Historical Manuscripts Commission

The history of the commission

Appointed by Royal Warrant in 1869, The Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) was first formed to document the location of records and papers in private hands, as opposed to those held at the Public Record Office. This allowed the commission to raise awareness of the importance of privately owned material for a more complete picture of the nation’s archival heritage and history. From 1870 until 2003, HMC’s findings were edited and published as HMC reports and calendars. These reference works were essential to researchers who could not gain access to original records in private ownership.

After 1945, the commission undertook additional activities to protect and promote non-public archives and manuscripts, including the creation of the National Register of Archives (NRA). This register helped produce a more comprehensive census of the nation’s archives, with information initially fed in by voluntary local committees and increasingly by the emerging network of archive services.

In 1959, a new Royal Warrant deemed HMC the central advisory body on all issues related to archives and manuscripts that were not covered by the Public Records Act of 1958. This warrant also gave the commission responsibility for the Manorial Documents Register. In 1990, the HMC Standard for Record Repositories was the first national standard for management of archive services in the UK, supporting advice to established and emerging archives.

In 1995, HMC made the NRA indexes available online and created the ARCHON directory, allowing for more dynamic recording of the location of archives. As network projects such as Access to Archives collaborated to put archive catalogues online, HMC became a key partner, linking to online resources from the NRA indexes to provide an overview of UK archive holdings.

The Historical Manuscripts Commission today

In 2003, HMC and the Public Record Office were joined together to form The National Archives and our Chief Executive and Keeper acquired the additional role of Historical Manuscripts Commissioner. Many of HMC’s functions continue by being incorporated into the roles of the Archive Sector Leadership department. These functions include:

  • Maintaining information about archives and their collections in our catalogue Discovery, which has incorporated the previous databases and registers
  • Providing advice on managing and caring for archives on a regional basis
  • Working with partners across the archive sector to develop new opportunities for archives to connect and improve
  • Monitoring the sale and export of archival material
  • Running the Archive Service Accreditation scheme which establishes a national standard
  • Securing significant archives from the risk of dispersal and neglect, including through our cultural property advice to the Acceptance in Lieu and Conditional Exemption schemes
  • Advising grant awarding bodies supporting the purchase, cataloguing and conservation of manuscripts

Our strategic vision for archives, Archives Unlocked, values our HMC responsibilities and sets out an action plan for helping the sector to develop. We continue to work in partnership with archive stakeholders to improve the care of particular types of archives, and to provide information and guidance through our online resources and staff expertise. The Forum on Historical Manuscripts and Academic Research informs our work in this area.

In 2019, HMC is celebrating 150 years, marking both the achievements above and the continuing work of the Historical Manuscripts Commission.