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Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 47
Last updated: 12 August 2013

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to access the principal records of Home Office correspondence at The National Archives. Records of Home Office correspondence are key to the study of late 18th to mid-20th century domestic British history (this guide covers records relating mainly to England and Wales), providing insights into a wide range of subjects relating to daily life. For example:

  • administration of the criminal justice and penal systems
  • the maintenance of public order
  • the regulation of aliens
  • naturalisation (the granting of British citizenship) - also see our guide on Naturalised Britons
  • the control of explosives, firearms, drugs and poisons
  • public health
  • poor laws/poverty
  • charities
  • electoral administration
  • civil defence
  • fire services

For pre-1782 material covering similar subjects, see the State Papers records. For advice on these records, consult the following research guides:

2. Essential information

The Home Office and the Foreign Office were formed on 27 March 1782, taking over and dividing the responsibilities of their predecessors, the Northern and Southern Departments. Find out more about the history of the Home Office.

Not all Home Office correspondence was selected for preservation.

Very few of the records described in this guide are available online. To view most of the documents that you find references for, you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.

3. The registers

In 1848, to cope with the growing diversity of subjects and the growing number of items of correspondence, the Home Office established a registry system, recording the daily receipt of letters. Correspondence dating back to 1839 was retrospectively registered. The options for searching, therefore, increase for correspondence from 1839 onwards.

The records held at The National Archives, as listed in our catalogue, are the items of correspondence selected for permanent preservation. The registers do not make this distinction and simply record all the letters received by the Home Office at the time. The registers therefore record some letters that have not survived and are not listed in our catalogue, and provide a more accurate picture of the total volume of Home Office correspondence, over time and by subject matter.

4. How to find correspondence up to c.1839 (before the registry system)

There are four main record series containing early general Home Office correspondence, HO 44, HO 42, HO 52 and HO 40. These often overlap both chronologically and in the nature of their content. Depending on the subject and dates of your research, therefore, it may be worth searching all of these series for relevant correspondence. However, the records within each of these series are described in different ways in our catalogue so search methods differ depending on the series and period.

Using the advanced search in our catalogue, follow the instructions below to search for document references and catalogue descriptions of correspondence in the respective series:

Search HO 44 (1773-1861):

Search HO 42 (1782-1820):

  • by keyword from September 1789 to 31 December 1799 (described in detail)
  • by date only after 1799 (most piecespiece - a record in a series after 1799 are described only as 'letters and papers' - however, the period from 1800 is currently being catalogued in detail and will be keyword searchable in the future)

Search HO 52 (1820-1850):

  • for 1820-1829 by year range only (there are just five piecespiece - a record in a series for these years, all described as 'all counties')
  • for most of 1830 and some of 1832 and 1837 by keyword (described in detail)
  • for 1830-1838 by alphabetical ranges of counties (for example, Bedford to Kent)
  • for 1839-1840 by alphabetical ranges of place names (for example, A-D, where a letter from Berwick upon Tweed would be filed); in the very last volume there are a small number of papers up to 1850

Search HO 40 (1812-1855) - for correspondence regarding disturbances, such as riots, strikes and political meetings (though disturbances are covered in the three series above too):

  • by keyword (browse this series to view typical descriptions)

Search HO 41 (1815-1916) for Disturbance Entry Books (referencing files in HO 40):

  • by date

You can also browse any of these series. For tips on whether to search or browse the catalogue, consult the Discovery help page.

5. How to find correspondence from c.1839-1979 (after the registry system)

For some background on the establishment of the registry system see section 3.

The two main series of Home Office correspondence for this period, for which the registers provide the key, are:

However, you do not now necessarily need to use the registers to find correspondence in these two series as most of it can be searched using keywords in our catalogue. That said, a keyword search will not always prove fruitful and even if it does you may find more information on a subject by consulting the registers. Other reasons to use the registers are:

  • You may find a fuller description
  • You may find a different description
  • You may find references to letters (regarding people, events and so on) which do not survive

Search for correspondence from this period in any of the following ways:

5.1 Using just our catalogue

Use the advanced search page in our catalogue, search by keyword (including people, places and subject matters) and restrict your search to references HO 45 and HO 144.

Catalogue descriptions within these series vary significantly, running from a few words to several paragraphs. Finding some records with a keyword search is, therefore, harder than for others.

Use the subject lists at the front of the printed version of HO 45, only available at The National Archives at Kew, for tips on the kinds of keywords useful for searching.

There is a detailed index of subjects covered in Home Office correspondence in the PRO Guide: Part 1, section 401, also available exclusively in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew.

5.2 Using our catalogue and the registers

The registers of correspondence are in HO 46, covering 1841 to 1957, and consist of:

  • registers of incoming correspondence
  • separate registers of special subjects
  • alphabetical indexes of correspondents

Use our catalogue to search or browse for a register within HO 46. Consult the register at The National Archives at Kew for a reference to a letter - this reference will take the form of a 'paper number'.

The paper numbers in the HO 46 registers often form part of the HO 45 reference to which they refer. It is sometimes possible to find the HO 45 reference by entering the paper number in the 'former reference' box on the advanced search page. When this is not possible, you may need to consult the packing lists (see section 5.3).

The registry system changed many times over the years and there are therefore distinct sets of registers within HO 46 for different years, as shown below:

  • 1839-1849 - HO 46/1A, HO 46/1B and HO 46/1C (these are for letters registered retrospectively once the system of registration began - they are known as OS {Old Series} papers)
  • 1850-1871 (up to March 8) - HO 46/2-47
  • 1871-1880 - HO 46/48-70 (all incoming papers in this period were registered in a series running from 1 to 100,000)
  • 1881-1901 - HO 46/71-133 (in 1880 a new system of consecutive numbers started, with an A prefix; this was followed shortly afterwards by a series with B, V and X prefixes)
  • 1902-1948 - HO 46/134-389 (the system of registration in these years was based on a six figure series starting at 100,001)

5.3 Using the catalogue, the registers and the packing list

Often the only way to find correspondence via the registers is to consult the packing lists. The packing lists are filed with the printed versions of HO 45 and HO 144, and are only available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew. They contain references to the piecespiece - a record in a series that survive.

The table below indicates which records do and don't require consultation of the packing list in order to access them. HO 45 and HO 144 are divided into blocks of dates, as shown, and each block has a subject arrangement within it.

For some blocks of years it is impossible to access the records without using the packing list but, in general, it is worth consulting them anyway as it provides a kind of "double check" to the search process.

Once you have a paper number, consult the table below and do one of the following (there are exceptions to these rules - try option 2 if option 1 fails):

1. Enter the paper numbers in the 'former reference' box on the advanced search page in our catalogue, placing an asterisk in the keywords box; the search result should provide you with an HO 45 or HO 144 reference code.

2. Find the paper number in the packing list and use both to form your HO 45 or HO 144 code

HO 45 1841-1855
See option 1, above 
1856-1871
See option 1, above
1871-1878
See option 2, above
1879-1900
See option 2, above
1901-1909
See option 2, above
1910-1919 See option 2, above 1920-1949
See option 1, above
HO 144 - - - 1879-1900
See option 2, above
1901-1909
See option 2, above
1910-1919 See option 2, above 1920-1949
See option 1, above

6. How to find other records of correspondence grouped by subject and type

6.1 Criminal cases

Use our catalogue to search or browse HO 12 for files on criminal matters 1849-1871.

For registers that were kept specifically for criminal cases, use our advanced catalogue search, restricting your search to reference HO 46 and the years you are interested in and searching using "criminal cases" as your keywords.

6.2 Foreign nationals in the UK and British citizenship

For the registers that were kept specifically for letters regarding foreign nationals in the UK and British citizenship, use our advanced catalogue search, restricting your search to reference HO 46 and the years you are interested in and searching using "'Aliens" or "naturalization'" as your keywords.

6.3 Personal and Private Office papers of Home Secretaries

Browse by reference in HO 317 for files kept in the Private Office of Home Secretaries.

6.4 Large bundles of papers

Search HO 326 by keyword for bundles of papers which, because of their large size, have not been placed with the appropriate file in HO 45, HO 144, HO 291 or HO 287.

6.5 Symbol Series

In 1949 a new system of filing Home Office correspondence was established, based on sets of files for each subject or function, each distinguished by letter codes, such as POL for Police files. These are known in our catalogue as Symbol Series. This system ran alongside the registry system for about a decade and then superseded it. These Symbol Series, arranged by letter codes, are in separate HO record series.

Search for them from the advanced search page in our catalogue, using "symbol" as your search term and searching within HO.

7. Further reading

Sir E Troup, The Home Office (Puttnams, 1925)

R R Nelson, The Home Office, 1782-1801 (Durham, N.C., 1969)

Sir F Newsam, The Home Office (Allen and Unwin, 1954)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 47

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