the territory is also given (for example, Gov/45224/20/Nig. From the governor, registry number 45224, in 1920, found in the register for Nigeria). Using these cross references you should be able to find other correspondence on the same subject
  • how disposed of: summarises how and whether piece of correspondence was answered or forwarded
  • from the late 19th century the registers also state whether the piece of correspondence has been destroyed under statute. If a piece of correspondence has been destroyed you will not find it in the original correspondence

If the document has survived, you can find it within the relevant original correspondence series. To do this:

Step 1: note the date of sending, the registry number in the register and whether it is a despatch, letter from office or letter from individual.

Step 2: search our catalogue for ‘territory name’ AND ‘original correspondence’. Restrict your search to the year found in step 1. Ensure you order the correct file relating to whether it is a despatch, (letter from) office or (letter from) individual.

Step 3: the records are ordered by date of sending. Use the registry number to identify the correct item for that date.

Step 4: the original correspondence will also indicate in the margin the numbers of related despatches. Use these numbers to find the related dispatches by repeating steps 3-4.

7. Colonial registers for 1926-1951 correspondence

For this period search our catalogue using keywords within department code CO.

It is not necessary to use the registers of correspondence. However, the registers are useful as they give a summary of ALL correspondence which includes document that were ‘destroyed under statute’ and no longer exist.

To find registers search for a colony and ‘register of correspondence’ within CO.

The register you get will be arranged in file number order, with a file per page and the file number stamped near the top right hand corner of each page; individual papers are then listed on that page.

Registers after 1951 have not been passed to The National Archives. If you have a former reference number but do not know the colony or the subject area, refer to Banton, Administering the Empire 1801-1968, appendix 6 to locate the reference.

8. Dominions Office registers and indexes 1926-1946

For 1930-1946 you can search DO 35 by keyword. This supersedes the original card index to Dominions Office correspondence for this period. However for DO 35/1-88, registers are the only way of obtaining information on the records.

Registers to Dominions Office correspondence are in DO 3 (1927-1942) and provide:

  • subject of each despatch or letter
  • note of action taken
  • cross-references to other correspondence on the same subject
  • evidence of whether correspondence has been destroyed

There are no indexes or registers for 1946 onwards.

9. Other types of record

There are a number of other useful types of records to explore within CO and DO.

Journals of the Board of Trade and Plantations (1634-1782)

From 1634-1782 the Commission on Foreign Plantations and its successor, the Board of Trade and Plantations had responsibility for the administrative and more routine aspects of colonial policy. The original correspondence and entry books are either in CO 388 and CO 389 or in the various relevant original correspondence series for each territory alongside that of the Secretaries.

The journals of the Board are in CO 391. The Journals up to 1704 have been calendared in the Calendars of States Papers Colonial, and those for 1705 to 1782 are in the Journals of the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations (HMSO 1920-1928).

Further types of record

Records Search help Notes
Private office and private papers See the list in CO Division 24
Advisory committees See the list in CO Division 26 or try a keyword search within department codes CO and DO Made up of officials and outside specialist advisers, these became increasingly important in the early 20th century Colonial Office
Confidential prints Search by keyword within the series suggested in the description of CO Division 8 Confidential prints can be a convenient way to review selected correspondence quickly without searching the original correspondence series
Treaties Search by territory, and sometime ruler, within CO 879/35 (West Africa 1642-1891), DO 118 and DO 141 From 1816 treaties were also published in British and Foreign State Papers. Copies of this publication are in The National Archives library
Public service lists A few comprehensive lists exist in separate series: Canada (1887-1910) in CO 569, New Zealand (1916-1920) in CO 719, Australia (1902-1925) in CO 561, New South Wales (1896-1916) in CO 580, Victoria (1892-1910) in CO 479, Western Australia (1909-1914) in CO 563, South Australia (1918-1920) in CO 695, North Borneo (1916-1932) in CO 874/911
Also check the blue books in Miscellanea series (see section 3)

10. Records from other government departments

10.1 Privy Council: registers and unbound correspondence

The Privy Council records are an important source for early colonial history. The Privy Council had responsibilities for administration, legislation and litigation in the colonies from the 17th-19th centuries.

The Privy Council registers in PC 2 relating to colonial matters between 1615 and 1783 have been calendared and published in Acts of the Privy Council, Colonial Series (HMSO, 1908-1912). The last volume of this series has calendared material in the unbound correspondence of the Privy Council in PC 1/1/46-PC 1/57/85B (covering 1676 to 1783).

Other un-calendared correspondence in PC 1 relating to colonial matters is in:

  • PC 1/58/1 to PC 1/66/40 (1671-1799)
  • PC 1/141 (Delhi Proclamation of 1911)
  • PC 1/142-4572 (mixed colonial and non colonial correspondence 1702-1872)

10.2 Privy Council: constitutions and other records

From the 19th century onwards, constitutions of territories were enacted as statutory instruments or Orders in Council by the British government. Individual territories might go through a number of constitutions whilst under British rule.

These, including the independence agreement and constitution, are all in PC 2. You need to know the year (and ideally the exact date) of the constitution to find the record. Search by year within PC 2. There are usually multiple volumes for each year.

Supplementary minutes of proceedings and Privy Council decisions are in PC 4, covering 1670 to 1928, with some gaps, and in SP 45, 1696-1752.

Plantation Books, which are entry books of colonial acts, orders in council and instruments, 1678-1806 (with gaps between May 1755 and November 1767) are in PC 5. Please note that many of the original documents referred to in the Plantation Books are in the relevant CO and BT record series.

10.3 Judicial Committee of the Privy Council: Colonial Appeals

In 1834, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (PCAP) was formed and still functions as the supreme court of appeal for British dependencies and several ex-colonies.

The National Archives holds some records from the Judicial Committee and some colonial appeals records. This is an index to the ‘Printed Papers’ of Appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC). Once you have found an index entry contact the British Library who holds an incomplete set of the full Printed Papers.

Appeals from some colonial admiralty courts are in both PCAP and the High Court of Admiralty records (HCA). References to other appeals can sometimes be found amongst the records of the Colonial Office (CO).

10.4 Cabinet Papers (from 1914)

These may contain discussions relating to colonies or territories. Further information is available in our research guide on the Cabinet.

10.5 Treasury records (1660-1833)

Royal African Company

The Royal African Company was one of the main slave traders of the time. Their records, in T 70, include correspondence from the factories and forts they maintained on the West African coast. Browse T 70 for more details on the company and the contents of the series. See also the research guide on the slave trade.

American Loyalists’ claims (1776-1831)

People who suffered hardship due to their loyalty to the Crown during the American War of Independence were entitled to claim compensation. For further information read the record series descriptions of T 79 and AO 12-13.

11. Records in other institutions

Many other repositories hold important collections of private and institutional records. Search our catalogue by an individual’s name or by an institution and click on the record creators tab within your search results. This will tell you where you can find particular collections.

Collections of particular interest are as follows:

12. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library.

12.1 Calendars and transcripts of original records

  • Calendars of State Papers Colonial 1574-1739 (HMSO, 1860-1994, 45 volumes). Volumes up to 1700 use old document references. These can be converted to modern references using the Key to Colonial Office Records in the reading rooms in The National Archives, or List and Index Society Volume (forthcoming)
  • KG Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1873 (Irish University Press, 1972-81, 21 volumes)
  • Journals of the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations 1704-1782 (HMSO 1920-28, 9 volumes)
  • WL Grant, J Munro, Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series (HMSO 1908-1912, 6 volumes)

12.2 Selected records guides

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 30