How to look for records of... Foreign and Commonwealth correspondence and records from 1782

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide covers the main types of Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records held in The National Archives, with an overview of what they contain and how to search them. There are a number of different types of records, which originated in different ways, contain different types of information and sometimes need to be searched using different methods and tools.

2. Essential information

The Foreign Office was created in 1782 and merged into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. It was the department responsible for the conduct of British relations with nearly all foreign states between those dates. From 1968, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office assumed these roles, in addition to administering the remaining British dependencies and managing relations with the Commonwealth (previously the responsibility of the Commonwealth Office). Their records therefore provide a wealth of information of British relations with foreign states from 1782 to the present day.

For further details, see the administrative history on Discovery, our catalogue, for FO and FCO.

3. Finding FO and FCO records in The National Archives – general tips

Use the information contained in this guide to identify which record series is likely to be of interest.

Once you have identified the series, use a keyword search on our catalogue:

  • Enter your keyword (such as a country or person) and your chosen record series code
  • You can further restrict your search by date
  • Some record series have indexes and registers which may be more effective than a keyword search – see below for more information

Please note that a number of the records described below have either been reproduced in published volumes, or more recently in commercial licensed digitisations (see Further reading). These may provide an easier method of accessing the records than consulting the original documents.

4. General correspondence: 1782 to the present

4.1 Searching general correspondence

The general correspondence consists of the original papers accumulated in London:

  • original despatches from British representatives abroad with any enclosures
  • drafts of outgoing despatches; minutes
  • domestic correspondence with foreign representatives in this country, with other branches of the British government and with private individuals and bodies

General correspondence covers a large number of record series. Until 1938 their catalogue descriptions are usually very basic, often giving nothing more than the surname of the relevant diplomatic representative (to 1905) or the name of the country (from 1906), but there are registers and indexes that can help.

4.2 General correspondence 1782-1905

Records before 1906 are in the series FO 1 to FO 82 and FO 99 to FO 110. For the most part, they are arranged by country. There are also some series of a general or miscellaneous nature not related to a particular country: FO 83 (General correspondence, Great Britain and other); FO 84 (Slave Trade department correspondence); FO 95-96 (Miscellanea); and FO 97 (supplements to general correspondence).

To locate records within general correspondence 1782-1905, search our catalogue, or browse our catalogue from FO. For further details on the contents of each records series refer to the following registers and indexes:

  • To 1891: Library series registers and indexes (FO 605). These are the best registers and indexes to access the major record series up to 1891. Registers and indexes arranged by country; consist of subject indexes which refer to registers which then refer to the records in FO 1 to FO 90 and FO 95 to FO 105
  • 1891-1905: Indexes to departmental registers (FO 804). Arranged by country or subject; coverage is good but not comprehensive. Photocopies of selected volumes are in The National Archives’ reading rooms (FO 738); they must be cross-referenced with departmental registers (see below)
  • Departmental registers (FO 566). Registers of correspondence by department. Useful for an overview of correspondence up to 1890. 1891-1905 these are main form of reference, in conjunction with the indexes to departmental registers
  • Note that reference conversions from old Foreign Office to current National Archives references will be necessary

4.3 General correspondence 1906-1966

From 1906 the general correspondence covering for all countries is arranged in a small number of subject series. Of these, the political correspondence (FO 371) is by far the largest and generally most important.

Description Catalogue reference
Political correspondence FO 371
Africa correspondence to 1913 (from 1914 see FO 371) FO 367
Commercial and sanitary correspondence to 1920 FO 368
Consular correspondence FO 369
Treaty and protocol correspondence FO 372
Wartime departments (First World War) FO 382-3
News, library, information, communications, cultural relations, publicity FO 395 , FO 370, FO 627, FO 850, FO 924, FO 953
Claims correspondence from 1946 FO 950

To locate records within general correspondence 1906-1966 you will often need to use registers and indexes. These registers and indexes often provide references to records destroyed prior to their transfer to the The National Archives.

Note that reference conversions from old Foreign Office to current National Archives’ references will be necessary.

1906-1920: Online catalogue descriptions are very basic, usually containing only a country’s name; for search tips see section 2 above. For detailed searching refer to the following registers and indexes:

  • Card index to correspondence 1906-1920 (FO 1111). Comprehensive card index to correspondence by name, subject and place. Available to view online.  From 1906 to 1909 it must be used in conjunction with departmental registers
  • Departmental registers (FO 566). Registers of correspondence by department. Useful for an overview of correspondence

1920-1953, 1959: Online catalogue descriptions are very basic until 1939, and generally give only moderate detail thereafter. For more detailed searching refer to the following online index:

  • FO 409 Index to general correspondence (1920-1953, 1959), available to view online. Comprehensive index volumes to correspondence by name, subject and place

1954-1958 and 1960 onwards: The National Archives does not have any registers or indexes for this period. Researchers interested in these periods should identify record series using this guide and then use a keyword search (detailed above).

4.4 General correspondence after 1966

In 1967 the registries of the Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Office were merged, more than one year before they themselves were combined as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. From this point, the records are arranged in regional geographical groups or subject groups reflecting their departmental organisation.

The geographical general correspondence series are:

Region Series
Europe FCO 9 (Southern Europe), FCO 28 (Eastern Europe and USSR), FCO 33 (Western Europe), FCO 87 (Republic of Ireland from 1972)
The Americas and Atlantic FCO 7 (America and Latin America), FCO 42 (Gibraltar and South Atlantic to 1971), FCO 44 (West Indies to 1972, West Indies and Atlantic from 1972), FCO 63 (North America and Caribbean to 1969, Caribbean from 1969), FCO 82 (North America from 1971), FCO 83 (Atlantic and Indian Ocean 1971-72), FCO 86 (Gibraltar from 1972), FCO 99 (Mexico and Caribbean from 1977)
Africa FCO 29 (Central Africa 1968-69), FCO 31 (East Africa), FCO 36 (Rhodesia), FCO 39 (North Africa to 1972, Near East and North Africa 1972 only), FCO 45 (Southern Africa to 1969, Central and Southern Africa from 1969), FCO 65 (West Africa), FCO 93 (Near East and North Africa from 1972)
Middle East FCO 8 (Arabia to 1972, Middle East from 1972), FCO 17 (Near East to 1972, Near East and North Africa 1972-73), FCO 39 (Near East and North Africa 1972 only), FCO 93 (Near East and North Africa from 1972)
South Asia and Indian Ocean FCO 32 (Pacific and Indian Ocean to 1971), FCO 37 (South Asia), FCO 40 (Hong Kong and Indian Ocean from 1972), FCO 83 (Atlantic and Indian Ocean 1971-72)
Far East, South East Asia and Pacific FCO 15 (South East Asia), FCO 21 (Far East), FCO 24 (South West Pacific), FCO 32 (Pacific and Indian Ocean to 1971, Pacific Dependent Territories from 1972), FCO 40 (Hong Kong to 1972, Hong Kong and Indian Ocean from 1972)

The subject general correspondence series are in:

Subjects Series
Economic, Transport and Communications Departments FCO 14, FCO 30, FCO 35, FCO 59, FCO 67, FCO 69-71, FCO 74, FCO 76, FCO 96, FCO 98
Defence and Disarmament Departments FCO 10, FCO 16, FCO 41, FCO 46, FCO 66
Cultural, Development and Scientific Departments FCO 13, FCO 34, FCO 48, FCO 55
Consular, Migration, Treaty, Protocol and Claims Departments FCO 47, FCO 50, FCO 53, FCO 57, FCO 64
United Nations  FCO 61
Administrative, Information, Research and Central Policy Departments FCO 12, FCO 26, FCO 49, FCO 51-2, FCO 56, FCO 68, FCO 72, FCO 86, FCO 95
1977 Conferences (EEC, NATO, Commonwealth) FCO 104

5. Confidential print: 1820s-1970s

From the late 1820s, correspondence of particular significance began to be printed in several copies and distributed to officials in the Foreign Office, to the Cabinet, to other departments and to British missions abroad. These copies were known as confidential print.

By 1906 nearly every important despatch or telegram was printed routinely. These documents are a good way to gain a summary overview of Foreign Office political correspondence before accessing the extensive holdings in the main general correspondence series described above.

Confidential prints vary from a single document to a substantial volume of papers, and are numbered individually, roughly in order of printing. For further information, and to see lists of confidential prints on particular regions and subjects, please go to the FO series division within our catalogue.

Confidential prints ceased to be produced in the 1970s with the arrival of photocopying.

6. Embassy and consular archives

These consist of the original despatches received from the Foreign Office by British diplomatic and consular posts abroad, draft despatches to London, local correspondence with the government and other authorities of the foreign state, with other British representatives and agents and private individuals. These records often include other local records such as registers of births, deaths and marriages of British subjects abroad, consular court records, commercial records of many sorts, papers about British churches and cemeteries and the estates of British subjects.

From the 1820s, registers exist for some of these series. Please note that not all embassy and consular records have survived.

How to search:

7. Treaties: 1695-present

There are different types of treaty records, made at different stages of the treaty process, and these are held in different record series:

  • Before a treaty is made, the parties exchange the Full Powers or authorisations granted to their plenipotentiaries
  • The document reciting the agreed terms of the treaty, signed and sealed by the plenipotentiaries of each side is the Protocol
  • Following the signing and sealing of the Protocol, ratifications were drawn up, and signed and sealed by the head of state of each party and exchanged, or sometimes deposited in an agreed place if there were several parties
Subjects Dates Series
Treaty Protocols (with Full Powers of other parties, and subsidiary documents, mostly 1775 to 2001) 1695-2003 FO 93
Ratifications of treaties (mostly up to 2001) 1782-2005 FO 94
Full powers of British plenipotentiaries and entries or drafts of ratifications 1813-1967 Pieces within FO 83
Protocols and ratifications of multilateral treaties (mostly from 1969) 1907-2002 FO 949
Protocols and ratifications of EEC treaties (mostly from 1973) 1953-1997 FO 974
Draft full powers and draft ratification instruments 1968 onwards FCO 3
Protocols and Ratifications of Treaties (mostly from 2001) 1962 onwards FCO 85

8. Private and private office papers

Private and private office papers relating to foreign affairs held at The National Archives fall under three main categories:

Categories Series
Private papers of diplomats and politicians involved in foreign affairs directly gifted to, or deposited with, the Public Record Office (later the National Archives) Private papers are found in PRO 30/1-99. You can also find private papers held in archives elsewhere using our catalogue. Search by name and click on the record creators tab within your search results.
Unregistered papers of mostly (though not entirely) 19th century politicians, diplomats and officials taken away on retirement but subsequently returned to government. Anthony Eden’s papers (FO 954) are available online Search our catalogue by surname, restricting by year range and by department code FO
Private office papers of mostly 20th century politicians, diplomats and officials surrendered to government on retirement Search our catalogue by surname and record series FO 800 and FO 73.
RA Butler’s private office papers are in FO 1109.
Also a small selection of papers (1904-1942) in FO 794

9. Archives of commissions and conferences

The Foreign Office records contain the archives of a large number of bilateral or multilateral international commissions, from 1790-1967. Subjects range from the slave trade to American fisheries. Search by keyword within FO to find more information.

The records of British delegations to international conferences from 1814-1976 can be found in FO and CAB (records of the Cabinet Office). See our catalogue series divisions for FO and CAB for further details.

10. Allied Administration of Germany and Austria after the Second World War

The Foreign Office inherited the records of a number of the organisations through which the Allies administered what are now Germany and Austria after the Second World War. Researchers should note the distinctions between the Control Offices, which were based in London, the Control Commissions, which were based in Germany and Austria, and the Civil High Commission, which instigated de facto self-government in West Germany from 1948 until 1955 (when normal diplomatic relations were resumed).

  • For a breakdown of the records relating to the Allied Administration, please see the Series Division within FO
  • If you are interested in a particular subject, you could also use a key word search on our catalogue. For example, search for the word or phrase ‘Censorship AND Control Commission for Germany’, year range 1945 to 1950, within series FO
  • The records of the Allied Kommandatura, the four power body that administered Berlin until the end of the Cold War, are in FO 1112

While the surviving records of the Control Commission for Germany (British Element) are held at The National Archives, Kew, they are incomplete. Only a small percentage of the files were selected for permanent preservation. The overwhelming majority of these are administrative in nature and rarely contain personal details.

In addition to the above, there are numerous files and material on denazification generally including:

  • policy and applications
  • some name lists

Catalogue searching is only of limited value due to the broad general file descriptions adopted by the Foreign Office Control Commission for Germany element.

Researchers are advised to consult Akten der Britischen Militärregierung in Deutschland: Sachinventar 1945-1955 (11 Volumes, Published by KG Saur 1993). They provide brief details of the Control Commission G documents (in English), as well as the associated National Archives references.

11. Other record categories

Please see below for other relevant series:

Categories Series
Chief Clerk’s Department PRO 57/2805
Wartime departments and missions (First World War) See Series Division
Wartime departments and missions (Second World War) FO 660 (Ministers Resident), FO 837 and FO 935 (Ministry of Economic Warfare), FO 892 (French National Committee), FO 898 (Political Warfare Executive), FO 916 (Consular (War)), FO 921 (Minister of State, Cairo), FO 957 (British Middle East Office, Cairo)
Passport Office See Series Division 17; also FO 971 (special files)
Permanent Undersecretary of State’s Department FO 1093 (unregistered papers covering intelligence matters; includes papers on Rudolf Hess and on the Duke of Windsor)

12. Further reading

Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Published copies of records:

British Documents on the Origins of the War, Documents on British Foreign Policy, Documents on British Policy Overseas (13, 68 and 18 Volumes respectively, HMSO and Routledge, 1926 onwards). Selections of documents (mostly general correspondence) covering the build up to the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War respectively.

British Documents on Foreign Affairs (over 200 volumes, University Publications of America, 1983 onwards). Selection of Confidential Prints from mid-19th to mid-20th century.

British and Foreign State Papers (168 Volumes, HMSO 19th century to 1977). Published copies of major treaties from 1812 to 1967.

Secondary material:

FCO Historians, A guide to researching FCO history (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Michael Roper, The Records of the Foreign Office, 1782-1968 (Public Record Office, 2002)

Louise Atherton, Never Complain, Never Explain: Records of the Foreign Office and the State Paper Office 1500-c1960 (Public Record Office, 1994), includes well-explained guidance on how to use the registers and indexes to Foreign Office correspondence

Guide reference: Overseas information 14