1. Why use this guide?
This is a guide to records of the Cabinet held at The National Archives. It provides details of the changing ways in which the affairs and decisions of Cabinet have been recorded since 1915, and what you need to know to find these records either online or at The National Archives' site in Kew. If you are interested in why and how major decisions of the British Government have been made since the First World War, then this guide will prove useful.
2. Essential information
2.1 What is the Cabinet?
The Cabinet is the supreme decision-making body in government, dealing with the major issues of the day and the Government's overall strategy.
2.2 How to access records of the Cabinet
The department code for Cabinet records at The National Archives is CAB. Some of the records in the CAB department have been digitised (see sections 3, 6 and 14 below) but most are only available to view in their original format at The National Archives in Kew. To narrow your search to a specific series of records within the CAB department (for example, CAB 1):
- use this guide to identify the CAB series covering the period or type of document you are interested in (for a broad overview of CAB references, consult sections 5, 6 and 7; for advice on references to more specific subject matters since 1916, consult sections 8 to 15)
- include the relevant CAB series reference in your search terms in Discovery, our catalogue
3. Cabinet papers online
Cabinet papers, including minutes and memoranda dated from 1915 onwards, have been digitised by The National Archives in a project funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). The papers are available to search and download at nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers.
4. Published guides to Cabinet records
The Public Record Office, the predecessor of The National Archives, published a number of handbooks describing the papers of the Cabinet Office and the CAB series in which they can be found. These handbooks will help you to find your way around Cabinet records. They are available at our site in Kew and in major reference libraries. You can search for the availability of each title on The National Archives' library catalogue by clicking on the links below.
- PRO Handbook No.4 - List of Cabinet Papers, 1880-1914 (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1964)
- PRO Handbook No.6 - List of Papers of the Committee of Imperial Defence to 1914 (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1964)
- PRO Handbook No. 9 - List of Cabinet Papers, 1915-1916 (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966)
- PRO Handbook No. 11 - The Records of the Cabinet Office to 1922 (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966)
- PRO Handbook No. 15 - The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1972)
- PRO Handbook No. 17 - The Cabinet Office to 1945 (Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1975)
5. Cabinet records before 1916
Until the Cabinet Secretariat was formed in December 1916 no formal records of Cabinet meetings, such as minutes and conclusions, were kept. The only record of Cabinet decisions was contained in letters written by the Prime Minister to the Sovereign after each meeting.
These letters vary a great deal in length and detail and are now preserved in the Royal Archives at Windsor. Microfilms of the letters from 1837 to 1867 have been published by Harvester Press and can be viewed at the British Library at Boston Spa and other academic institutions. Photocopies of the letters for 1868-1916 are available at The National Archives at Kew in record series CAB 41. Photocopies of Cabinet papers held in private and other collections for 1880-1916 are in record series CAB 37. For detailed lists of these papers see PRO Handbooks 4 and 9 (see section 4).
Some eight hundred Cabinet papers that had been returned to the Cabinet Office by former Ministers or their executors are in CAB 1, which to a great extent duplicates CAB 37.
6. Cabinet records from 1916: Cabinet conclusions
Cabinet conclusions (called minutes until August 1919) are normally taken by the Secretary to the Cabinet or one of the Secretary's assistants. They are not verbatim accounts of meetings but consist of summaries of the discussion together with a note of the decisions reached. These records are available on the Cabinet Papers section of our website.
Cabinet conclusions are prefixed with a letter code. The series codes are as follows:
|CM||(1963- )||CAB 128|
Certain conclusions were regarded as being especially secret and were recorded in the Secretary's Standard File and became Confidential Annexes. Those for 1917-1939 are in CAB 23/13. Those from 1939 to 1948 are contained in separate volumes for each year located in CAB 65 and CAB 128. Confidential annexes for 1949 to September 1951 are in CAB 128/21. From October 1951 they are included with each volume of Cabinet conclusions. From this period the Confidential Annexes are also described in our catalogue as 'most confidential' records.
CAB 195, the Cabinet Secretaries´ notebooks, (1942 onwards), are the handwritten notes which the Cabinet Secretary makes when he attends Cabinet meetings as the Senior Secretary. The notebooks provide more detailed accounts of the meetings than appear in the printed minutes. The CAB 195 series gives more of a flavour of the discussions at Cabinet and therefore of the relationship and views of individual ministers.
7. Cabinet records from 1916: Cabinet memoranda
Cabinet memoranda are circulated to members of the Cabinet and other ministers for information or as a basis for discussion. There are indexes to memoranda at The National Archives in Kew, together with the memoranda of the War Cabinet of 1939 to 1945, in CAB 66, and the post-war Cabinet, in CAB 129. The memoranda of the pre-war Cabinets are in CAB 24 and the copies of Cabinet papers from 1880 to 1916 are in CAB 37. Cabinet papers from 1916 are denoted by symbols similar to those used for the conclusions. For instance, WP(40)345 denotes the 345th paper laid before the War Cabinet in 1940. The two department codes prefixing the symbols denote different series of Cabinet papers and are as follows:
|G or GT||(1916-1919)|
|WP, WP(G) or WP(R)||(1939-1945)|
8. Cabinet records during the First World War
As explained in section 5 above, records of Cabinet meetings for the first two years of the war, until 1916, can be found in Prime Minister's Letters in CAB 41 and in papers circulated for discussion in CAB 37. It soon became clear that a better system was needed for conducting Cabinet business.
In November 1914 the Cabinet established the War Council to advise on the general conduct of the war, but the Council met infrequently and was replaced in May 1915 by the Dardenelles Committee which was concerned, as the name suggests, mainly with the Gallipoli expedition. The Dardenelles Committee in turn was replaced in November 1915 by the War Committee, with responsibility for the whole range of naval and military operations and war policy in general. These various bodies were assisted by the permanent secretariat of the Committee for Imperial Defence (CID), which kept detailed minutes and organised the issuing of memoranda (see sections 10 and 11). The papers and minutes are in CAB 22, with photocopies chronologically arranged in CAB 42. A more detailed account of the Cabinet at this time, together with a list of the papers issued by the Cabinet can be found in PRO Handbook 9 (see section 4). For more advice on the records of the CID see section 13.
When Lloyd George became Prime Minister on 7 December 1916, the secretariat of the CID, under Sir Maurice Hankey, became the nucleus of a new Cabinet Office serving a small War Cabinet. The main series of papers circulated to the War Cabinet, classified as GT, are in CAB 24. The minutes and conclusions of the War Cabinet were noted for the first time and are in CAB 23.
9. Cabinet records in the inter-war years
With the return of peace, Lloyd George replaced the small War Cabinet with a traditional Cabinet of 20 members. At its first meeting on 4 November 1919, the new Cabinet decided to retain the methods of record keeping used by the War Cabinet.
The Cabinet conclusions of the inter-war years continue in CAB 23 and Cabinet memoranda are in CAB 24. Further information about the Cabinet in the inter-war years can be found in PRO Handbook 17 (see section 4).
10. The War Cabinet 1939-1945
From September 1939 to May 1945 the Cabinet was replaced by a smaller War Cabinet with a membership varying between five and ten and including both departmental and non-departmental ministers. There was no change in the way in which decisions were recorded and papers circulated.
Conclusions of the War Cabinet are in CAB 65 and memoranda circulated to its members are in CAB 66. There are two other small series of memoranda, WP(G) in CAB 67 and WP(R) in CAB 68.
Further details about the War Cabinet are to be found in PRO Handbooks 15 and 17 (see section 4).
11. Cabinet records of the post-war period
On the defeat of Germany in May 1945 the War Cabinet was dissolved and a caretaker Cabinet was formed by Churchill. The conclusions and memoranda of this Cabinet are to be found in CAB 65 and CAB 66 respectively.
12. Cabinet committees
12.1 What are Cabinet committees?
To assist the work of Cabinet, the government relies on the employment of numerous Cabinet committees. These committees reduce the burden on the Cabinet itself by enabling collective decisions to be taken by a smaller group of Ministers. Cabinet committees are of two types: standing committees which last for the duration of a Prime Minister's term of office; and ad hoc committees which are convened to handle a single issue and are usually short lived.
12.2 Records of standing committees
Examples of standing committees, for which there are substantial sets of records at The National Archives, include the Committee of Imperial Defence (1904-1939; see also section 13), the Joint Intelligence Committee (1947-1968; see also our research guide to Intelligence records), the Defence Committee (1946-1963) and its successor the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (1964-1980) The records of other standing committees, including the Atomic Energy Committee, the Economic Policy Committee and Home Affairs Committee, are to be found in CAB 134. Standing committees can be further divided into ministerial committees composed of members of parliament and official committees composed of senior civil servants. Every individual committee was allocated a series of letters by which it was identified. The Economic Policy Committee was designated EPC while the Home Affairs Committee was known as HA. These can be searched on the catalogue using the former departmental file reference.
12.3 Records of ad hoc committees
The records of ad hoc committees are found in CAB 130. Each ad hoc committee is given a unique prefix, either MISC (miscellaneous) or GEN (general) and a number. The Committee on Subversive Activities, for example, was known as GEN 183. If a GEN or MISC number is known, the committee can be located on the catalogue using its former departmental file reference.
12.4 Other records of Cabinet committees
The details of most committees and sub-committees comprising the Cabinet committee structure from 1945 are to be found in the Committee Organisation Books located in CAB 161. Additionally, some of the PRO Handbooks listed in section 4 can also provide helpful insights into Cabinet committees.
13. The Committees of Imperial Defence
13.1 What were the Committees of Imperial Defence?
The Committee of Imperial Defence, established in 1902, was an advisory body with no executive powers. With the assistance of numerous sub-committees it advised the Cabinet and government departments on both the general principles of defence policy and their detailed application. The Prime Minister was its Chairman and only permanent member. A permanent secretariat established in 1904 became the Cabinet Secretariat in 1916.
During the First World War the functions of the CID were transferred to other committees and departments. Its first post-war meeting was in June 1920, and subsequently the CID met regularly until September 1939 when its functions were assumed by the War Cabinet. It was not revived after the war.
13.2 Records of the Committees of Imperial Defence
Minutes of the CID and the Standing Defence Sub-Committee are in CAB 2. Circulated papers of the CID are in CAB 3-6 and those of the Standing Defence Sub-Committee in CAB 34. Files of the CID before December 1916 are in CAB 17, and inter-war files in CAB 21. There are some miscellaneous records in CAB 18.
Before 1914 the CID had four permanent sub committees: Colonial (later Overseas) Defence (whose papers are in CAB 7-11); Home Ports (later Home) Defence (CAB 12-13); Co-ordination of Departmental Action (CAB 15) and Air (CAB 14). After 1918 only the first three were revived and they were subsequently augmented by a number of standing and ad hoc committees whose papers are in CAB 16, CAB 34-36, CAB 46-57 and CAB 60.
A list of papers of the CID until 1914 can be found in PRO Handbook 6 and there is a detailed history in PRO Handbook 17 (see section 4 for both).
14. The records of the Prime Minister's Office
Prime Minister's papers and Cabinet Office conclusions and memoranda (CAB 128 and CAB 129) for the years of the Macmillan Administration 1957-1963, can be accessed at Macmillan Online. Also available through this resource are the records of some key Cabinet committees from series CAB 134, including matters related to defence and nuclear policy, and changes affecting Britain's relationship with former dependent colonies. Digital copies of the 1971-1976 Cabinet Conclusions can be accessed from the Cabinet Papers section of our website. See also our Prime Minister's Office research guide.
15. Records of the Cabinet Secretariat
The Registered Files of the Cabinet and War Cabinets beginning in 1916 and containing papers on many aspects of British policy both domestic and foreign are in CAB 21. The records continue from 1966 in CAB 164 and CAB 165. These series also contain papers about the machinery of the Cabinet Secretariat. There is also a supplementary series of registered files (CAB 104) that were originally closed for 50 or 75 years.
16. Further reading
Tessa Blackstone and William Plowden, Inside the Think Tank: Advising the Cabinet 1971-1983 (William Heinemann Ltd, 1988)
Peter Hennessy, Cabinet (Basil Blackwell, 1986)
Peter Hennessy, Whitehall (Pimlico, 2001)
Arthur Berriedale Keith, The British Cabinet System (Stevens and Son, 1952)
John P Mackintosh, The British Cabinet (Stevens and Son, 1977)
Richard Rose, Ministers and Ministries: A Functional Analysis (Clarendon Press, 1987)