This research guide is intended as an introduction to the key records relating to the history the British Empire and Commonwealth held at The National Archives and at other archives in the UK.
2. Records held at The National Archives
The National Archives is probably the single richest source of records for the study of Imperial and Commonwealth history. As well as official records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices, The National Archives holds many personal and semi-official papers of British ministers and officials relating to former British colonies; including the papers of General Sir Redevers Buller (WO 132), Viscount Cardwell, 4th Earl of Carnarvon (PRO 30/30), Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (PRO 30/57) and Viscount Milner (PRO 30/30). You can search for records using Discovery our catalogue and selecting the 'held by The National Archives' option.
The National Archives also has written many research guides describing sources for imperial and commonwealth history including guides on the Colonial Office, Foreign Office, and Dominions Office as well as a guide called Colonies and dependencies: further research.
3. Searching for records elsewhere
Use Discovery our catalogue to find records from The National Archives and over 2,500 archives across the UK.
Your search results will display details from a range of archives. You can then refine your results.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the description of a record, the search results are displayed under the 'Records' tab.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the name of the institution or person that originally created the record (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the record), the search results are displayed under the 'Record creators' tab.
For further tips on searching see our catalogue help pages.
4. Accessions to repositories
Each year The National Archives contacts approximately 250 of the major collecting institutions in the British Isles in order to discover which major and unusual accessions have been received. This information is added to Discovery, our catalogue. It is also edited and used to produce thematic digests, including one relating to Imperial and Commonwealth history. The digests are made available online and distributed for publication in a number of learned journals and newsletters. Further information about accessions is available on our website.
5. Relevant repositories
The following is a list of repositories and institutions that hold major collections relating to Imperial and Commonwealth history.
University of Birmingham: Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, Main Library, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT
Holds the Church Missionary Society Archive as well as the personal papers of numerous individual missionaries.
Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD
Holds extensive primary source materials on southern Africa with a strong emphasis on Rhodesia and parts of South Africa in the post Second World War period, including papers of Joost De Blank, Sir Patrick Duncan, the Rev WD Grenfell, Dame Naomi Mitchison, Sir TIF Wilson and Sir Roy Welensky. See Tom Lodge, AV Akeroyd and CP Lunt Guide to the Southern Africa Archives in the University of York (1979).
British Library, Manuscript Collections, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
As one of the major national repositories for the United Kingdom the British Library holds papers of many eminent persons who served as colonial administrators. Some 53 such individuals are listed in the Commission's guide to the Private Papers of British Colonial Governors 1782-1900, (HMSO 1986) and many others can be found in The British Library, Catalogue of Additions to Manuscripts (1986).
British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
The single most important repository in the UK for records documenting the British presence in the sub-continent. Holdings include official records of the East India Company, Board of Control and India Office, taking in records of British administration in the Persian Gulf, East Africa and South Asia at different periods. Also holds extensive collections of personal papers of individuals who served in the area, notable examples being the Viceregal papers of Chelmsford, Curzon, Dufferin, Lansdowne, Mountbatten, Northbrook and Wavell. See Select List of the Private Collections in the European MSS (1985) and DM Blake, Catalogue of the European Manuscripts in the Oriental and India Office Collections in the British Library (1998).
Cambridge University: Centre of South Asian Studies, Laundress Lane, Cambridge CB2 1SD
Holds records relating to the British presence in India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, Nepal and Afghanistan, with a strong emphasis on the papers of civil servants and others who worked in government administration for the period 1760-1947. See Mary Thatcher Cambridge South Asian Archive (1973) and L Carter and D Bateson Principal Collections of Papers in the Cambridge South Asian Archive (3rd ed, 1995).
Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR
Holds records of colonial officials and others including Lt-General Sir George Arthur, Sir John Glover and Frederick Grant Banks as well as a large collection of travel journals, diaries and papers. Records of organisations such as the Imperial Federation League, the Royal Colonial Institute and the Commonwealth Producers Organisation are also held. See DH Simpson Manuscript Catalogue of the Royal Commonwealth Society (1975)
Durham University Library, Special Collections, Palace Green, Durham DH1 3RN
Holds papers of former officials, soldiers, missionaries and businessmen who served or lived in the Sudan 1899-1956. See Summary Guide to the Sudan Archive (nd).
London University: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Senate House Library, South Block, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Holds major collections of primary sources relating to countries in the Commonwealth with a particular emphasis on southern Africa and the West Indies. Among the personal papers held are those of CLR James, Simon Taylor and Richard Hart, Richard Jebb, Sir William Ivor Jennings, Mary Benson and John Patrick Cope. Organisational holdings include records of the African National Congress, South African Congress of Democrats and the West India Committee.
London University: School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG
An extensive collection of oriental and African MSS and related European MSS, including private papers of overseas administrators, businessman, scholars, teachers, missionaries and travellers. The School also holds many business records including the British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd, Guthrie and Co Ltd, India merchants, London and John Swire and Sons, oriental merchants and ship owners. The School is one of the main repositories for overseas mission records including the London Mission Society, the Methodist Missionary Society, the China Inland Mission, the United Society for Christian Literature and others; other organisational records include Liberation, formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the China Association. See Guide to the Archives and Manuscript Collections (1987).
Musee Royale de L'Afrique Centrale, Leuvensesteenweg 13, Tervuren, 3080, Belgium
Holds, in addition to records relating to the Congo, papers of Sir Francis Walter De Winton and Sir Henry Morton Stanley.
National Archives of Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0N4, Canada
Holds papers of British colonial officials who served in Canada including Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, Lt-General Sir Archibald Campbell, General Sir William MacBean George Colebrooke, Admiral Sir Thomas Duckworth, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham and the Legge family, Earls of Dartmouth. See Union List of Manuscripts in Canadian Repositories, revised edition (1975).
National Record of Scotland, HM General Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YY
Holds papers of persons who served in the colonial administration including Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, George William Hope, Lt-General Sir James Leith, Henry Brougham Loch, 1st Baron Loch and General George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie.
National Archives of Zimbabwe, Borrowdale Road Gunhill, Harare, Zimbabwe
Holds a collection of non-official historical manuscripts comprised of private papers of former colonial officials including Albert Henry George Grey, 4th Earl Grey, Sir Leander Starr Jameson, Sir Harry Hamilton Johnson, Sir William Henry Milton, General Sir George Thomas Napier and Colonel Francis William Rhodes; also, business records including the Anglo-African Trading Co and records of missions and other organisations. See TW Baxter and EE Burke Guide to the Historical Manuscripts in the National Archives of Rhodesia (1970).
National Library of Australia, Parkes Place, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, ACT 2600, Australia
Holds private papers of officials including the Governor-Generals John Lawrence Baird, 1st Viscount Stonehaven, Thomas Denman, 3rd Baron Denman, Ronald Crauford Munro-Ferguson, Viscount Novar and Hallam Tennyson, 2nd Baron Tennyson.
National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Collections, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EW
Holds records of eminent individuals who served in the colonial administration including Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane, Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, Admiral Sir Charles Elliot, Hugh Elliot, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, 4th Earl of Minto and General Sir Thomas Hislop.
Oxford University: Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3RG
Holds manuscript collections relating mainly to Africa, including papers of colonial officials and other persons including Cecil John Rhodes, General Sir Richard Bourke and Lord Lugard, and papers of former British colonial officials and development administrators collected under the Oxford Colonial Records Project and the Oxford Development Records Project. Rhodes House Library also holds organisational records including the Fabian Colonial Bureau, the London Group on African Affairs and the Africa Bureau. See LB Frewer Manuscript Collections of Africana in Rhodes House Library, Oxford (1968) and Manuscript Collections (excluding Africana)(1970-1978).
Oxford University: St Antony's College: Middle East Centre Archive, Oxford OX2 6JF
Holds the papers of over two hundred individuals who either served or had interests in the Middle East, with particular emphasis on Palestine during the period of the British Mandate and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States since the First World War. Among individuals of note are Harold Richard Patrick Dickson, Cecil John Edmonds, Harry St John Philby and Major-General Sir Edward Louis Spears.
Rhodes University Cory Library for Historical Research, PO Box 184, Grahamstown, Cape Province, 6140, South Africa
Holds collections that are particularly rich in the personal papers of Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries, soldiers and colonial officials.
Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR
Holds records of overseas expeditions and private papers, diaries and travel journals of British explorers in territories which subsequently became colonies. See The RGS Archives. A Handlist, compiled by Christine Kelly. (Reprinted from the Geographical Journal vols 141-3 and a supplement 1988 vol 154).
State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, Macquarie Street, Sydney, New South Wales, NSW 2000, Australia
Holds papers of officials in the colonial administration, including Vice-Admiral William Bligh, General Sir Richard Bourke, Sir Evan Nepean and Sir Alfred Stephen.
6. Useful links
The Archives Hub provides a single point of access to descriptions of archives held in UK universities and colleges. At present these are primarily at collection-level, although where possible they are linked to complete catalogue descriptions.
AIM25 is a major project to provide electronic access to collection level descriptions of the archives of over 50 higher education institutions and learned societies within the greater London area.
Research resources relating to Caribbean Studies and the history of Black and Asian peoples in the UK.
The database contains a sample of records held across the UK relating to Caribbean Studies and immigration to Britain.
The Mundus Gateway is a web-based guide to more than 400 collections of overseas missionary materials held in the United Kingdom. These materials, comprising the archives of British missionary societies, collections of personal papers, printed matter, photographs, other visual materials and artefacts, are held in a large number of libraries, record offices and other institutions in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Scottish Archive Network (SCAN)
The project aims to revolutionise access to Scotland's archives by providing a single electronic catalogue to the holdings of more than 50 Scottish archives.
7. Further reading
ALP Burdett, Summary Guide to Archive and Manuscript Collections relevant to the Former British Colonial Territories in the United Kingdom (Commonwealth Archivists Association)1988)
LH Gipson, Guide to Manuscripts relating to the History of the British Empire 1748-1776 (1970)
AR Hewitt, Guide to Resources for Commonwealth Studies in London, Oxford and Cambridge (1957)
HMC Private Papers of British Colonial Governors 1782-1900 (1986)
HMC Private Papers of British Diplomats 1782-1900 (1984)
CA Jones, Britain and the Dominions. A Guide to the Business and related records in the UK concerning Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa (1978)
RB Pugh, Records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices (1964)
R Seton and E Naish, Preliminary Guide to the Archives of British Missionary Societies (Workshop on Missionary Archives at SOAS, 8-9/7/1992)
DH Simpson, Manuscript Catalogue of the Royal Commonwealth Society (1975)
Anne Thurston, Records of the Colonial Office, Dominions Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office (1995)
Anne Thurston, Sources for Colonial Studies in the Public Record Office Vol. 1. Records of the Colonial Office, Dominions Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office (1995)
Geoffrey Yeo, The British Overseas: A Guide to Records of their Births, Baptisms, Marriages, Deaths and Burials Available in the UK (1984)
RW Baldock, Survey of Southern African Manuscripts in the United Kingdom (1976)
TW Baxter & EE Burke, Guide to the Historical Manuscripts in the National Archives of Rhodesia (1970)
C Cook, The Making of Modern Africa. A Guide to Archives (1995)
Durham University Library, Summary Guide to the Sudan Archive (nd)
Tom Lodge, AV Akeroyd & CP Lunt, Guide to the Southern Africa Archives in the University of York (1979)
N Matthews, Materials for West African History in the Archives of the United Kingdom (1973)
N Matthews & MD Wainwright, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to Africa (1971)
N Matthews & MD Wainwright, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to the Middle East and North Africa (1980)
JD Pearson, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to Africa, 2 vols (1993-94)
Anne Thurston, Guide to Archives and Manuscripts relating to Kenya and East Africa in the UK, 2 vols (1991)
The Americas and West Indies
CM Andrews, Guide to the Materials for American History to 1783 in the Public Record Office, 2 vols ((Kraus reprint)1965)
CM Andrews, Guide to the Manuscript Materials for the History of the US to 1783, in the British Museum, in minor London Archives, and in the Libraries of Oxford and Cambridge ((Kraus reprint)1965)
EC Baker, Guide to Records in the Leeward Islands (1965)
EC Baker, Guide to Records in the Windward Islands (1968)
HC Bell et al, Guide to British West Indian Archive Materials, in London and in the Islands, for the History of the United States (1926)
V Bloomfield, Resources for Canadian Studies in Britain, with some reference to related collections in Europe (2nd ed, 1983)
BR Crick, M Alman & JW Raimo, Guide to Manuscripts relating to America in Great Britain and Ireland (1979)
Guy Grannum, Tracing Your West Indian Ancestors (PRO Readers' Guide no. 11, 1995)
JS Handler, Guide to Source Materials for the Study of Barbados History 1627-1834 (1974)
CO Paullin & FL Paxson, Guide to the Materials in London Archives for the History of the US since 1783 ((Kraus reprint) 1965)
KE Ingram, Sources of Jamaican History, 1655-1838, 2 vols (1976)
LJ Ragatz, Guide to the Official Correspondence of the Governors of the British West India Colonies with the Secretary of State 1763-1833 (1923)
LJ Ragatz, Guide for the Study of British Caribbean History 1763-1834 (1932)
Peter Walne, Guide to Manuscript Sources for the History of Latin America and the Caribbean in the British Isles (1973)
BG Wilson and A Burdett, Manuscripts and Government Records in the United Kingdom and Ireland relating to Canada (1992)
V Bloomfield, Resources for Australian and New Zealand Studies. A Guide to Library Holdings in the United Kingdom (1986)
Guide to Collections of Manuscripts relating to Australia, 3 vols (1965)
P Mander-Jones, Manuscripts in the British Isles relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific (1972)
P Jones, Britain and Palestine, 1914-1948: Archival Sources for the History of the British Mandate (1979)
N Matthews & MD Wainwright, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to the Middle East and North Africa (1980)
South Asia and South-East Asia
Brigid Allen, India Office Records: Diaries Held by the European Manuscripts Section (1981)
DM Blake, Catalogue of the European Manuscripts in the Oriental and India Office Collections in the British Library (1998)
L Carter & D Bateson, Principal Collections of Papers in the Cambridge South Asian Archive (3rd ed, 1995)
India Office Library and Records: Select List of the Private Collections in the European MSS (1985)
N Matthews & MD Wainwright, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to the Far East (1977)
JD Pearson, Guide to Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to South and South-East Asia, 2 vols (1989-90)
RK Renford, Archival and Library Sources for the study of the activities of the non-official British Community in India - a brief survey ((SOAS) 1976)
GPSH de Silva, Survey of Archives and Manuscripts relating to Sri Lanka and located in major London Repositories ((UNESCO) 1981)
Mary Thatcher, Cambridge South Asian Archive: Records of the British Period in South Asia (1973)
Pitt Kuan Wah, Guide to the Public & Private Records Relating to Singapore in Nine Major Repositories in the UK (unpublished dissertation, microfiche copy available in the Open Reading Room, at The National Archives, Pamphlet 959.67 WAH).