Stories Unboxed: A One Document Display

Our records come in all different shapes and sizes, but we love them all the same. We know there’s a story in every box that’s just waiting to be told.  It doesn’t matter if they’re 1,000 years old or 20 years old, each offers a glimpse into the past.

Stories Unboxed is a new display that takes a single document and explores its story. Let our specialists highlight topical finds and lesser-known treasures whilst you immerse yourself in moments of the past.

See it for yourself:

  • In person on the first floor of our building in Kew during opening hours
  • With a ten-minute talk from one of our collection specialists on the second Tuesday of every month, 12 noon, on the first floor
  • Online, through a variety of articles right here on this page.

Currently on display

Find out more about our current Stories Unboxed:

July 2024

The front page of a printed document with the coat of arms of the UK at the top.

Summary of the Arandora Star Inquiry

In July 1940 the SS Arandora Star was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. 805 people died, most of whom were Italian civilians being deported to Canada.

Henry Snell, 1st Baron Snell, was appointed chair of an inquiry into the tragedy, which changed public opinion about interning foreign citizens. This document shows his findings.

Read more about the Arandora Star Inquiry


Past displays

Read more about previous Stories Unboxed, and the work we’ve done to make these displays possible:

June 2024

A folded sheet of paper with a large brown wax circle with a king on horseback imprinted on it attached with string.

Letter patent with the Great Seal of Ireland attached

This unexpected gem is a document issued by the Chancery in Dublin, granting land to a John Farrell.

Attached is the Great Seal of Ireland, indicating approval from King Charles II in impressive style.

Read more about the document and Seal

May 2024

A printed paragraph in a Gothic font above a paragraph in a simple font, all within a red border.

The Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS)

The first Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was prompted by the sinking of RMS Titanic.

An attempt to establish basic rules became the most important international treaty about the safety of merchant ships and sea travel.

Read more about the SOLAS Convention

April 2024

Extract showing three lines of Medieval Latin written in brown ink on a yellowed sheet.

An unusual royal gift to the poet Geoffrey Chaucer

How do you reward a medieval poet? This document granted the author of the Canterbury Tales an unusual royal gift: a daily allowance of wine.

Read more about Chaucer’s reward

March 2024

Printed form in German filled in with typewritten text and including Roger's photo and fingerprint.

German record card for Roger Bushell, mastermind of the ‘Great Escape’

Roger Bushell (1910–1944) was a pilot, prisoner of war, and participant in the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III in March 1944.

Murdered by the Gestapo for his actions, Bushell’s story inspired Richard Attenborough’s character in the 1963 film The Great Escape.

Read more about Roger Bushell and the ‘Great Escape’

February 2024

A printed form filled in with black ink, with a stamp saying '£5000' on it.

Virginia Woolf’s death duty record

Death duty records might sound formal and dry, but can reveal a great deal about a person’s true feelings.

What can we learn about the loves and friendships of Bloomsbury Group author Virginia Woolf from whom she left her life’s labours to?

Read more about Virginia Woolf’s record

January 2024

A handwritten document written in one long paragraph. There is a stamp at the top.

Order for the execution of the leading Jacobite magnates

This document contains orders for the execution of six leading members of the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. The Jacobites supported the restoration of the Stuart line to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland following the deposition of James Stuart (James II) in 1688.

The 1715 Rebellion, along with another in 1745, was the peak of the Jacobitism movement.

Read more about the Jacobites on our blog

December 2023

A group of well-dressed partygoers stare up at a telecoms tower encased in a Christmas cracker.

Tom Smith’s Christmas crackers

This December, get closer to the Christmas crackers that started it all. In the 1840s, confectioner Tom Smith invented the festive tradition that goes ‘pop’, with his company soon becoming a leading manufacturer. The National Archives’ collection of Tom Smith’s cracker box labels, two of which are on currently on display, shows the creative ways he themed his crackers, tapping into popular interests of the day to boost sales.

See more in our image gallery


November 2023

The Treaty of Versailles open and on a table. Words are typed on each page and a red border on both.

The Treaty of Versailles

The National Archives holds the authenticated British copy of the Treaty of Versailles. Signed on 28 June 1919, this iconic and debated 428-page document set out the terms and conditions for peace following the First World War.

Read more about the treaty


October 2023

The papers of Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, a treasure galleon

A photograph of two aged documents.

Recently found in the Prize Papers collection, this set of letters and ship’s papers came from the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, which sailed the Pacific Ocean between 1731 and 1743. The trade routes sailed by Spanish galleons caused significant cultural, political and economic changes across the world, making these ships’ voyages some of the most significant in global history.

Read more about the Covadonga’s journey in our story


September 2023

Letter and memorandum concerning the Denning Committee on Legal Records

Letter excerpt, typewritten in blue ink.

In the 1960s, the Public Record Office and courts across the country were almost overflowing with legal records. The Denning Committee was tasked with examining these records and advising which should be preserved, and which destroyed.

The committee’s recommendations provoked trenchant criticism. Sir Robert Somerville, Chair of the British Records Association, strongly expressed his views in this letter to the committee’s secretary. The memorandum summarises objections to the draft report.

Despite the criticisms, the review’s recommendations on destruction were carried out and have had an enduring impact on the work of researchers and on the experience of open justice.

Read more in our blog


August 2023

collection of printed and written papers of different sizes, including a large form.

The 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and compensation claims

This August marks the 190th anniversary of the Abolition of Slavery Act. The Act focused heavily on the rules for compensating slave owners – and some of them appealed against the process, as our records show.

See more in our image gallery


July 2023

Frontispiece of the Beveridge Report, 1942. Catalogue reference: PREM 4/89/2

The Beveridge Report

What recommendations did William Beveridge’s report contain and how did these lead to the formation of the welfare state?

Read more in our blog


June 2023

An iconic record: The Empire Windrush passenger list

What is the Windrush Passenger list and what can we learn from it?

Read more in our blog


May 2023

Photo of a foreboding ruined abbey.

What links Dracula and Tess of the d’Urbervilles?

The answer is hidden in our collection of copyright registration forms.

Read more in our blog


April 2023

The Hairy Wardrobe Book

Account book of Robert de Wodehouse, deputy keeper of the king’s wardrobe, 1315-1316

The cover of a book with patches of straight brown hair.This detailed account of life at court in the reign of King Edward II is one of the wonders of The National Archives.

It is a beautiful, fascinating object and contains important details, all neatly laid out, about what King Edward spent at court on charity and religion, dress, food, jewels and officials’ wages.

The King’s New Clothes

Excerpt from an account book of the Auditors of the Imprest, about 1661

A handwritten list with a note in the margin.Charles II waited a year after returning from exile for his Coronation at Westminster on 23 April 1661. As this account reveals, he dressed in expensive robes.

Charles wore a newly-made crown and carried new regalia, Parliament having destroyed the ancient symbols of monarchy.

Read more in our blog

The top of 'the hairy wardrobe book.'

‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the hairiest of them all?’

Discover what we’ve learned about the materiality of the Hairy Wardrobe Book.

Read more in our blog

March 2023

A little light reading

How did our Collection Care team investigate the best place to locate our new initiative, Stories Unboxed?

Read more in our blog