How to look for records of... Political history in the modern era, 1782 onwards

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide provides an overview of records held at The National Archives covering major political issues in the United Kingdom in the modern era, from 1782 onwards, and the government policies towards them. The advice here will help you to get your research started; links to our more specialist guides will help you to take your next steps and locate specific records.

In general, records created in the last 20 years remain in the hands of the government departments themselves, but more contemporary information can be found on the websites captured in the UK Government Web Archive.

Central government in the modern era

Most of the major modern government departments we know today were established between 1782 and 1919. Many of these departments grew significantly in size and took on more duties and responsibilities as the role of the state increased during the 19th and 20th centuries.

One of the most significant changes in government structure marking the transition from early modern to modern central government was the creation of the Home Office and Foreign Office in 1782, replacing the Southern Department and the Northern Department of the State Paper Office.

What kinds of records to use

In some ways, all records held at The National Archives are political records. The documents held here are those created in the everyday business of central government departments and subsequently selected for permanent preservation. However, we recommend that you start research here into modern political history by looking at the records of the most prominent government departments, where the issues dealt with are at their most wide-ranging and more likely to be closely aligned with the key areas of each government’s policy:

  • The Prime Minister’s Office
  • The Cabinet Office
  • The Home Office
  • The Treasury
  • The Foreign Office and its successor the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
  • The Colonial Office (later part of the FCO)

The records themselves come in a wide variety of formats and types but typically you will find:

  • Correspondence. Much of what has been preserved is original correspondence, chiefly letters and telegrams from other central and local government officials, from magistrates, county authorities, municipal and private corporations, members of the public and a long list of other sources. There may also be draft out-going correspondence sent from the departments themselves and internal comments, notes or memoranda.
  • Registers. Created to record and organise the large amounts of correspondence and other documents received by government departments; these registers remain, to this day, valuable source material in their own right, as well as vital tools for locating individual items of correspondence.
  • Minutes of meetings. Accounts of what was said at the time when decisions were being made.
  • Reports. The records of these departments include thousands of official reports made by civil servants, diplomats, intelligence officers, scientists, experts in countless fields and so on, many of which helped to inform or determine government policy.

How to get a search for records started

A search for records at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of each and every record, arranged by the government departments that created them and identified by The National Archives’ own department references (letter codes, such as HO for Home Office).

Each National Archives department is split into a number of series, sometimes hundreds of series. A series contains records grouped together by theme or linked in some other way and you can focus a catalogue search on any one series if you choose to. Each series is distinguished by its own two-part reference: the department letter code and the series number. For example, Home Office papers of the Committee on the Prison Disciplinary System of the early 1980s are held together in their own series with the reference HO 318 – click on this reference to search specifically within those records.

A catalogue search is a search of record descriptions, not of the content of the records themselves, most of which are only available on paper. Some descriptions are just a word or two, essentially the titles of the original files, others contain several sentences of descriptive Simple searches, using just one or two keywords, are often the most effective. For advice on how to narrow your search to the records of specific government departments and major policy areas you should see if there is a guide to these records – the rest of this guide is designed to help you to do that.

How to view records

Once you have document references you can request the records themselves via the catalogue. Most of these records have no online version and to see them you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and emailed to you, in both instances using your document references to place your request.

The guides linked to below indicate where online versions of records do exist. The online copies are accessed either directly from our website or from the websites of our licensed partners, primarily AM Digital and Gale, both of which require institutional subscriptions. There is free access to them at our building in Kew and at some reference and university libraries.

Records of the major government departments

We have published guides to the records of five of the most important government departments, with each guide focussed on the records most likely to provide answers to typical research questions.

Records of the Cabinet Office

By the mid-19th Century the Cabinet was firmly established as the senior decision making body in government.

With the foundation of the Cabinet Office in 1916, the system was reformed. The records of the Cabinet Office cover every major issue dealt with by successive governments since its creation.

Our guide to records of the Cabinet and its committees will help you to find accounts of the thinking behind major government policy decisions.

Records of the Home Office

The Home Office was created in 1782 to supervise the internal affairs of Great Britain, with particular emphasis on law, order and regulation.  Its records cover a huge range of subjects including the criminal justice and penal systems, immigration, education, public improvement works, electoral administration, trade union relations and registered charities.

You will find material on all of these issues and many more in Home Office correspondence, the primary focus of our guide to Home Office records.

Records of the Treasury

As the government’s economic and finance ministry, responsible for maintaining control over public spending, virtually every area of government action involves the Treasury at some stage and its records, therefore, cover a very wide range of subjects. Our guide to Treasury records focusses on the records of the Treasury Board, the main decision-making body in the Treasury.

Records of the Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office

he Foreign Office, the department responsible for the conduct of British relations with nearly all foreign states, was formed in 1782 and superseded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. Our guide to Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records helps you to make use of the tens of thousands of records of general correspondence that form the bulk of the material available. Correspondence from British ambassadors and other high-ranking diplomats around the world offers insights into the advice and information that influenced government policy towards specific countries. Other records known as ‘confidential print’ provide useful summaries of the important issues under discussion and debate at the Foreign Office at any given time.

Records of the Prime Minister’s Office

The Prime Minister’s Office provides administrative and secretarial support to the serving Prime Minister. Its records range widely in their subject-matter and represent a virtual ‘A-Z’ of governmental activity. Our guide to records of the Prime Minister’s Office includes advice on how to consult the official correspondence of successive Prime Ministers.

How to explore the records of other departments

Though there is advice on the records of many other departments in our guidance, they are primarily presented by record type (for example, Maps and plans) or subject area (for example, Propaganda). However, by using the advanced search of our catalogue, you can target the records of any department.

To do so, first select The National Archives in the ‘Held by’ field:

If you don’t know the National Archives code for a department, enter the name of the department here:

Records of major policy areas

As well as guides to the records of single departments, we also publish guides to policy areas spanning the work of multiple departments. The links below lead to our research guidance on some of the main areas of policy.

Poverty, welfare and the Poor Laws

Much of government policy towards poverty in the 19th and early 20th centuries is captured in the Poor Laws, especially from 1834 when the system of ‘poor relief’ was centralised. Our guide to poor law records will aid your research in this area and includes advice on finding records of the government bodies responsible for administration of the Poor Law unions, the Poor Law Commission, the Poor Law Board and the Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board.

Public health

Government policy towards public health and sanitation during the 19th century underwent several transformations, evidence of which you can find with the help of our guide to public health and social policy in the 19th century. The most transformational policy change of all came in 1948 with the setting up of the National Health Service. The thinking behind this and policy decisions before and since can be traced using the advice in our guide to records of public health and social policy in the 20th century.

Government attitudes to mental health can also be traced through our records. Although our guide to asylums, psychiatric hospitals and mental health focusses more on records of patients and individual institutions, it will help you get research into policy started.

Education

The 1870 Elementary Education Act was the effective start of state-financed education in England and Wales and our education records increase significantly in volume from this point onwards. The volume and breadth of material rises again following the creation of the Board of Education in 1899.

Our guides to records of education focus primarily on government education policy towards specific types of schools and educational institutions. To pursue research beyond those focal points, you should go straight to our catalogue and use the ED department reference in the advanced search of the catalogue (see above for more advice on exploring the records of a department). The records of the Board of Education and the departments which replaced it, including the Ministry of Education (1944-1964) and the Department of Education and Science (1954-1992) are searchable within the ED department and its various divisions.

Economic policy

The obvious records to consult for studies of the economic policy of central government are those of the Treasury, the economic and finance ministry, responsible for maintaining control over public spending (see above). Our guide to Economic policy and government spending in the 20th century contains advice on how to search in Treasury records (and in those of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s Office,) specifically for records of policy – the advice can be applied to 19th century records too.

Civil rights and the politics of discrimination

During the 20th century, increased government recognition of discrimination in various forms led to changes in policy. For advice on records at The National Archives that relate to civil rights and race relations consult our guide to Black British social and political history in the 20th century. For guidance on records which demonstrate the development of government attitudes and policies towards the LGBTQ+ communities, read our guide to Sexuality and gender identity history.

Surveys and statistics

In the 19th and 20th centuries the government collected all kinds of nationwide statistical information, with a notable emphasis on the population and agriculture. For advice on some of the most significant of these surveys see our guides to:

Private correspondence

The National Archives does not, in general, hold private correspondence but there are some collections of correspondence written by Prime Ministers and other prominent politicians and public figures that have come to The National Archives. We do not publish guides to these records but searching for and within them is relatively straight forward.

Collections catalogued as original records acquired as gifts or deposits can be browsed under our catalogue reference PRO 30.

Some of the collections relating to Prime Ministers are listed below:

  • 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

The papers each have their own unique arrangement and may be better browsed than searched.

Records of correspondence of diplomats and senior officials of the Foreign Office are in various series of Foreign Office private office and private papers and can be browsed or searched from the links in this division of the catalogue.

Private Office papers of Secretaries of State and senior officials of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 1968 can be found in series FCO 73.

See also our guide to Sir Anthony Eden’s private office papers

Records in other archives and organisations

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

Other resources

The Gazette (1665-present)

Search the London Gazette, on The Gazette website, by date or keyword for official government notices and intelligence from home and abroad.

The Gazette is not a conventional newspaper. The official notices concern the effects of statutory instruments (secondary legislation stopping up highways or adopting legislation to a particular place), military promotions, notices of bankruptcy. Prior to the late-19th century you will also find official government proclamations and accounts of foreign battles or events.

Search using the ‘notices’ section of the website. For content before the late 20th century only the ‘text search’, date of publication, and Gazette edition fields should be used.

Parliamentary Papers (1715-present)

Search Parliamentary Papers (institutional subscription required) for digitised copies of official papers published by the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Websites

Explore a range of 19th century sources in British History Online.

Consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (institutional subscription required) for biographies of prominent people.

Search The Times Digital Archive (gale.com) and Guardian and Observer Digital Archive to view articles (charges apply) about 19th and 20th century politics.

Search on Historic Hansard for official report of debates in Parliament.

Search the UK Government Web Archive for UK central government information published on the web. The Web Archive includes videos, tweets, images and websites dating from 1996 to the present day.

Pamphlets and newspapers

Search the catalogues on the British Library website to find archived political pamphlets and newspapers.