How to look for records of... Environmental pollution and damage

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide is designed to help you find historical records created by central government, now held at The National Archives, that relate to environmental damage, primarily in the UK. It covers records of damage caused by:

  • military activities, infrastructure and conflict (including bombing)
  • industrial use of land
  • chemical waste and radioactive waste
  • natural disasters such as flooding and storms
  • aviation and industrial accidents

The information in this guide is not a statement of law. See the Legislation.gov.uk website for up-to-date legislation and legal definitions. For advice on current issues, see the pages of the the Environment Agency on the GOV.UK website as well as the sections on Contaminated lands.

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. You can search the catalogue using keywords and dates.

Try searching our catalogue using:

  • ‘contamination’ or ‘pollution’; though the two terms have often been used more or less interchangeably in some records, different departments sometimes favoured one or the other; these terms will return many results
  • names of specific contaminants or harmful substances
  • names of places where contamination or other kinds of environmental damage has occurred
  • names of natural disasters, such as ‘floods’ or ‘earthquakes’ plus dates
  • names of industrial sites, such as ‘gas works’, ‘steel plants’, ‘oil refineries’, ‘tanneries’, ‘chemical factories’
  • broad terms such as ‘dangerous substances’ or ‘chemical processing’

Sometimes it may help to narrow your search to the records of a specific National Archives department, usually equivalent to a government department. Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to do this. Departments are identified by a letter code reference and the advanced search allows you to search specifically within any reference. You can use the subsequent sections of this guide to identify suitable government departments and their letter codes. Widespread industrialisation and changing land use over many centuries means that records from many different government departments may contain information about environmental pollution and damage.

The following National Archives departments, among many others, may be worth targeting:

  • Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution – department code CY (for more on which, see section 3)
  • Records of the Department of the Environment – department code AT (there is a division of records in AT from the Central Directorate on Environmental Protection)
  • Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and related bodies – department code DSIR
  • Records of Various Research Institutes and Councils – department code AY
  • Records of the Chemical Regulations Directorate Health and Safety Executive – department code SE
  • Records of the Ministry of Fuel and Power – department code POWE
  • Records of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and its successors – department code HLG
  • Home Office records – department code HO

3. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

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

Click here for a broad breakdown of the records of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution held by The National Archives.

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

4. Specific chemicals and substances

You can search our catalogue for records relating to particular pollutants simply by searching with the name of the substance. This will not uncover all records on the subject but is a logical starting point. The next step is to use the table below.

There are thousands of chemicals and substances with contaminating potential. In general, the following criteria are used to judge whether substances have the potential to cause problems with regard to contamination (the Environment Agency website contains further information and advice):

  • 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

Click on the record series references in the table for more information on the content and background behind the respective records and to try a search of the records using keywords and dates.

Chemical or other substance Record series Notes
Alkali BT 328
Anthrax DEFE 55 and WO 181 See also section 5.3
Asbestos LAB 2 and LAB 14 Ministry of Labour records contain much information about workers and workplaces affected by asbestos.  Searches for records could include keywords related to manufacturing processes, industrial uses and to specific locations.
Coal Various COAL series Use the advanced search to search across the COAL department using ‘pollution’ and ‘contamination’ as keywords.
Cyanides AY 2 and DSIR 13 Cyanides are subject to specific requirements because the way in which they break down and their effects on human health pose particular concerns. The record series cited are from the Water Pollution Research Board and Laboratory but records of the effects of cyanides are held in a number of other departments.
Fuels Various POWE series Many of the Ministry of Fuel and Power’s records (POWE) contain material on contamination and pollution. It had separate divisions responsible for coal, electricity, gas, iron and steel, petroleum and hydroelectric power.
Lead Various MAF and MH series
Oil POWE 33 This series includes files about coastal pollution.
Pesticides CY 2 and MAF 284 See also section 9
Petroleum POWE 33 This series includes files about coastal pollution.
Radioactive waste Various MAF and MH series See also section 10

5. Military damage

Most of the following records cover the First World War and Second World War.

5.1 Aircraft crashes

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

There are files about the examination and investigation of German aircraft which crashed in Britain during the Second World War in:

  • 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)

5.2 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.

5.3 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 these Ministry of Labour record series:

  • Safety, Health and Welfare registered files in LAB 14
  • Government Wool Disinfecting Station in LAB 46
  • Registers of Lead Poisoning and Anthrax Cases created by the Factory Inspectorate and Factory Department of the Home Office in LAB 56
  • Correspondence in LAB 2

5.4 Bomb damage

Locate records of bomb damage, and potentially of unexploded bombs, from the Second World War in:

  • bomb census maps in HO 193
  • surveys of air-raid damage in HO 192
  • other Ministry of Home Security series in the HO department
  • War Damage Commission records in IR 33-39

See our Bomb Census survey guide for more information.

5.5 Explosives

Records relating to the Royal Gunpowder Factories at Waltham Abbey and Faversham are in WO 385 and WO 397 and include numerous plans of buildings used for the production and storage of cordite, guncotton, nitroglycerine and other substances. 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:

5.6 Munitions and other military 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.

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 and rolling mills are in WORK 13.

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

5.7 Fortifications

Many former defence sites are likely to have been contaminated by explosives, chemicals and so on. Board of Ordnance records from the 19th century contain much material about munitions stores, gun emplacement and more. 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.

5.8 Minefields

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:

  • charts showing the position of minefields in British waters during the Second World War are in ADM 239 (In general, Admiralty records relating to minefields are concerned with minefields at sea, but some also contain information about landmines)
  • records on the laying and clearance of minefields in WO 32 and WO 201
  • reports are in WO 204
  • maps of minefields in Libya during the Second World War are in WO 234
  • minesweeping reports of the Central Mine Clearance Board in ADM 23

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

Our guide to Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests contains advice on how you can search in ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 199 for records.

5.9 Searchlights

Powerful searchlights were used by the armed forces in both World Wars, and potential leakage of acids and other chemicals has caused concern. To try identifying locations consult the following series for:

5.10 Environmental damage in Germany during the Second World War

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. Our Foreign Office guide contains advice on how to find records of the Control Commission for Germany (British Element).

5.11 Chemical and materials research

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.

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.

An Admiralty Chemist was first appointed in 1870 and subsequently an Admiralty Chemical Department developed at Portsmouth but 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 around 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.

See the following series for:

  • Reports of the Admiralty Chemist from 1939, in ADM 248
  • Reports of the Chemical Advisory Panel, established in 1943 to advise the Director of Scientific Research, in ADM 247 and ADM 220
  • Reports and papers of the Admiralty’s Central Metallurgical Laboratory, in ADM 254
  • Records of the Admiralty Marine Technology Establishment, which absorbed the 1947-established Admiralty Materials Laboratory whose focus was research into metallurgy, rubber, plastics and chemicals, in ADM 252

6. Civilian aircraft crashes

Many files on crashes of civilian aircraft, both in Britain and overseas, are held among the records of the Ministry of Aviation and its successors, including:

  • Civil Aviation Accident Reports 1919-1976, in AVIA 5
  • Accidents Investigation Branch 1952-1981, in AVIA 101
  • Accidents Investigation Branch Policy Files 1949-1981, in AVIA 102

7. Burial sites

The records of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (department code HLG) contain numerous references to the creation, extension and closure of burial grounds.

There are files about the construction of baths, schools, public shelters and other buildings on former burial grounds and cemeteries in:

  • Home Office registered papers in HO 45
  • Ministry of Health registered files on burial grounds in HLG 45

8. Mining

There is an enormous amount of material on coal mining and other types of mining among our records, especially when it took place on Crown land. For more detailed information on these records see our guide to Mines and Mining.

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

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

8.1 Maps of mines and mine locations

For information on which tithe maps (held in IR 30) show pits and shafts, see The Tithe Maps of England and Wales: A Cartographic Analysis and Country-by-County Catalogue by Kain and Oliver.

Maps and plans of locations of mines, including offshore mining in County Durham and Northumberland and 16th century maps showing open-cast mines, are in LRRO 1.

You can search our catalogue for other maps that may indicate mines in Crown Estate recordsState Papers and records of the Forestry Commission (especially the Forest of Dean series). However, 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).

8.2 Other records of mines

There are numerous references to mines in Chancery (C), Duchy of Lancaster (DL) and Crown Estate Office (CRES) records

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

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.

8.3 Mining records held in other archives

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.

9. Pesticides

Published in 1949, the report of the Gowers Committee on Health, Welfare and Safety in Non-Industrial Employment (see the report in Parliamentary Papers, 1949, Cmd 7664 via Parliamentary Papers online) revealed, among other things, a large number of fatal accidents involving the spraying of pesticides to kill weeds. It was following this report that the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries first became involved in the control of pesticides, in 1952.

The concerns raised led to the passing of the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act 1952, ushering in regulations on protective clothing and other safety procedures as well as a 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. In 1993 this work fell to the newly-created Pesticides Safety Directorate (PSD), an executive agency of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Search in MAF and SE files for records of the PSD.

The 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.

10. 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 among the files of the:

  • Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in MAF 209
  • Fisheries Radiobiological Laboratory are in MAF 336
  • Advisory Panel on Discharge of Radioactive Wastes records in MAF 298
  • Department of the Environment and predecessors relating to the safe disposal of radioactive waste are in HLG 120 (many relate to named sites)
  • Department for Energy in EG 2
  • Hinkley Point C Inquiry in EG 4
  • Building Research Council in DSIR 4 (includes technical papers and reports about the disposal of radioactive waste)
  • UK Atomic Energy Authority are in the AB series.

For files on:

  • the disposal of radioactive waste at sea, see FO 371
  • atomic trials in Australia, see DEFE 16

11. Waterway pollution

For records of waterway pollution, affecting springs, rivers, canals, estuaries and ponds, search our catalogue using the name of a waterway or a type of waterway with the word ‘pollution’.

  • Reports of the Standing Commission on River Pollution are in MAF 326
  • Records of the River Pollution Joint Advisory Commission in MAF 49

Try also searches for references to pollutants such as sewage works, breweries, industrial waste and fertilisers.

See also section 10 on radioactive waste.

12. Legislation on contaminated lands

For all current and past legislation see Legislation.gov.uk.

Section 57 of the Environment Act 1995 inserted into the Environmental Protection Act 1990 a Part 2A 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. See Environmental Protection Act 1990: Part 2A, Contaminated Land Statutory Guidance.

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.