History concealed

Mandy Banton writing in Archives: Journal of the British Records Association

In 2011 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) reluctantly admitted its possession of documentation created by the governments of 37 former colonial dependencies, removed to the UK at independence, and held clandestinely for decades. The status of the papers, always uncertain, was sporadically debated within the FCO and in discussion with the Public Record Office/National Archives until the FCO obtained a legal opinion, details of which have not been made public, that they are UK public records. Papers concerning the drafting of the 1958 Public Records Act do not mention colonial governments, bodies which were never considered part of UK central government. In the immediate pre-independence years, changes in document security classification and records management, introduced by the colonial administrations to keep sensitive papers from local ministers and officials, paved the way for the destruction or removal of papers vital for continuing good governance. As ‘displaced archives’, the records are of continuing concern to the independent states, which seek repatriation, or the provision of free copies, and who are supported in their efforts by the international archival community. This article concludes with a brief discussion of the apparent lack of interest demonstrated by both media and the public, in stark contrast to the concern for museum collections similarly removed from British colonies.

Archives: The Journal of the British Records Association
   Volume: 55, Number: 1 (April 2020)

The Royal Household’s closed files:

A still frame that captures the princess in a gesture that strikes us now as abhorrent still resonates, even if in 1933 it was commonplace in the often anti-Jewish upper classes to make light of Hitler’s antisemitism. No wonder the royal archivists at Windsor guard the papers of father, uncle and grandfather with such care. Nonetheless, it is an unacceptable anomaly that the gatekeepers of documents relating to affairs of state should apparently be mainly concerned with concealing them from the public gaze. A glance at the papers of almost any national figure in the 20th century reveals how deeply the activities of the monarchy infused public life before the Queen came to the throne in 1952 … The acknowledgement in countless histories of the 20th century betray the frustration of academics at the ruthless exploitation by royal archivists of their control over access. http://www.theguardian.com/global/2015/jun/22/glaring-anomaly-of-royal-archives

More on the lost FCO files from the VICE News website :

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has located a new cache of colonial-era government documents …The documents, some with “Top Secret” classifications and tantalizing subject titles, originate in the Colonial Office — the long-ago-disbanded government department that oversaw the colonies of the British Empire. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) confirmed to VICE News that the files were located last year, during an audit of government offices that revealed a staggering 170,000 historic files which had never been made public. Some are long overdue for release, and have been held unlawfully, in violation of the UK Public Records Act. The discovery of the colonial-era documents is likely to arouse unease among historians — some of whom have accused the government in recent years of purposefully suppressingdamning material from Britain’s Imperial days. https://news.vice.com/article/exclusive-the-uk-has-just-unearthed-new-top-secret-colonial-era-government-files

Records relating to the British Army’s help in Operation Bluestar (Amritsar 1984) destroyed!

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham, Liberal Democrat)Given the distress that is felt by the Sikh community and its desire for clarity on the events at Sri Harmandir Sahib, it is obviously very regrettable that a key file was destroyed in 2009. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House at what level oversight would have been exercised or permission given for the destruction of that file? Do we need to review the procedures to ensure that such sensitive and important material is not destroyed in future?


“The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has hoarded 1.2m files – some of them dating back to the 1840s – in breach of the 30-year rule of the Public Records Act, which should have seen them transferred to the National Archive…The FCO is not the only government department that has been unlawfully hoarding public records. Earlier this year the Guardian disclosed that the Ministry of Defence was holding 66,000 files at an archive in the Midlands, in breach of the Public Records Act.”


“In Northern Rhodesia, colonial officials were issued with further orders to destroy ‘all papers which are likely to be interpreted, either reasonably or by malice, as indicating racial prejudice or religious bias on the part of Her Majesty’s government’….Officials in Aden were told to start burning in 1966, a full 12 months before the eventual British withdrawal…In British Guiana, a shortage of ‘British officers of European ‘ resulted in the ‘hot and heavy’ task falling to two secretaries, using a fire in an oil drum in the grounds of Government House. Eventually the army agreed to lend a hand….” From Ian Cobain’s article in the Guardian (29 November 2013)  ‘Revealed: the bonfire of papers at the end of Empire’