The Public Record Office (abbreviated as PRO, pronounced as three
letters and referred to as the PRO),
Chancery Lane in the City of
London, was the guardian of the national archives of the United
Kingdom from 1838 until 2003, when it was merged with the Historical
Manuscripts Commission to form The National Archives, based at Kew. It
was under the control of the Master of the Rolls, a senior judge. The
Public Record Office
Public Record Office still exists as a legal entity, as the enabling
legislation has not been modified.
1.1 19th century
1.2 20th century
1.3 Merger with the Historical Manuscripts Commission
2 Functions of the Office
3 Public access
4 Deputy Keepers and Keepers
6 Further reading
Surviving part of the Rolls Chapel, now the "Weston Room" of the
Maughan Library, King's College London, viewed in 2013
Public Record Office
Public Record Office was established in 1838, to reform the
keeping of government and court records which were being held,
sometimes in poor conditions, in a variety of places. Some of these
were court or departmental archives (established for several
centuries) which were well-run and had good or adequate catalogues;
others were little more than store-rooms. Many of the professional
staff of these individual archives simply continued their existing
work in the new institution. Many documents were transferred from the
London and the
Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, though
Domesday Book was not moved from
Westminster Abbey until 1859, when
proper storage had been prepared.
The PRO was placed under the control of the Master of the Rolls, a
senior judge whose job originally had included responsibility for
keeping the records of the
Court of Chancery. Its original premises
were the mediaeval
Rolls Chapel (the former Domus Conversorum, a
chapel for Jews who had converted to Christianity), on Chancery Lane
at the western extremity of the City of London, near the border with
the City of Westminster. The first
Master of the Rolls to take on this
responsibility was Lord Langdale (d.1851) although his Deputy Keeper,
the historian Sir
Francis Palgrave (who wrote a voluminous work on
ancient writs, many of which were housed in the PRO), had full-time
responsibility for running the Office.
Kew building photographed in 2002, shortly before the name change
to The National Archives
Until 1852 no right existed for the general public to consult the
records freely, even for scholarly purposes, despite the intention of
Public Record Office
Public Record Office Act to enable public access. Fees were
payable by lawyers who in return were permitted to consult a limited
number of documents. These charges were abolished for serious
historical and literary researchers after a petition was signed in
1851 by 83 people including
Charles Dickens and the historians Lord
Macaulay and Thomas Carlyle.
Between 1851 and 1858 a purpose built archive repository was built
next to the Rolls Chapel, to the design of the architect Sir James
Pennethorne, and following the Chapel's demolition due to structural
unsoundness, was extended onto that original site between 1895 and
1902. Public search rooms were opened in 1866, but the pressure of
wider demand led the authorities to restrict the availability of
certain classes of document and to favour visitors who were
experienced in dealing with historical material.
An original cell of the
Public Record Office
Public Record Office at the Maughan Library
The growing size of the archives held by the PRO and by government
departments led to the Public Records Act 1958, which sought to avoid
the indiscriminate retention of huge numbers of documents by
establishing standard selection procedures for the identification of
those documents of sufficient historical importance to be kept by the
PRO. Even so, growing interest in the records produced a need for the
Office to expand, and in 1977 a second building was opened at
south-west London. The
Kew building was expanded in the 1990s and by
1997 all records had been transferred from
Chancery Lane either to Kew
or to the
Family Records Centre
Family Records Centre in Islington, North London. The
Chancery Lane building was acquired by
King's College London
King's College London in 2001,
and is now the Maughan Library, the University's largest library.
Merger with the Historical Manuscripts Commission
Main article: The National Archives (United Kingdom)
In April 2003 the PRO merged with the Historical Manuscripts
Commission to form The National Archives, which moved from its
previous office also located off Chancery Lane, to
Kew in 2004. The
National Archives of Scotland
National Archives of Scotland and the
Public Record Office
Public Record Office of Northern
Ireland were and remain separate institutions.
Functions of the Office
The archive held the official collection of records of public business
Wales and the central UK government, including the
records of court proceedings going back to the Middle Ages, and the
original manuscript of the Domesday Book.
Under the 1958 act, most documents held by the PRO were kept "closed"
(or secret) for 50 years: under an amending act of 1967 this period
was reduced to 30 years (the so-called "thirty year rule"). These
provisions changed significantly when the UK's Freedom of Information
Act (2000) came into full effect in 2005: the 30 year rule was
abolished and closed records in The National Archives became subject
to the same access controls as other records of public authorities.
Some records do remain closed for longer periods, however: individual
census returns, for example, are kept closed for 100 years. In 2002
the PRO set up a website to allow online access to the records of the
1901 census, and was overwhelmed by the numbers of people wanting to
access the site.
Deputy Keepers and Keepers
From 1838 to 1958 the nominal head of the office, known as the Keeper
of the Records, was the
Master of the Rolls of the day. The chief
executive officer who oversaw the office's day-to-day operations was
known as the Deputy Keeper of the Records. Deputy Keepers from 1838 to
1838–1861: Sir Francis Palgrave
1861–1878: (Sir) Thomas Duffus Hardy
1878–1886: (Sir) William Hardy
1886–1926: (Sir) Henry Maxwell Lyte
1926–1938: Alfred Edward Stamp
1938–1947: (Sir) Cyril Thomas Flower
1947–1954: (Sir) Hilary Jenkinson
1954–1958: (Sir) David Lewis Evans
The 1958 act transferred responsibility for the PRO from the Master of
the Rolls to the Lord Chancellor; and the title of the chief executive
was changed to Keeper of Public Records. The Keepers from 1958 to 2003
1958–1960: Sir David Lewis Evans
1960–1966: Stephen Wilson
1966–1970: Harold Cottam Johnson
1970–1978: Jeffery Raymond Ede
1978–1982: Alfred Mabbs
1982–1988: Geoffrey Martin
1988–1991: Michael Roper
Sarah Tyacke (became Chief Executive of The National
Archives, and retired 2005)
^ Not "Public Records Office"
^ "Freedom of Information Act 2000". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved
15 June 2017.
^ "Public Records Act 1958". www.legislation.gov.uk. Retrieved 15 June
^ Cantwell 1991, pp. 569–70.
^ Ede, J.R. (1987). "David Lewis Evans [obituary]". Journal of the
Society of Archivists. 8 (4): 304–6.
^ Latham, R.E. (1974). "Harold Cottam Johnson, 1903–1973
[obituary]". Archives. 11: 215–7.
^ Chalmers, Duncan (23 December 2006). "Jeffery Ede: Keeper of Public
Records [obituary]". The Independent. London. Retrieved 20 January
^ "Alfred Mabbs [obituary]". Society of Antiquaries of London.
Archived from the original on 15 May 2011. Retrieved 20 January
^ Jones, Michael; Crook, David. "Professor Geoffrey Martin, CBE
(1928-2007)". Lincoln Record Society. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
^ "Sarah Tyacke: Biography". Archived from the original on 25 July
2013. Retrieved 6 February 2013.
Cantwell, John D. (1991). The Public Record Office, 1838-1958. London:
HMSO. ISBN 0114402248.
Cantwell, John D. (2000). The Public Record Office, 1959-1969.
Richmond, Surrey: Public Record Office. ISBN 1873162758.
Lawes, Aidan (1996). Chancery Lane: "The strong box of the Empire"
[1377-1977]. Kew: PRO Publications. ISBN 978-1-873162354.
Levine, Philippa (1986). The Amateur and the Professional:
antiquarians, historians and archaeologists in Victorian England,
1838–1886. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pike, Luke Owen (1907). The Public Records and The Constitution.
London: Oxford University Press.
ISNI: 0000 0001 2192 9175
BNF: cb11885250n (data)