The Bonar Law papers provide a great deal of interest, particularly in relation to the Unionist Party and Unionist opinion between 1911 and 1923, as virtually all prominent Unionists wrote constantly to their leader at that time. Major topics covered include party organisation, tariff reform, the Irish question, the conduct of the war, relations with the Coalition Liberals and post-war home and foreign policy.
The first seventeen series consist of family, personal and business correspondence and papers from about 1881. The family correspondence includes: letters from his aunt Janet Kidston, from his children, their teachers and tutors, and from personal friends and letters of sympathy on the death of his wife (1909), his mother (1914), and his two elder sons, James and Charles, both of whom were killed in action in 1917. The business papers contain: two early notebooks of business expenses (1881-1894), a diary of a business trip to Belgium in 1889, and various other account books and correspondence relating to Bonar Law's investments in the General Life Assurance Company, General Accident Insurance Company, Royal Securities Corporation (Beaverbrook's company), and Clydesdale Bank, amongst others. Four series contain miscellaneous personal papers including some photographs, domestic account books, the children's school reports and one bundle of papers relating to the administration of Bonar Law's estate, 1924-1930. Finally, there is one series of correspondence and papers relating to his Rectorship of the University of Glasgow, 1914-1922.
BL/18 to BL/22 relate to Bonar Law as a member of Parliament, 1901-1923, and include: letters from Hicks-Beach, Balfour, Joseph and Austen Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, L S Amery, Walter Long, Hamilton Benn, Edward Goulding (Later Lord Wargrave), J L Garvin, H A Gwynne, L T Maxse of the National Review, Asquith, Beaverbrook, Northcliffe, Derby, Curzon, Lansdowne, Robert Cecil and many others. The topics covered are equally diverse, ranging from tariff reform and party affairs to licensing, the Osborne judgement, women's suffrage and the Clyde strike of 1906. There are a few notebooks and drafts of speeches, some papers on the Licensing Bill and Port of London Bill, 1908, Trade Unions, and two boxes of constituency correspondence.
BL/23 relates to Bonar Law as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, 1902-1905, and is followed by twenty-six boxes of correspondence and papers, including press-cuttings and speech notes, concerning his leadership of the Unionist Party, 1911-1915. These contain very important material and no student of the period can afford to overlook them. They cover every topic of the day, as well as Unionist Party affairs, giving valuable insight into party opinion, and the correspondents include, as well as all prominent Unionists: leading members of the Liberal Party, such as Asquith and Lloyd George, literary figures and journalists such as Northcliffe, St Loe Strachey and of course Beaverbrook.
BL/50 to BL/64 relate to Bonar Law as Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1915-1916. In this post he was concerned with the Irish Rebellion, the Jacks case in 1915, relations with the Dominions during the war and the conduct of the war generally, as well as Unionist Party matters, organisation of the Government and war cabinet, and relations with the Coalition Liberals.
The papers relating to the period when Bonar Law was Chancellor of the Exchequer, include correspondence about the distribution of government posts and honours, and official letters to the King on the day to day proceedings in the Commons. There is very little semi-official Exchequer correspondence - just one series - but there are eleven series of Cabinet papers and five of general political correspondence. With Bonar Law virtually in the position of a second Prime Minister, the papers of this, and the following section are extremely rich in material, covering every aspect of British politics.
From 1918 to 1921, as Lord Privy Seal, (while retaining his leadership of the House of Commons), Bonar Law remained at the centre of government and became a very important influence in the peace conferences. Issues during this period include Ireland, the Marconi Company, mines, the Cabinet Reconstruction of 1919, national expenditure, Scottish and Welsh Churches and the King's Speech.
For Bonar Law's short period out of office there is one series - BL/107 - of general correspondence leaving only nine series for the twelve months of his premiership. topics covered include British war losses, broadcasting, the cattle embargo, devolution, education, housing, foreign policy and Ireland, the League of Nations, licensing, pensions, the Pope, and the Reparations Conference. The last two series contain additional papers received from Beaverbrook and the executors of Baldwin who had removed them at some stage. They include further material on Irish affairs, on agriculture, the Imperial and Economic Conference (1923), and the House of Lords Reform.
In addition to the papers there are two volumes of press cuttings from all the daily and weekly papers on Bonar Law's speech about War loans, made on 30 September, 1918, at the Guildhall, London, there is also one large carton of parchment scrolls of illuminated addresses to Bonar Law, mostly delivered to him by the various Irish Unionist organisations at a mass meeting of Irish Unionists on 9 April 1912 at Balmoral, just outside Belfast.
The papers are arranged according to the various divisions of Bonar Law's political career, and have been given a series (box)/file, folder and item number. The correspondence is divided into In-letters and Out-letters and from 1915 is further sub-divided into semi-official and general correspondence. Following the correspondence there are the semi-official and official papers, including Cabinet papers when Bonar Law was in office.
BL/50 to BL/64 are concerned with Bonar Law as Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1915-1916, and here the papers are divided into semi-official and general correspondence, official and unofficial papers and Cabinet papers.
BL/65 to BL/85, relating to the period when Bonar Law was Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1916-1918, are arranged in a similar way except that there is a further sub-division of correspondence and papers relating specifically to his position as Leader of the House of Commons.
The arrangement of the papers for his period as Lord Privy Seal (BL/86 to BL/106), is the same as before except for the reappearance of the sub-division 'Leader of the Unionist Party', and a new 'Special Series' of correspondence and papers which relate to Ireland, the Marconi Company, mines, the Cabinet Reconstruction of 1919, national expenditure, Scottish and Welsh Churches and the King's Speech.
BL/107 relates to Bonar Law's short period out of office. Here the correspondence has been arranged differently with one series of general political correspondence, followed by a 'special series' of Ministers' letters, correspondence concerning appointments and the 1922 General Election, confidential correspondence with government departments and ministers, and correspondence with particularly prominent figures such as Beaverbrook, Balfour, Sir John Simon and Ramsey Macdonald. The special series then continues with subject filing.
On his death in 1923, Bonar Law's papers were bequeathed to Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook. In 1950, Sheila Lambert, later, Mrs Geoffrey Elton, was recruited by Beaverbrook through the Institute of Historical Research when, as a young history graduate, she was looking for work. Her task was to catalogue the Bonar Law papers. She found the papers rather jumbled, still in the solicitors' tin deed boxes in which they had first arrived twenty-six years previously. Beaverbrook then enlisted the historian, Robert Blake, to write a biography of Bonar Law which was subsequently published as The Unknown Prime Minister in 1955. To avoid death duties, Beaverbrook sold the papers to London Express Newspapers in 1954. In the late 1950s Beaverbrook planned to endow the library of the University of New Brunswick, Canada, with the papers, which were packed up for an Atlantic crossing. Beaverbrook then changed his mind, realising he needed them in England for his own books. After this they led a migratory existence, often being kept in cramped conditions in a basement in the Evening Standard building, in store-rooms or, once, on the management floor of the Daily Express and finally at Beaverbrook's house at Cherkley, where Beaverbrook decided to create an archives centre to be opened to historical researchers after his death. Preparations began in 1962 and continued in 1963. The cinema was first designated as the centre but Beaverbrook changed his mind again and two first floor rooms were used instead. After Beaverbrook's death in 1964, the papers were moved to store rooms in Hays Wharf where they remained until 1967, when they were transferred with Beaverbrook's other manuscript collections to the Beaverbrook Library in Fleet Street. In 1971 they were sold again to the First Beaverbrook Foundation. The Library closed on 27 March 1975. After the Bonar Law papers were despatched, Beaverbrook changed his mind, realising he needed them in England for his own publishing. The Bonar Law papers were duly shipped back. To this day the University of New Brunswick has a building called the Bonar Law-Bennett Library which now houses the archives of the province of New Brunswick.
These papers were originally catalogued by Sheila Lambert in the early 1950s. They were converted as part of the Access to Archives project using Heritage Lottery Fund money in 2001.