1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find records created by the Foreign Office since its birth in 1782, and by its successor, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and now held at The National Archives.
The records of the Foreign Office provide a wealth of information on British relations with foreign states from 1782 to the present day and can also provide insights into the history of domestic issues in countries around the world.
The guide provides advice on the different ways in which you will need to use our own catalogue as well as the indexes and registers created by the Foreign Office itself to find individual records. There is also advice on how to find treaties dating back to 1695 and now held among Foreign Office records.
2. What was the Foreign Office and what is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
The Foreign Office was created in 1782 and became the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968. It was the government department responsible for the conduct of British relations with nearly all foreign states between those dates (British colonies and dominions were dealt with by separate departments).
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).
For further details, see the administrative histories in Discovery, our catalogue, for departments FO and FCO.
3. Online and published records
Most in-depth research into Foreign Office records requires a visit to our site in Kew. There are, however, some online and published resources which allow you to search for and view a limited number of records without having to visit.
A scattered selection of records have been reproduced either in published volumes or online. These include:
- Foreign Office records on the Adam Matthew website including records on the Middle East (1839-1969 and 1971-1981), Latin America (1833-1969), China (1919-1980), India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (1947-1980)
- Foreign Office (and Colonial Office and Cabinet Office) records showcasing the story of the rich and complex history of the countries located in the Arabian Gulf on the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive. The archive contains material dating from 1820 to 2004. This is a joint project between the National Archives of the United Arab Emirates and The National Archives of the United Kingdom. You can search and download records from the website using OCR keywords, date ranges and document references. The archive is available in both English and Arabic versions.
- Secret Files from World Wars to Cold War (Intelligence and Foreign Policy files 1873-1953)
- Private Office Papers of various ministers and officials (1824-1968) in FO 800 (these are digital microfilm records and are free to download from our website)
- Other digital microfilm records free to download from our website
- Indexes to Foreign Office correspondence between 1906 and 1920, in FO 1111, and between 1920 and 1951, in FO 409
- The published records described in the Further reading section of this guide
4. How to search for original records: getting started
Most Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records held at The National Archives are not viewable or downloadable online. To view them you will either need to visit our building in Kew, find references to records on our online catalogue with which you can order copies, or pay for research to be done for you.
Foreign Office records are held in record department FO and Foreign and Commonwealth Office records in FCO.
To search for records you will need to do one or both of the following, depending on the type of record and the date of the record:
- Keyword searches in our online catalogue
- Use the printed indexes and registers at our building in Kew
For details on when and how to use these resources see the following sections of this guide.
5. General correspondence
The most numerous type of Foreign Office record is general correspondence. There are tens of thousands of records of general correspondence at The National Archives, ranging from letters, both personal and official, telegrams and despatches, to reports, notes and memos and anything else that was sent from one place or person to another in the business of the Foreign Office.
How you search for correspondence depends on when it was created and the changing registry systems of the Foreign Office down the years.
For detailed advice on how to search for general correspondence from different periods see the following guides:
- Foreign Office correspondence 1782-1890
- Foreign Office correspondence 1891-1905
- Foreign Office correspondence 1906-1919
- Foreign Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office correspondence 1920 onwards
6. Confidential print 1820s-1970s
Consulting confidential print is a good way to gain a summary overview of Foreign Office political correspondence before accessing the extensive, more detailed holdings in the main general correspondence series referred to in section 5.
6.1 What were confidential prints?
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 but the practice of confidential prints died out in the 1970s with the arrival of photocopying.
Confidential prints vary from a single document to a substantial volume of papers, and are numbered individually, roughly in order of printing.
6.2 How to search for confidential prints
A good starting point is the FO Division 2 description in our catalogue which lists record series of confidential prints on particular countries, regions and subjects. To search for specific documents you can either:
Click on the link to any series in the list and search by year using the ‘date range’ boxes.
Use the following fields and search terms in the advanced search:
- All of these words: the name of the country or subject of interest
- Exact word or phrase: confidential print
- Search within references: FO
- Date: the dates/years within which the records were created
7. Records from embassy and consular archives
7.1 What do embassy and consular records consist of?
These records include:
- original and draft despatches received from the Foreign Office by British diplomatic and consular posts abroad
- local correspondence with the government and other authorities of the foreign state
- correspondence with other British representatives, agents and private individuals
- registers of births, deaths and marriages of British subjects abroad
- consular court records
- commercial records of various kinds
- papers about British churches and cemeteries
- papers about the estates of British subjects
7.2 How to search for embassy and consular records
Please note that not all embassy and consular records have survived.
Basic searches by country and year
Use our catalogue to search for document references with the advanced search, using the boxes to restrict your search results to FO and FCO references, specific years and searching with combinations of the following keywords:
- country name
- either ‘Embassy’, ‘Consulate’, ‘Consular Archives’ or ‘Legation’
Specific subject searches
The only way to search for these records by subject is to visit us at our building in Kew and use the registers of embassy and consulate correspondence that exist from the 1820s onwards.
To use the registers follow these steps:
1. Use the advanced catalogue search to identify a document reference for the relevant register, using the country name AND “Embassy and Consulates” AND “registers” as keywords. You can restrict your search by year or date. With the document reference you can order the document (you can order documents in advance).
2. Once you have the register, select the appropriate section within it (to/from Foreign Office; to/from government of the host country; Commercial, Treaty etc.).
3. Consult the left-hand pages for incoming correspondence, the right-hand page for outgoing correspondence. They look like this:
4. Armed with the details of the relevant entries from the register, return to the advanced catalogue search to identify and order the relevant volume of correspondence, using the country name AND “embassy and consulates” AND “general correspondence” as keywords, and restrict to the relevant year.
5. The volumes of correspondence (an example is shown below) are arranged by author and recipient, then by date. Within the relevant volume, look for the despatch number.
8. Treaties 1695-present
8.1 Records of treaties: ‘Full Powers’, protocols and ratifications
Distinct sets of records were created 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.
8.2 How to search for records of treaties
Follow the links in the table below to search the respective series by one or more of the following:
- the state(s) with which the UK signed the treaty
- the subject of the treaty
|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|
9. Private and private office papers
Private and private office papers relating to foreign affairs held at The National Archives fall under three main categories:
9.1 Private papers given directly to The National Archives
These are private papers of diplomats and politicians involved in foreign affairs directly gifted to, or deposited with, The National Archives (previously the Public Record Office).
Browse through our catalogue references for these from PRO 30/1-99 or search for them by name of author or place of origin using the advanced search and entering PRO 30 in the first reference box.
You can also find private papers held in archives elsewhere using our catalogue. Search by author name and click on the record creators tab within your search results.
9.2 Unregistered papers returned to government after retirement
These are unregistered papers of mostly (though not entirely) 19th century politicians, diplomats and officials taken away on retirement but subsequently returned to government.
Search for references to these using the advanced search in our catalogue, searching by surname, year range and entering department code FO in the reference box.
Anthony Eden’s papers (FO 954) are available online.
9.3 Private office papers surrendered to government on retirement
These are the private office papers of mostly 20th century politicians, diplomats and officials surrendered to government on retirement.
Search for private office papers by author surname using the search engines in the FO 800 and FO 794 series descriptions.
10. Records of international commissions and conferences
The papers of a large number of bilateral or multilateral international commissions, from 1790-1967 are among the Foreign Office records at The National Archives.
The records of British delegations to international conferences from 1814-1976 are in held in both FO and CAB departments.
Search for the records of a commission or conference using the advanced search , restricting your search to reference FO (and, for conferences, CAB) and searching with one or more of the following terms:
- The name of the commission or conference
- The word ‘commission’ or ‘international conference’ and a geographic reference such as the name of a city, country or region
- The word ‘commission’ or ‘conference’ and a subject reference such as ‘military’, ‘financial’, ‘fisheries’ or ‘slave trade’
See our catalogue series divisions for FO and CAB for further details.
11. Records of wartime departments and missions
We hold records of various departments and missions that operated within the Foreign Office during the First and Second World Wars.
11.1 First World War
Search for references to records created by the following agencies and departments set up by the Foreign Office in the First World War by clicking on the references and using the series-specific search boxes:
- Arab Bureau in FO 882
- Contraband Department in FO 382
- Foreign Trade Department in FO 833
- Jedda Agency in FO 686
- Prisoners of War and Aliens Departments in FO 383
- Restriction of Enemy Supplies Department in FO 845
- Trade Clearing House and War Trade Intelligence Department and Finance Section of the Ministry of Blockade in FO 902
For background details see the description for FO Division 12 to which the above series belong.
11.2 Second World War
Search for references to records created by the following agencies and departments set up by the Foreign Office in the Second World War by clicking on the references and using the series-specific search boxes:
12. Records of the 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. These were:
- The Control Offices, based in London
- The Control Commissions, based in Germany and Austria
- The Civil High Commission, which instigated de facto self-government in West Germany from 1948 until 1955 (when normal diplomatic relations were resumed)
12.1 What kinds of records are held at The National Archives?
The surviving records of the Control Commission for Germany (British Element) are held at The National Archives but are incomplete as 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
12.2 How to search for records
For a breakdown of the record series relating to the Allied Administration, see the FO Division 14 page.
In addition, the records of the Allied Kommandatura, the four power body that administered Berlin until the end of the Cold War, are in FO 1112.
The file descriptions used by the Control Commission were very broad and this is reflected in the record descriptions in our catalogue. A keyword search of our catalogue is therefore of limited value but it may be worth completing the following fields in the advanced search with the terms provided:
- All of these words: a keyword relevant to your search e.g. censorship
- Exact word or phrase: Control Commission for Germany
- Within references: FO
- Date: 1945 to 1950
You should also consult Akten der Britischen Militärregierung in Deutschland: Sachinventar 1945-1955 (11 Volumes, published by KG Saur 1993). These volumes, available from The National Archives library, provide brief details (in English and occasionally German) of the Control Commission documents for Germany (the “G documents”) as well as the associated National Archives references.
13. Intelligence records of the Foreign Office 1795-1985
The primary series of records relating to intelligence matters within the Foreign Office are the records of the Permanent Undersecretary of State in FO 1093.
From the FO 1093 series description, search by year and subject or, instead, browse through the document descriptions for the whole series.
Other significant record series include the reports of intelligence agents from 1795-1815 in FO 38 and details of the funding of British intelligence operations before 1909, known as the Secret Vote, in HD 1 and HD 2.
14. 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.
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-c.1960 (Public Record Office, 1994), includes well-explained guidance on how to use the registers and indexes to Foreign Office correspondence