How to look for records of... Contaminated land

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find records which refer or relate to contaminated lands, including:

  • land contaminated by military activities (including bombing)
  • industrial use of land, and contamination with chemical waste, radioactive waste and other pollutants; factories and manufacturing; and the construction of buildings and fortifications
  • land affected by natural disasters such as flooding, storms or gales

These records may be useful for researching natural disasters and the human impact on the environment and landscape.

NOTE: The information in this guide is not a statement of law. See the appropriate websites for most up-to-date legislation and further definitions of contaminated land.

2. What are contaminated lands and substances?

Contaminated land usually refers to land which has been changed in some way, usually with the introduction of man-made substances (such as military or industrial waste or pollution) or by natural disasters, floods etc, which could be harmful or undesirable or have some kind of impact on the environment generally.

There are literally thousands of chemicals and substances that can be associated with contaminated land. In general, the following criteria are used to judge whether substances have the potential to cause problems with regard to contamination:

  • having a significant toxicity on humans
  • having a significant toxicity on the aquatic environment
  • having a significant toxicity on the ecosystem
  • having a significant effect on materials and structures used on sites
  • having a significant persistence in soil or a tendency to bioaccumulate
  • being likely to occur in significant concentrations on many sites

The Environment Agency website contains further information and advice about land contamination.

3. Getting started

Start by searching Discovery, our catalogue and refer back to this guide for relevant record series.

Widespread industrialisation and changing land use over many centuries means that records from many different government departments may contain information about the contamination of land.

Please note that the two terms contamination and pollution have often been used more or less interchangeably, and titles of files and other records may reflect different practice between departments or over time.

3.1 How do I search for records?

Try searching our catalogue using:

  • names of contaminants or harmful substances such as industrial oil
  • place names
  • natural disasters, floods or storms (and try a search by date of natural disaster)
  • general terms such as ‘dangerous substances’; for example, you can search Home Office records using the keywords ‘dangerous substances’ within HO 45 and HO 144

General searches using search terms like ‘contamination’ or ‘pollution’ will return many results, not all of which will be relevant or useful.

The following sections may be useful when researching contaminated land. You may want to browse within suggested record series to find document references, but please note that this is not a complete list.

Searching for ‘contaminated land’ will bring up records that are still closed. Because the term ‘contaminated land’ has only relatively recently acquired a specific legal meaning, searches using that term in our catalogue, will lead mostly to records which are still closed. You can submit a Freedom of Information request for closed records which may be relevant to your research.

4. Aircraft crashes

Many files on crashes of civilian aircraft, both in Britain and overseas, are held among the records of the Ministry of Civil Aviation Accidents Investigation Branch in series AVIA 101.

First World War files about crashed aircraft in Britain are in AIR 1. For more information, see the guide on RAF operations.

Files about the examination and investigation of German aircraft which crashed in Britain during the Second World War may be found by browsing the following records series (though these reports are incomplete):

  • AIR 22 – periodical returns, intelligence summaries and bulletins
  • AIR 40 – intelligence reports and papers
  • AVIA 15 – registered files of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and of its predecessor and successors
  • AIR 16 – registered files of Fighter Command (alternatively, you could try various keyword searches on our catalogue)

5. Alkali works

Records of the Alkali Inspectorate and its successors, relating to the implementation of the Alkali Acts and Orders from 1863 to date, are in series BT 328. The series includes registers of alkali works, staff papers and correspondence with industry.

Topics relate to the monitoring of the disposal of by-products of industrial processes, with an emphasis on measures taken against air pollution.

You can search for other files about alkali works in:

  • HLG 52 – Ministry of Health and successors: Local Government Administration and Finance, General Policy and Procedure, Registered Files, 1898-1975
  • HLG 55 – Ministry of Housing and Local Government and predecessors; Local Government Divisions and predecessors; Air Pollution and Smoke Abatement, Registered Files, 1914-1976
  • HLG 120 – Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Local Government Division, and Department of the Environment; Local Government General Policy and Procedure, Registered Files, 1875-1995

6. Ammunition dumps

Files on the dumping of ammunition at the end of the Second World War, mostly overseas or at sea, are held among:

A few files from the end of the First World War are in MUN 4.

7. Anthrax

Files about military uses of anthrax are in DEFE 55 and WO 181.

Information about Gruinard Island (off the west coast of Scotland) where anthrax spores were dispersed by bombs during the Second World War for experiments and trials of chemical and biological weapons are in:

Many files about the dangers of anthrax are in Ministry of Labour records:

8. Asbestos

Ministry of Labour records contain much information about workers and workplaces affected by asbestos.

(LAB 2 and LAB 14). Try a keyword search, which may help you identify many records which refer to manufacturing processes, industrial uses etc, as well as to particular locations.

9. Bombs

The bomb census maps in HO 193, surveys of air-raid damage in HO 192 and other Ministry of Home Security series may be used to help locate unexploded bombs dropped on Britain during the Second World War. War Damage Commission records in IR 33-39 may also be useful.

See our Bomb Census survey guide for more information.

10. Burial sites

There are files in HO 45 and HLG 45 about the construction of baths, schools, public shelters and other buildings on former burial grounds and cemeteries. The records of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (HLG series) contain numerous references to the creation, extension and closure of burial grounds.

11. Chemicals

An Admiralty Chemist was first appointed in 1870 and subsequently an Admiralty Chemical Department developed at Portsmouth. Its reports, from 1939, may be found in ADM 248.

Reports of the Chemical Advisory Panel, established in 1943 to advise the Director of Scientific Research are in ADM 247 and ADM 220.

Although the Admiralty had established an Experimental Works of its own in the 1870s, the Navy possessed no central research establishment. However, the outbreak of the First World War gave a powerful stimulus to naval research and development, with the realisation that technological superiority in mechanical and chemical science was essential to success.

The Admiralty Central Metallurgical Laboratory was established at Portsmouth about 1936 to investigate naval metallurgical problems; it also acquired a number of outstation laboratories. In 1956 it was amalgamated with the Admiralty Chemical Department to form the Central Dockyard Laboratory. Its records are in ADM 254.

An Admiralty Materials Laboratory was established in 1947 for research into metallurgy, rubber, plastics and chemicals. It was later absorbed into the Admiralty Marine Technology Establishment: records in ADM 252.

The records of the Ministry of Supply (later the War Office) Advisory Council of Scientific Research and Technical Development, later Scientific Advisory Council in WO 195 include a number of files about work at Waltham Abbey.

The records of all the defence departments contain an enormous amount of information about experiments with, and the use and production of, chemicals, plastics and other synthetic materials of all kinds.

In most cases, it is not possible to identify locations from the descriptions in our catalogue, and will require speculative searching within but an examination of individual documents may well prove fruitful.

12. Cyanides

Cyanides are subject to specific requirements because the way in which they break down and their effects on human health pose particular concerns. Cyanides are referred to in the records of the Water Pollution Research Board and Laboratory (AY 2 and DSIR 13), as well as a number of other departments.

13. Explosives

Records relating to the Royal Gunpowder Factories at Waltham Abbey and Faversham (WO 385 and WO 397) include numerous plans of buildings used for the production and storage of cordite, guncotton, nitroglycerine etc. SUPP 5 also contains records of the production of guncotton, nitrates, nitric acid, nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine.

Records of the Explosives Research and Development Establishment are in AVIA 67.

Several particular cases are well documented in the following records:

14. Factories

There are references to First World War flax factories in WORK 6. You can search for records of munitions factories in Ministry of Munitions records (MUN).

Files on the shadow factories set up for the manufacture of aircraft, engines, and so on, during the Second World War are in:

  • AVIA 15 – Registered Files of Ministry of Aircraft Production and predecessor and successors
  • AIR 2 – Registered Files in Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence
  • AIR 19 – Private Office papers in Air Ministry, and Ministry of Defence, Air Department
  • AIR 20 – Air Ministry and Ministry of Defence: papers accumulated by the Air Historical Branch

Contract rolls for the construction of ordnance factories, rolling mills etc are in WORK 13.

15. Fortifications

Many former defence sites are likely to have been contaminated by explosives, chemicals etc.

19th century Board of Ordnance records contain much material about munitions stores, gun emplacement etc. For more information, see our guide on Board of Ordnance.

There are many plans of fortifications, docks, airfields and similar sites in the records of the relevant branch of the armed forces. Discrete record series of plans include ADM 140, WO 78 and AVIA 62.

Defence record books in WO 192 may also be useful.

16. Fuels

The Ministry of Fuel and Power (later the Department of Energy) had separate divisions responsible for coal, electricity, gas, iron and steel, petroleum and hydroelectric power. Many of the Ministry’s records (in POWE series) contain material on contamination and pollution.

17. Industrial sites

See also sections on factories, explosives and mining.

Records relating to particular substances may be identified by using our catalogue to search for references to such topics as:

  • gas works
  • iron
  • steel plant
  • oil refineries
  • petrol stations
  • rubber
  • processing
  • tanneries
  • textile manufacturing
  • chemical factories (such as paints, plastics, synthetic fibres)

18. Minefields

In general, Admiralty records relating to minefields are concerned with minefields at sea, but some also contain information about landmines.

Most such records relate to the Second World War and to post-war clearances, but a few survive from the First World War. The principal series containing information about minefields are:

A few charts showing the position of minefields in British waters during the Second World War are in ADM 239.

The records of the War Office include material on the laying and clearance of minefields (WO 32, WO 199, WO 201). Reconnaissance reports are in WO 204.

Maps of minefields in Libya during the Second World War are in WO 234.

Files on the post-war clearance of such minefields are in:

  • DEFE 2 – Combined Operations Headquarters and Ministry of Defence, Combined Operations Headquarters
  • FO 371
  • FO 1015 – War Office and Foreign Office, Administration of African Territories

19. Mining

There is an enormous amount of material about on coal and other mining, especially (but not always) when it took place on Crown land.

Many of the maps in our collection were made before there was any legal requirement to deposit plans of mines (1850 for coal mines, 1872 for metalliferous mines).

See the publication The Tithe Maps of England and Wales: A Cartographic Analysis and Country-by-County Catalogue by Kain and Oliver which indicates when pits, shafts etc are shown on tithe maps in IR 30.

You can search our catalogue for other maps in records series:

  • CRES
  • SP
  • F (especially the Forest of Dean series)

Plans of offshore mining in County Durham and Northumberland are in LRRO 1. Early examples include 16th century maps showing open-cast mines.

Warrants and transcripts for Crown leases (relating to lead, gold, silver, tin, copper and other metals) are in E 367.

See also the section on records held in other archives.

Admiralty records relating to the Derwentwater estate are in ADM 68-80, ADM 169 and include many maps and papers relating to lead and other metalliferous mines in Cumberland and Northumberland.

Lead is subject to specific requirements as the way it breaks down and its effects on human health pose particular concerns.

Numerous references to lead mines are in:

  • Chancery, Duchy of Lancaster (DL)
  • Crown Estate Office (CRES)

For more information see our guide to Mines and Mining.

20. Oil and petroleum

POWE 33 includes files about coastal pollution.

21. Ordnance

There are many 19th century records on Board of Ordnance factories, gun emplacement, storage for munitions etc in WO 44 and WO 55.

22. Pesticides

The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries first became involved in the control of pesticides in 1952. This followed the report of the Gowers Committee on Health, Welfare and Safety in Non-Industrial Employment, published in 1949 (Parliamentary Papers, 1949, Cmd 7664 which can be accessed via Parliamentary Papers online – institutional subscription required) which revealed, among other things, a large number of fatal accidents involving the spraying of pesticides to kill weeds.

These concerns resulted in the passing of the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act 1952 which empowered the Minister to make regulations to specify protective clothing to be worn, procedures to be followed and the minimum age of workers to be employed when using pesticides.

A number of divisions of the agriculture ministries were responsible for administering successive acts and regulations concerning the safe use and licensing of pesticides. It was decided in 1993 that this work could be carried out by an executive agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and in April of that year the Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD) was formed.

PSD (now an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – DEFRA) is responsible for the administration of systems for pesticide licensing and approval and for the control of pesticide use after such approval.

It also controls the sale, supply, storage and advertisement of pesticides and provides advice to Government on matters concerning pesticides and farm safety in their use. Its general aims are the protection of farm workers and consumers of farm products from harmful pesticides; the protection of wildlife and the prevention of contamination of plant life.

Try various search terms as suggested in the section on How do I search for records to locate records related to pesticides.

23. Radioactive waste

Under the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1945 and the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government were made jointly responsible for authorising the discharge of radioactive waste from nuclear installations.

Their aim was to ensure that agricultural land and fishing grounds did not become contaminated with radioactivity which might then pass into the food chain. In support of this aim, MAFF carried out monitoring and sampling at disposal sites, prepared reports on those sites and participated in emergency planning.

Water quality was monitored by the Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory, and agricultural land by successive divisions of MAFF from 1954.

Some key records are:

  • registered files of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in MAF 209
  • files of the Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory are in MAF 336
  • files of the Advisory Panel on Discharge of Radioactive Wastes records in MAF 298
  • files of the Department of the Environment and predecessors relating to the safe disposal of radioactive waste are in HLG 120 (many relate to named sites)

General files of the Department for Energy are in EG 2. The records of the Hinkley Point C Inquiry are in EG 4.

Records of the Building Research Council in DSIR 4 include technical papers and reports about the disposal of radioactive waste.

Records of the UK Atomic Energy Authority are in the AB series.

For files about the disposal of radioactive waste at sea see FO 371.

24. Research stations

Records of many of the government scientific research stations are in series DSIR.

Records of research institutes are in series AY.

25. Searchlights

Powerful searchlights were used by the armed forces in both World Wars, and potential leakage of acids and other chemicals has caused concern. Files identifying locations during the First World War are in AIR 1. Second World War material is in ADM 1 and AVIA 7. Some location maps are in WO 78.

26. Valuation Office records

As well as increment value duty, the Finance Act of 1910 provided for the levying of a duty on minerals. Separate field books were created to record the required information; these are identifiable in our catalogue for IR 58 by ranges of numbers prefixed with ‘M’.

See our guide on Valuation Office survey for more information.

27. Waterway pollution

Waterway pollution may be summarised as including springs, rivers, canals, estuaries and ponds.

The subject of waterway pollution is beyond the scope of this guide but a search of our catalogue using ‘river AND pollution‘ will lead to numerous document references, including reports of the Standing Commission on River Pollution in MAF 326 and records of the River Pollution Joint Advisory Commission in MAF 49.

It is also worth searching for references to pollutants such as sewage works, breweries, industrial waste and fertilisers.

28. Contaminated land overseas

Reports on German factories at the end of the Second World War are in WO 252. The records of the post-war administration of Germany also contain much information about German industry at the end of the Second World War.

The Control Office, the department in London responsible for the exercise of British control in Germany and Austria, succeeded the Economic and Industrial Planning Staff administered by the War Office in 1945, and in 1947 became the German Section of the Foreign Office. Its records are in FO 935.

In Germany, the allied powers assumed complete authority after the war. The records of the Control Commission for Germany (British Element), of the British Commissioner and of his predecessor military authority, of his local administration in the British Zone and of the Control Council of the Commanders in Chief of the occupying powers are in: FO 1005, FO 1008, FO 1010, FO 1012, FO 1023, FO 1046, FO 1049, FO 1056.

Files on atomic trials in Australia are in DEFE 16.

29. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution records

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution was established as a standing body by Royal Warrant in February 1970 to advise on matters, both national and international, concerning:

  • the pollution of the environment
  • on the adequacy of research in this field
  • the future possibilities of danger to the environment

The records of the Commission held by The National Archives include:

  • Reports in CY 1
  • minutes and papers for meetings of the Commission in CY 2
  • Commission’s sub-committees in CY 4
  • registered files in CY 3

The Commission closed in 2014. To find out more about its role, see the archived website on the UK Government Web Archive.

30. Records in other archives

30.1 Searching our catalogue

You can search our catalogue using keywords and dates to see what is held in other archives. For advice on searching effectively, see Discovery help.

30.2 Mining records

Plans of abandoned coal mines are held by The Coal Authority.

Abandonment plans for metalliferous and other non-coal mines in England and Wales have now been dispersed to local record offices, with the exception of those in Cumbria which are currently held at the British Geological Survey (BGS) Edinburgh office.

Scottish abandonment plans are also with the BGS in Edinburgh; those for Ireland are held by the Geological Survey of Ireland in Dublin.

There is a large holding of plans of Welsh mines in the National Library of Wales.

Many mine plans remain in private hands, often with private estate offices; but all these plans should be treated with caution.

Many mines were exempt from regulation, largely because of the size of the workforce rather than the size of the mine.

Some plans were only acquired by HM Inspectors of Mines once mines had been abandoned, and are incomplete. Others, particularly those made during the boom in speculative mining in the late 1870s, can show projected rather than actual tunnels.

31. Legislation on contaminated lands

Section 57 of the Environment Act 1995 inserted into the Environmental Protection Act 1990 a Part IIA which provided a new regulatory regime for the identification and remediation of contaminated land. This regime was to come into force on 1 April 2000.

The Act required local authorities to create and maintain registers of contaminated land. These registers are normally available for public inspection. Most local authority websites contain information about the registers and the conditions under which inspection may take place.

The Act also placed a duty on local authorities to inspect their areas for any potentially contaminated land (as opposed to actual contaminated land), but not all authorities are yet creating registers of potentially contaminated land.

The Act defined contaminated land as ‘any land which appears to the local authority in whose area it is situated to be in such a condition, by reason of substances in, on or under the land, that (a) significant harm is being caused or there is a significant possibility of such harm being caused; or (b) pollution of controlled waters is being, or is likely to be, caused’.

In this context, ‘harm’ means ‘harm to the health of living organisms or other interference with the ecological systems of which they form part and, in the case of man, includes harm to his property’.

‘Controlled waters’ are defined by the Water Resources Act 1991, section 104 as being:

  • territorial waters (the waters which extend seaward for three miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea adjacent to England and Wales is measured)
  • coastal waters (any waters which are within the area which extends landward from those baselines as far as the limit of the highest tide; or, in the case of the waters of any relevant river or watercourse, the fresh-water limit of the river or watercourse, together with the waters of any enclosed dock which adjoins waters within that area)
  • inland freshwaters (the waters of any relevant lake or pond or of so much of any relevant river or watercourse as is above the fresh-water limit)
  • ground waters (any waters contained in underground strata)

Where contamination is found to exist, the local authority may require the owner(s) of the land to take ‘remediation action’.

This may involve action (a) to assess the condition of the land in question, of any controlled waters affected by that land, or of any land adjoining or adjacent to that land; (b) to prevent or minimise, or remedy or mitigate the effects of, any significant harm, or any pollution of controlled waters; (c) to restore land or waters to their former state; and/or (d) to make subsequent inspections from time to time for the purpose of keeping under review the condition of the land or waters.

A number of companies specialise in carrying out contaminated land investigations, and their websites are useful sources of information about law and practice.

32. Further reading


Roger Kain and Richard Oliver, The Tithe Maps of England and Wales: A Cartographic Analysis and Country-by-County Catalogue (Cambridge University Press 2011)


Contaminated lands on the website

Environment Agency on the website

Environmental Protection Act 1990: Part 2A, Contaminated Land Statutory Guidance