The National Archives (United Kingdom)

The National Archives
Welsh: Yr Archifau Cenedlaethol

The National Archives building at Kew
non-ministerial department overview
Formed April 2003 (2003-04)
Jurisdiction England and Wales, Government of the United Kingdom
Headquarters Kew, Richmond, Greater London TW9 4DU
Employees 679
Annual budget £43.9 million (2009–2010)[1]
Minister responsible
non-ministerial department executive
  • Jeff James, Chief Executive and Keeper of the Public Records
Parent department Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport)
Child agencies
  • Office of Public Sector Information
  • Her Majesty's Stationery Office
Key document
  • Archives Inspire

The National Archives (TNA) is a non-ministerial government department.[2] Its parent department is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of the United Kingdom.[3] It is the official archive of the UK government and for England and Wales; and "guardian of some of the nation's most iconic documents, dating back more than 1,000 years."[4] There are separate national archives for Scotland (the National Records of Scotland) and Northern Ireland (the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland).

TNA was formerly four separate organisations: the Public Record Office, the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) and Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO).

It is institutional policy to include the definite article, with an initial capital letter, in its name (hence "The National Archives", abbreviated as TNA) but this practice is rarely followed in the non-specialist media.


The National Archives is based in Kew in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in south-west London. The building was opened in 1977 as an additional home for the public records, which were held in a building on Chancery Lane. The site was originally a World War I hospital, which was later used by several government departments.[5] It is near to Kew Gardens Underground station.

Until its closure in March 2008, the Family Records Centre in Islington was run jointly by The National Archives and the General Register Office. The National Archives has an additional office in Norwich, which is primarily for former OPSI staff. There is also an additional record storage facility (DeepStore[6]) in the worked-out parts of Winsford Rock Salt Mine, Winsford, Cheshire.


For earlier history, see Public Record Office.

The National Archives was created in 2003 by combining the Public Record Office and the Historical Manuscripts Commission and is a non-ministerial department reporting to the Minister of State for digital policy.

On 31 October 2006, The National Archives merged with the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI), which itself also contained Her Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO) which was previously a part of the Cabinet Office. The name remained The National Archives.

Chief Executive and Keeper

Key roles

A manuscript and seals being examined at the archives

TNA claims it is "at the heart of information policy—setting standards and supporting innovation in information and records management across the UK, and providing a practical framework of best practice for opening up and encouraging the re-use of public sector information.[9] This work helps inform today's decisions and ensure that they become tomorrow's permanent record." It has a number of key roles in information policy:

Sector leadership

The National Archives (and before it the Public Record Office) has long had a role of oversight and leadership for the entire archives sector and archives profession in the UK, including local government and non-governmental archives. Under the Public Records Act 1958 it is responsible for overseeing the appropriate custody of certain non-governmental public records in England and Wales.[10] Under the 2003 Historical Manuscripts Commission Warrant it has responsibility for investigating and reporting on non-governmental records and archives of all kinds throughout the United Kingdom.[11] In October 2011, when the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council was wound up, TNA took over its responsibilities in respect of archives in England, including providing information and advice to ministers on archives policy. The National Archives now sees this part of its role as being "to enhance the 'archival health of the nation'".[12]


Types of records

UK Prime Minister William Gladstone's 19th-century "red box", held in the archives
Entrance gates to The National Archives from Ruskin Avenue: the notched vertical elements were inspired by medieval tally sticks.

The National Archives is the UK government's official archive, "containing 1000 years of history from Domesday Book to the present", with records from parchment and paper scrolls through to digital files and archived websites.[13] The material held at Kew includes the following:

There is also a museum, which displays key documents such as Domesday Book and has exhibitions on various topics using material from the collections.[14]

Access to documents

Researchers at the archive

The collections held by the National Archives can be searched using their online catalogue.[15]

Entrance to The National Archives is free.[16] Anybody aged 16 or over can access the original documents at the Kew site, after producing two acceptable proofs of identity and being issued a free reader's ticket.[17]

The reading room has terminals from which documents can be ordered up from secure storage areas by their reference number. The reference number is composed of three sections: the department code of up to four letters, such as WO for the War Office; a series or class number, for the "subcategory" or collection that the document comes from; and an individual document number. Documents can also be ordered in advance.[18]

Once a document has been ordered, The National Archives aims to get it to the reader within 45 minutes (assuming it is kept at Kew rather than at their second repository, "Deep Store" – a former salt mine in Cheshire): it can take 2–3 days for files to be retrieved from the latter. Special arrangements are in place for readers wishing to retrieve large groups of files.

A reader's ticket is not needed to access records on microform or online. Frequently accessed documents such as the Abdication Papers have been put on microfilm, as have records for two million First World War soldiers. The originals of the latter were stored in a warehouse in London along with four million others, but incendiary bombs dropped on the warehouse in the Second World War started a fire in which most were destroyed. The surviving third were largely water or fire-damaged and thus acquired the colloquial name of the "Burnt Documents." Because they were mostly too fragile for public access, they were put on microfilm with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have now also been digitised and are available on the Ancestry website.[19]

Some of the most popular documents have now been digitised and are available to download from Discovery, for a fee of £3.30 per file,[20] or through co-branded services called licensed Internet associates (LIA) as pay per view or part of their subscription service.[21] A list of records online is available under the records, catalogues and online records menu on The National Archives' website.[22]

All of the open census records have been digitised, and there are also significant other sources online, such as wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1383–1858. Researchers are encouraged to check the online services first, to see if they can get what they want online. If a document is available online, The National Archives' policy is to encourage people to use the digital copy and not the original, even if they come to Kew, in order to protect the original from damage.


Moveable shelving in one of the more modern repositories

The documents are stored on mobile shelving – double-sided shelves, which are pushed together so that there is no aisle between them. A large handle on the end of each shelf allows them to be moved along tracks in the floor to create an aisle when needed.

They are generally stored in acid-free folders or boxes.

In the event of a fire The National Archives would be clearly unable to use sprinklers for fear of ruining its holdings, and so when the building is evacuated, argon gas is released into the air-tight repositories.

Other services

The National Archives also provides services to help users in their research and also find collections beyond those it holds.


National Archives at the London University School of Advanced Studies History Day, November 2015.

The National Archives' education web page is a free online resource for teaching and learning history, aimed at teachers and students.[23]

"Access to Archives"

Access to Archives (also known as A2A)[24] is a database containing details of archival collections held in many different archive repositories in England and Wales.[25] As of March 2008, there are no more plans to add additional collections to A2A due to lack of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the changing financial priorities of The National Archives, but existing entries can still be updated.[26] The A2A database was transferred to The National Archives with a new platform with a simpler interface to ensure its availability.[27]

National Register of Archives

A researcher at the archives

The National Register of Archives (NRA)[28] is the central point for the collection and circulation of information about the content and nature of archival manuscripts relating to British history.[29] It contains published and unpublished lists and catalogues describing archival collections in the UK and overseas: currently over 44,000 such catalogues are included.[30] The register can be consulted in the National Archives reading room and the index used to be searchable as an online database on the National Archives web site.[29]

The information is collected in a variety of ways. TNA is sent hard-copy catalogues from archive repositories holding records relating to British history. These are kept in the reading room at The National Archives and indexed in the online database. TNA conducts an annual survey of archive repositories and records all new accessions, and the accession lists[31] are also available on TNA's website. Information is also obtained from surveys and guides to archival collections, and other publications.[29]

The Register includes name indexes to its contents (covering corporate names, personal names, family names, and place names); but not subject or thematic indexes.[29] Where the catalogues are themselves available online the indexes provide direct electronic links; but many still exist in hard copy only (often as unpublished "grey literature"), and it remains necessary for the researcher to visit either TNA or the specific repository in order to consult them.

A separate National Register of Archives for Scotland is maintained at the National Archives of Scotland, but its contents are duplicated within the NRA at Kew.

ARCHON directory

ARCHON Directory is a database of contact details for archive repositories in the UK and institutions elsewhere in the world which have substantial collections of manuscripts relating to British history.[32]

"Your Archives"

Your Archives[33] is a wiki for the National Archives on-line community which was launched in May 2007; it was closed for editing on 30 September 2012 in preparation of archiving on the Government web archive.[34] The contributions are made by users to give additional information to that which is available on the other services provided by the National Archive, including the catalogue, research guides, documentonline and National Register of Archive.[35] Your Archives encourages users to create articles not only about historical records held by the National Archives, but those held in other archive repositories.[36]


The National Archives also hosts several databases on types of records including hospital records;[37] migration records;[38] and manorial records.[39][40]

Civil Pages

The National Archives operates the Civil Pages project on behalf of the Cabinet Office, operating as an online directory for the civil service, facilitating working together and providing a means of sharing knowledge securely between government departments.[41]

Smartphone applications

QRpedia codes at the archives

In January 2011 The National Archives, in conjunction with historian Nick Barratt and smartphone applications development studio RevelMob,[42] developed its first Old Money iPhone app,[43] which uses historic price data from documents held at The National Archives to see what a sum of money from the past (from 1270) would be worth today and the spending power it would have commanded at the time.[44]

In September 2011, TNA's museum began using QRpedia codes, which can be scanned by smartphone users in order to retrieve information about exhibits from Wikipedia.[45]

The Future: Archives Inspire 2015–19

Archives Inspire[46] is a strategy document that sets out the goals and priorities of the organisation over four years, from 2015 onwards.

Forgeries discovered in 2005

In June 2005, journalist Ben Fenton of The Daily Telegraph received an email from a colleague asking him to investigate documents held at TNA that alleged that a British intelligence agent had, on the orders of Winston Churchill, murdered Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, in 1945.[47] The three documents had come to prominence after being revealed by author Martin Allen in his book Himmler's Secret War.[47]

On viewing photographs of the documents, Fenton's suspicions were immediately aroused by the fact that such a controversial policy was casually committed to paper, even to the extent of naming the assassin, and by the use of colourful language, unlike the civil service language of the 1940s used by senior Foreign Office officials John Wheeler-Bennett and Robert Bruce Lockhart.[47] Viewing the original documents the next day, Fenton spotted what looked like pencil marks beneath the signature on one of them. This confirmed his suspicions and, along with his experience of analysing historic documents, it enabled him to persuade The Daily Telegraph to pay for forensic analysis.[47]

TNA staff took four files, along with authenticated copies of the authors' handwriting, to Dr Audrey Giles, a former head of Scotland Yard's Questioned Documents Unit where she confirmed that the documents were certainly forgeries. One letter head had been printed on a laser printer, the earliest example of which was produced in 1977, and all had tear marks where they had been threaded on to the security tags. Further investigations by TNA staff revealed that the counterfeit documents contained errors, breaches of protocol and etiquette which their supposed authors would not have committed, prompting one expert to state that the inconsistencies in the papers "would lead any serious historian to question their veracity".[47]

After his account of the deception appeared in the newspaper, Fenton was contacted by a German academic, Ernst Haiger, who informed him of his own suspicions over other TNA documents cited in an earlier Allen book. Examination by TNA experts led to more than a dozen documents being identified as suspicious and submitted to Home Office specialists for examination. When they, too, were declared forgeries, the TNA called in the police.[47]

In the addendum to the later American edition of the book (which acknowledged that the papers were forged), Allen theorised that, some time after he saw the documents, they had been removed and replaced with clumsily forged replicas, to cast doubt upon his discoveries.[47]

In all, twenty-nine forged documents were discovered, each typed on one of only four typewriters. They were placed in twelve separate files, and cited at least once in one or more of Allen's three books. According to the experts at TNA, documents now shown to be forgeries supported controversial arguments central to each of Allen's books: in Hidden Agenda, five documents now known to be forged helped justify his claim that the Duke of Windsor betrayed military secrets to Hitler; in The Hitler/Hess Deception, thirteen forged papers supported Allen's contention that, in 1941, British intelligence used members of the Royal Family to fool the Nazis into thinking Britain was on the verge of a pro-German putsch; in Himmler's Secret War, twenty-two counterfeit papers also underpinned the book's core claims that British intelligence played mind games with Himmler to encourage him to betray Hitler from 1943 onwards, and that ultimately they murdered the SS chief.[47]

In 2007 the Crown Prosecution Service announced that it was "not in the public interest" to prosecute the only suspect questioned by police. Allen's health problems had prevented the police questioning him for nine months, after which he told them he was wholly innocent. In a December 2007 response to questions from Norman Baker MP, the Solicitor-General said that the police investigation, guided by the opinion of a senior barrister, had produced "sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction" on charges of forgery, using a forged document and criminal damage but it had been decided that it was not in the public interest to proceed. In reaching that decision, "matters relating to Mr Allen's health and the surrounding circumstances were significant in deciding that a prosecution was not in the public interest".[47]

a well-planned attempt to corrupt the UK's primary source of historical information
Detective Inspector Andy Perrott, Financial Times, 3 May 2008[48]
It is hard to imagine actions more damaging to the cause of preserving the nation's heritage, than wilfully forging documents designed to alter our historical record.
Historian Sir Max Hastings, Financial Times, 3 May 2008[48]

See also


  1. The National Archives Annual Report 2009-2010 (PDF), The National Archives, 2010-07-15, retrieved 2010-12-19
  2. "The National Archives". UK Government. Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  3. "Machinery of Government changes: Data protection policy; Information Commissioner's Office; The National Archives; and, Government records management policy:Written statement – HCWS209". Inside Government. 2015. Retrieved 12 October 2015.
  4."". Retrieved 22 August 2016.
  5. "The opening of the Public Record Office in Kew in 1977". Your Archives. The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  6. "Home". Deepstore. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  7. "New role for Chief Executive". The National Archives. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  8. "Appointment of Chief Executive and Keeper". The National Archives. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  9. "About Us, About us". The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  10. "Public Records Act 1958". The National Archives. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  11. "HMC Warrant". The National Archives. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  12. Kingsley, Nick (2012). "Perspectives and Priorities: The National Archives Vision for Sector Leadership". Journal of the Society of Archivists. 33: 135–47. doi:10.1080/00379816.2012.721344.
  13. "Who we are, what we do and how we operate". The National Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-05.
  14. "Visit us, Museum". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-06-09.
  15. "Detecting your browser settings". Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  16. "Visit us, Why visit us?". The National Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
  17. "Visit us, Registering for a readers ticket". The National Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
  18. "Visit us, Ordering documents in advance". The National Archives. Retrieved 2008-07-10.
  19. "Family Tree, Genealogy and Census Records". Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  20. "The National Archives, Discovery". The National Archives. Retrieved 2012-11-23.
  21. "The National Archives, Licensed Internet Associates". The National Archives. Retrieved 2012-11-23.
  22. "The National Archives, online records". The National Archives. Retrieved 2012-11-23.
  23. "Education". The National Archives. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  24. "Access to Archives". The National Archives. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  25. "The National Archives – Access to Archives". Retrieved 2008-07-04.
  26. "Archives Hub Steering Committee meeting, 1 November 2007, University of Manchester". Archives Hub. 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2008-07-05.
  27. "A2A – Access to Archives home". Retrieved 2008-07-05.
  28. "Discovery – The National Archives".
  29. 1 2 3 4 The National Archives. "National Register of Archives". Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  30. The National Archives. "National Register of Archives: Frequently asked questions". Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  31. "Search Other Archives | Accessions to Repositories". The National Archives. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  32. "The National Archives – The ARCHON Directory". The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  34. The National Archives (2007-05-14). "Your Archives". The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  35. "Your Archives". The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  36. "Your Archives: What can I contribute?". The National Archives. Retrieved 2007-07-05.
  37. "Catalogues and online records". The National Archives. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  38. "migration". Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  39. "Manorial Documents Register | Welcome". The National Archives. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  40. "The National Archives – Search the archives". Retrieved 2008-07-04.
  41. "The National Archives Annual Report and Resource Accounts 2008–2009 HC 469" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  42. " | Revel Mob – developing best-selling smartphone apps". Revel Mob. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  43. "Old Money". Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  44. "Old Money iPhone app launched using records from The National Archives". Retrieved 2011-02-01.
  45. "New collaboration between Wikimedia UK and The National Archives". The National Archives (United Kingdom). 2011-09-15. Retrieved 16 September 2011.
  47. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Fenton, Ben (3 May 2008). "Lies and secrets". Financial Times.
  48. 1 2 Fenton, Ben (2008-05-03). "Himmler forgeries in National Archives case will stay unsolved". Financial Times. Retrieved 2011-02-01.
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