How to look for records of... Prime Minister’s Office records

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will tell you how to find records of the Prime Minister’s Office between 1916 and the early 1980s.

The guide will also tell you where to look for private papers of British prime ministers going back to the 18th century.

2. Document releases

The National Archives releases government records according to the 30-year rule. Keep track of our document releases on our website.

However, the transition to a 20-year rule means that more recent government records will be transferred to The National Archives in the future.

3. About the Prime Minister’s Office

The Prime Minister’s Office was created in 1916 to support the work of the Prime Minister (then David Lloyd George). It is different from the Cabinet Office, which was created at the same time to support the work of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister is appointed by the sovereign and is usually the leader of the political party holding the majority of seats within the House of Commons.

The role of Prime Minister has evolved gradually. By common consensus, Sir Robert Walpole (Prime Minister 1721 – 1742) was the first of the line.

Visit the Prime Minister’s Office website for more information.

Watch our Spotlight on: Suez crisis video to see what sort of records you may find.

4. Information included in the records

The records of the Prime Minister’s Office include:

  • official correspondence of successive Prime Ministers, from David Lloyd George to Margaret Thatcher
  • Second World War policy and operational papers
  • recommendations for New Year and birthday honours
  • papers relating to the appointments of ministers, bishops and others

The records range widely in their subject-matter and represent a virtual ‘A-Z’ of governmental activity. They also reflect the fact that the role of Prime Minister has expanded considerably since 1945.

The records often include comments written in the margins in the Prime Minister’s own hand, which can reveal their reactions to memoranda and letters and give insights into their approach to the job, the pressures they work under, and aspects of personality. The extent of these ‘marginalia’ varies depending on the style of individual prime ministers.

5. How to search for Prime Minister’s Office records

Search Discovery, our catalogue using keywords and refine your search by the PREM department and by date.

All of these records are held by The National Archives under the department code PREM.

Many Prime Minister’s Office records have been catalogued by subject, and some have been digitised, for example:

However, in some cases the descriptions of files in our catalogue are very brief or general (such as ‘Various’). Experiment with a variety of keywords, or browse our catalogue within the PREM department to learn more about how the records are arranged.

6. Official correspondence (1916-1980s)

Most of the correspondence in the Prime Minister’s Office collection is official, not private. It consists of:

  • letters written by and to the Prime Minister in his or her official capacity
  • letters written by and to the Prime Minister’s officers and advisers

There are few papers before 1934, as before that date ministers were allowed to take papers with them as they left office.

Search or browse the correspondence in our catalogue by subject and year. The records series are:

  • PREM 1 for 1916-1940 (David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law, Stanley Baldwin, James Ramsay MacDonald, Neville Chamberlain)
  • PREM 3 and PREM 4 for 1940-1945 (Winston Churchill), known as the ‘Churchill Papers’
  • PREM 8 for 1945-1951 (Clement Attlee)
  • PREM 11 for 1951-1964 (Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home)
  • PREM 13 for 1964-1970 (Harold Wilson)
  • PREM 15 for 1970-1974 (Edward Heath)
  • PREM 16 for 1974-1979 (Harold Wilson, James Callaghan)
  • PREM 19 for 1979 onwards (Margaret Thatcher)

Some paper indexes exist, which might help you if online searching does not bring back the results you want:

  • Use the indexes in PREM 4/102-135 to find correspondence for 1939-1940 in PREM 1
  • Use Prime Minister’s Office Class List, List and Index Society volume 26 (1976) to find correspondence in PREM 1, PREM 2, PREM 3 or PREM 4
  • Use the keys to the subject headings in PREM 8 and PREM 11 in the paper catalogue in the reading rooms at The National Archives

7. Private Office diaries of wartime visits (1941-1945)

Find Private Office diaries of wartime visits made by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in PREM 10. These include:

  • visits to the United States and meetings with President Roosevelt between 1941 and 1945
  • visits to Italy in 1944 following the Italian armistice
  • a visit to the Second Quebec Conference in 1944

8. Recommendations for honours and awards (1915-1967)

Look in PREM 2 to find recommendations for honours and awards, submitted to the sovereign by the Prime Minister.

These records cover the civil honours and awards that are published twice a year, at New Year and on the sovereign’s official birthday. Read more about the honours process.

The records also deal with the institution of the George Cross and other gallantry awards.

You are unlikely to find detailed information as to why a recipient received an honour or award – the reason may be given, but most entries are very brief indeed.

9. Appointments (1907-1979)

Search the Patronage Papers in PREM 5 to find details of Prime Ministers appointing people to certain ministerial, civil and ecclesiastical roles.

10. Private correspondence

The National Archives does not usually hold private correspondence written by Prime Ministers and their officers.

However, The National Archives holds some private papers relating to various Prime Ministers:

  • private papers of Sir Desmond Morton, personal assistant to the Prime Minister from 1939 to 1951, in PREM 7
  • ‘Chatham Papers’, comprising the papers of William Pitt (the ‘Elder’), First Earl of Chatham and his son William Pitt (the ‘Younger’) in PRO 30/8
  • Russell Papers relating to John, First Earl Russell and his family (1800-1913) in PRO 30/22
  • Papers of James Ramsay MacDonald and his family in PRO 30/69 and CAB 127/282-295

You can find other papers in private and specialist archives, for example:

Search the our catalogue to find more collections in archives around the UK.

11. Other useful sources

The archived Cabinet Papers site has themed pages which you can browse, some with links to downloadable documents.

Robert Blake, The Office of Prime Minister (London, 1975)

Vernon Bogdanor, From New Jerusalem to New Labour: British Prime Ministers from Attlee to Blair (Basingstoke, 2000)

John Brooke, The Prime Ministers’ Papers 1801-1902 (London, 1968)

David Butler and Gareth Butler, British Political Facts 1900-1994 (Basingstoke, 1994)

Dod’s Parliamentary Companion Ltd, The Prime Ministers from Walpole to Macmillan (London, 1994)

Cameron Hazlehurst, Sally Whitehead and Christine Woodland, A guide to the papers of British Cabinet Ministers 1900-1964 (Cambridge, 1996)

Peter Hennessy, The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945 (London, 2000)

Papers of British Cabinet Ministers 1782-1900 (London, 1982)

Iain Dale, The Prime Ministers (Hodder, 2020)