Ministerial caricatures, presidential letters, and overseas stamps – FCDO lifts lid on 300 years of documents

Written by Sam Trendall on 8 September 2020 in Features
Features

The newly created department has published a full inventory of the nearly 10,000 paper documents that form its archive

Foreign Office building in Westminster    Credit: Johnny Green/PA Archive/PA Images

Government may have spent much of the past decade espousing the benefits of digitising processes that previously relied on paper files.

In a speech given two years ago, then chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss said that it was her “ambition that we transition to a digital, no-paper state within a generation”.

But data published last week by the newly created Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office demonstrates the difficulty in achieving this paperless vision, and reveals just how much of the state’s history has been recorded by pens, not pen drives.

The FCDO, which was formed from the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, came into being on 2 September.

On that date, and “in line with our commitment to transparency”, the new department published an inventory detailing every item in its paper archive. This includes more than 4,500 entries, covering almost 10,000 files dating from 1704 up to the present day.

About 9,300 of these were previously in the Foreign Office archive, while a further 500 came from the DfID.

All of which adds up to a huge collection of correspondence, records, official papers, and, in the case of the first entry in the inventory: “retained maps from a larger eclectic collection comprising primarily geographic maps typically with political, economic or strategic emphasis that are mostly printed on translucent paper from A4 up to approximately A0+ in paper size, with diagrams and building floor plans, all mostly in black and white with the exceptional item in colour”.

The maps date from 1875 up to 1986.


2 September
Date on which the FCDO came into being


9,828
Number of documents in the department's paper archive


1704
Date of the oldest document


'Weeding and disposal'
Subject of 'personal files' kept by the former head of archives in a secure cabinet that continue to form part of the archive


196
Number of uses of the words 'colony', 'colonies', or 'colonial' in the inventory


The ninth item on the inventory address the 16 miscellaneous files that were previously – and quite precisely – to be found on the bottom shelf of the secure cabinet of the former FCO head of archives.

This location formerly housed: “loose papers relating to: visits abroad by members of the Royal family and other royal issues; sensitivity reviewers' contracts; Robert Maxwell; Iraq and the Gulf; [the] Olympics Bid”.

The head of archives’ secure cabinet is clearly one of many locations for documents that offer a snapshot of British and world history.

The third shelf of the cabinet was, it seems, home to a wealth of assorted information, including a list of “Nazi war criminals in Britain”, “papers relating to the repatriation of Cossacks”, a February 1992 letter from the Cabinet Office, records of papers from the private offices of former ministers, and “personal files [on] weeding and disposal”.

Perhaps somewhat more important for posterity are records of correspondence from 1945 between UK prime minister Clement Attlee and US president Harry Truman. The two heads of state, both of whom took office that year, wrote to one another about “atomic energy”.

A total of 10 documents, dating from 1958 to 1969, concerning “nuclear cooperation” between the two countries are contained in another entry.

“[This is] a small collection consisting of exchanges with the American authorities,” the inventory says. “These include original signed copies of the formal agreements with the United States.”

One entry on inventory covers “two bound volumes” containing records of announcements and requests made the UK’s “various dominions around the world between 1908 to 1911”.

This includes: “Announcement of the deaths of public figures… [and] instructions to the dominions on matters such as official periods of mourning, circulation of the newly-designed Royal and Imperial cyphers that were to be adopted, or requests for each dominion to forward sets of their postage stamps in current usage for inspection.”

The volumes also feature documents of “less high-profile matters” than stamp collecting, “such as announcements about forthcoming India Civil Service open competition examinations and the introduction of new designs of official uniform for certain government officials such as governors”.

The recency of the UK’s imperial past is evinced by the vast array of data from the Colonial Office – a department that existed until 1966.

The words ‘colonial’, ‘colony’ or ‘colonies’ feature almost 200 times in the inventory.

One record covers 19 volumes containing details of all telegrams sent or received by the office from the nine years between 1958 and 1967

“Folders are organised alphabetically and or page sub-divided A to Z by country name,” the inventory says. “Each country record captures the following details about each individual telegram: date of receipt (inward telegrams), date and time of despatch (outward), name of colony that sent it or the name of outward recipient, together with short subject descriptions plus any relevant or distinguishing references and remarks.”

Elsewhere in the inventory is a “substantial set of bound volumes of retained original officially state-sanctioned documents issued to foreign governments and heads of state on behalf of HM Queen Elizabeth”. 

“Documents relate to the official announcement of recalls and appointments of British diplomats notably ambassadors and high commissioners, with the British sovereign granting them the authority and status to act on her behalf in that particular overseas post,” the inventory adds.

One decidedly eclectic entry – filed under “general print” – features 936 documents covering an astonishing array of the responsibilities of the FCDO’s various predecessors.

This includes files “commercial treaties between foreign powers”, “rules of military warfare”, “sugar bounties”, “treaties with enemy powers”, “guides to the foreign press”, “European war secret telegrams”, the “diaries of Sir C Campbell”, “reports on heads of communist missions”, and “neutrality laws issued by foreign governments during the war”.

There are also unspecified papers on the slave trade, anarchism, illegal fishing, British communities abroad, and recognition of the Czechoslovak national movement.t

Making a meal
Among the files for which there is a less clear historical imperative to hang onto is a seating plan for a French presidential visit that took place in March 1939.

There are also two files, originally housed in the British Consulate in Yokohama, which contain “correspondence about plans and preparations to host a reception to mark HM the Queen's birthday in 1966 and 1967”.

The correspondence “includes full itemised details of expenditure incurred for 450 guests and guest invite list”.

One cache of 312 separate documents is dedicated to “invitations to luncheons and dinners” spanning 1933 to 1995.

This includes: “Invitation cards, menus, table plans for luncheons, dinners and other events organised by the Government Hospitality Fund.”

Also kept on file a collection of “caricatures of secretaries of state and under-secretaries of state” covering a near 100-year period. 

Included in this are cartoons drawn by celebrated illustrator Sir Leslie Matthew Ward, who published caricatures for Vanity Fair under the name ‘Spy’.

Another entry, from an unspecified date, relates to “one cased reel of Eastman panchromatic nitrate safety film”.

What is recorded may constitute important state business.

However: “Details of the film are currently unknown in the absence of suitable viewing equipment and facilities.”

Whatever secrets are contained within, clearly the new department thought this, and 10,000 other small pieces of history, were worth hanging onto.

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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