The National Archives is the official state repository for the United Kingdom and is situated in Kew Gardens, London. Among the archive’s 11 million records, comprising hundreds of millions of documents, are vast numbers of items relating to the history of interactions between the peoples of the British Isles and the Middle East from the Crusades to colonial rule. As well as documents in European languages, The National Archives contains a significant collection of documents in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Persian.
The National Archives holds records of the English and subsequently the British state dating back to the eleventh century. Often still known by one of its former names, the Public Record Office (PRO), the archive owes its current form to a law passed in 1838 aimed at gathering the scattered and often poorly-kept documents of the British government and judicial system. The current collection represents the merger by 2006 of four major holders of British archival records: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office (founded in 1786); the Public Record Office (1838); the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (1869); and the Office of Public Sector Information (2005). These collections in their sum cover almost every conceivable aspect of the United Kingdom’s foreign, domestic, military, and civil history. In addition, it holds a number of papers and manuscripts donated by private individuals. The Public Record Office moved from its original location in the City of London to the current building in Kew Gardens in 1977, and following the formation of The National Archives, all relevant documents were moved there, aside from a substantial portion kept in offsite storage in a former salt mine in Cheshire. Once the preserve of specialist academic researchers, the National Archives is today hugely popular with amateur historians and genealogists.
The material available for historians of the Middle East is extensive. A huge variety of manuscripts, correspondence, financial records, printed texts, registers, and memoranda shed light onto British trade, diplomacy, warfare, and colonialism in the Middle East. As well as English-language documents, there are a significant number of items in French, Italian, and Latin. Moreover, there is a collection of generally unexamined documents in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Persian interspersed amongst the registers, and sometimes separated into different files. Due to the scale and variety of the archive, only the main relevant collections for Middle East researchers will be discussed here.
The classifications to be consulted largely depend on time period and area of research. For mediaevalists, there are around 300 cataloged records relating to the Crusades and early trade with the Middle East and Levant in the Chancery (C), and Special Collection (SC) series, with documents dating from as early as the 1210s.
Records relating to the Ottoman Empire and North Africa begin to appear in significant numbers from the early sixteenth century with the beginnings of a significant trade, and especially after the formal establishment of relations between England and the Ottoman Empire in 1580. Several hundred volumes and loose documents relating to trade and diplomacy between the 1570s and 1770s are held in the State Papers (SP), with diplomatic correspondence in SP97 and mercantile records in SP105 and SP110. These include a number of records in Ottoman Turkish, or their translations in Italian. There are a number of extracted documents relating to this period under the series Extracted Documents (EXT), including maps and original letters from Ottoman sultans to British monarchs. Further records on trade and piracy can be found in the Admiralty collection (ADM). Some references to early political and commercial interests in Iran can also be found in that series.
Administrative reform from the 1780s saw the creation of new government ministries including the Foreign Office. This reform, coinciding with the beginnings of methodical archiving, meant that the number of documents produced and archived increased dramatically from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Documents relating to the Ottoman Empire between 1779 until 1906 are generally held in FO78, comprising an astonishing 5,491 thick volumes of correspondence, intelligence, and administrative documents relating to diplomacy and trade produced and received by the embassy in Istanbul and the consular establishments in the Balkans, Anatolia, the Levant, and North Africa. Some consular establishments have their own separate codes (e.g. Aleppo is FO861). The FO series continues into the post-Ottoman period, covering British diplomatic establishments across the Middle East into the 1970s. For instance, FO141 contains 1,521 volumes of correspondence of the British embassy and consulates in Egypt between 1815 and 1973. It is also in this later period that a large amount of material can be found relating to Iran, following the establishment of formal relations in 1807. The main consular posts have their own codes, although some 734 volumes of general correspondence between 1807 and 1905 can be found in FO60. These series contain a number of Persian documents within the registers.
The records of the Colonial Office (CO) are the main resource for researchers interested in British colonial rule in the Middle East. For instance, CO730 contains 178 volumes relating to the Iraq Mandate, and CO733 comprises 495 volumes concerning the Palestine Mandate. There are a large number of sources on British oil interests in Iran and the Persian Gulf in the Ministry of Power’s series (POWE), as well as in the diplomatic correspondence. Additional sources on colonialism can be found in a whole host of other series, including the Board of Trade (BT) and War Office (WO). The private papers of major and minor colonial officials and administrators are available in paper or on microfilm, such as those of Earl Kitchener (PRO30/57). There are a number of records relating to a number of locally recruited military, police, and colonial forces, from the Macedonian Mule Corps (WO405) to the Aden Police (CO1037).
There are a number of introductory subject guides available on The National Archives website. However, for most academic researchers, learning to use the archive’s catalog effectively is the key to research success.
Catalogs and Searches: The Research and Enquiries Room on the first floor hosts a large number of computer terminals, and also offers free wi-fi. The archive’s new catalog, Discovery, enables a variety of search techniques. As well as simple keyword searches, results can be narrowed down by series code, date, and subject area. The browsing function is very helpful for researchers getting to grips with their series of records.
Although the catalog is remarkably comprehensive, most of the descriptions are rather general, giving little sense of the content, particularly those marked ‘general correspondence’. Some early modern and a smaller number of later series do contain document-by-document descriptions, but these are comparatively few in number. For those researching more specialised topics, this can mean labor-intensive searching over a large number of records. For those in search of Arabic or Ottoman Turkish documents, these are often kept in their original setting in the correspondence registers, but on occasion they have been extracted into separate files without any context.
The relative comprehensiveness of the catalog does not necessarily equate to a completeness of records. For instance, there has long been a suspicion that documents relating to atrocities committed by the British or under British supervision in the colonies, including their possessions in the Middle East, have been withheld from the public. This suspicion proved to be well-founded, and in 2013 after a legal challenge, a significant amount of material was released from a secret Foreign Office archive at Hanslope Park, including some relating to Aden, Cyprus, and Palestine. Doubtless there are still more records hidden away.
Digitized Documents: Some 5% of documents in The National Archives have been digitized, and the number is gradually increasing. Many of the more popular series relating to military or family history are only available in digital format. A significant number of the archive’s microfilmed series have been digitized and are available to download for free, including a number of series of interest for Middle East researchers, such as the records of the Arab Bureau (FO882).
Original Documents: Up to six files may be ordered from an off-site location via The National Archives website. Next-day advanced requests must be submitted by 17:00 the day before the planned visit. In the archives themselves, orders can be made from the computer terminals in the Research and Enquiries Room and in the reading rooms. It is necessary to reserve a seat in order to request documents, and documents will be delivered into a cabinet marked with the seat number.
The majority of research takes place in the first floor reading room, and researchers can select seats in group areas, quiet areas, and light areas for better photography. It is advisable for those intending to take photographs to arrive at the archive at a relatively early hour, as those seats are in great demand. Some older and oversized documents will be delivered to the second floor reading room.
Most orders take less than an hour to be completed, and in practice even in busy periods it can take as little as half an hour between ordering the document and receiving it. Up to twenty-one documents can be ordered per day. For researchers requiring bulk orders, at least two days’ notice is required and the completion of an online form. It is best to discuss this order with staff at the first floor reading room’s help desk before it is placed.
Library: The National Archives Research Library, situated on the first floor, contains some 65,000 volumes on a variety of subjects, and its holdings include works on Middle Eastern history, bibliographies, and subject guides. The catalog can be searched by subject or through keywords.
Help and staff: The National Archives is incredibly user-friendly. There is a ‘Start Here’ desk on the first floor before entering the reading rooms to help orientate new researchers. On the same floor, there are two help desks: a red desk that specializes in military and family history, and the blue desk that offers advice on political, economic, social, and colonial history. There are a number of computer terminals through which the archive’s online and digitized resources can be accessed.
The staff are generally friendly. However, whilst keen to help, the advice they can offer on specialist research is often limited. Security is strict when entering and leaving the reading rooms. This is aimed at ensuring that no documents are removed, and no prohibited items, such as pens, are brought in. Laptops must be opened, and stationary and cables must be kept in clear plastic bags, which may be searched. Inside the reading rooms, security guards make regular patrols to ensure that documents are being handled in an appropriate manner. Guides on how to handle the documents and other rules of the reading room are prominently displayed by the computer terminals and on the desks.
The National Archives is open Tuesdays to Saturdays. The opening hours are between 09:00 and 19:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays with last document orders at 17:00, and between 09:00 and 17:00 on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, with last document orders at 16:15. The archives are closed on public holidays, full details of which can be found on the website.
It is necessary to have a reader’s ticket to view original documents. To obtain a reader’s ticket, new researchers must go to the registration room on the second floor to fill in an online form, and bring two forms of identification, one that provides proof of name with a signature, and another that shows proof of address. Acceptable forms of documentation are listed on the website. Digitized material and the library collection can be viewed without a reader’s ticket.
All public areas in The National Archives are fully wheelchair accessible. A number of dedicated computer terminals exist for partially sighted researchers.
Researchers can take their own photographs of documents for free, and are encouraged to do so. Flash photography is strictly forbidden. There are a number of seats in the first floor reading room with camera stands. Some kinds of document cannot be photographed, including those that are fragile or non-public records, but this will be made clear on ordering.
Printed copies of microfilm documents can be made for 25p per page. There are a number of machines on the first floor through which cash can be added to the reader’s ticket for such copying, and the staff will help first-timers through the self-service printing process. The archive offers its own paper and digital copying services. Prices vary, and it is necessary to submit a form online to receive a quote. Orders are usually fulfilled in less than two weeks, although this varies depending on the type and quantity of document being ordered.
Transportation, food, and other facilities
The National Archives is situated in Kew Gardens, some ten miles / sixteen kilometers from Central London. The easiest way to access the archives is by the London Underground. The walk from the station to the archives is well signposted, and takes less than ten minutes. Kew Gardens Underground Station is served by the District Line and London Overground. For researchers staying in Central London, the District Line is by far the easier option, and the journey takes around forty-five minutes. The Transport for London Journey Planner is very helpful in planning routes to the archives from anywhere in London.
The archive contains a café and restaurant on the ground floor, which is reasonably priced for the area. Most teas are around £1.50 and coffees over £2. Lunch with soup, a main dish, and desert costs around £10. Vegetarian options are available. There are also are a number of cafés, restaurants, and pubs around the station.
The ground floor also hosts a number of other facilities, including a free cloakroom with lockers. There is an interesting museum that houses a number of archival treasures, as well as a bookshop.
Outside the archive is a large pond frequented by ducks, moorhens, geese, swans, and herons. Outdoor seating is available around the pond, making for very pleasant breaks when the weather permits.
The National Archives
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8876 3444
Resources and links
Written by Michael Talbot, Teaching Fellow in Ottoman history, University of St. Andrews
Cite this: Michael Talbot, “The National Archives (United Kingdom)”, HAZİNE, 1 November 2013, http://hazine.info/2013/11/01/the-national-archives-united-kingdom/