The Public Record Office, 1838-1958
The Public Record Office (PRO) was established by Public Record Office Act 1838, which put into the custody of the Master of the Rolls the records, judicial, administrative and financial, of the Chancery, the Exchequer, and other ancient courts, together with the accruing records of the central courts, and provided for the appointment of a Deputy Keeper, with knowledge of records, and assistant keepers. To accommodate the records brought together following the act, the construction of a new record repository on the Rolls Estate in Chancery Lane, London began in 1851.
An order in Council of 5 March 1852 brought the records of the departments of state into the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls, thus formalising an understanding of 1845-1846 with the Treasury, whereby documents were transferred to the PRO by arrangement, the departments retaining the right to recall at any time those needed for current business and to determine the accessibility of their records to researchers.
The State Paper Office was amalgamated with the PRO in 1854 and the records preserved there were transferred to the new repository in 1861.
Subsequent Public Record Office Acts of 1877 and 1898 authorised the Master of the Rolls to lay before Parliament schedules of documents in his charge not considered worthy of permanent preservation, and to make rules to be approved by order in Council, for their disposal.
In 1903 the documents in the Land Revenue Record Office were transferred to the PRO and the Deputy Keeper was appointed Keeper of the Land Revenue Records. Thereafter, enrolment business was conducted in the Public Record Office until 1961, when enrolment in the Land Revenue Record Office was abolished.
The acts of 1838, 1877 and 1898 were repealed by the Public Records Act 1958, which gave effect to the main recommendations of the committee on Departmental Records (Cmd. 9613). Direction of the PRO was transferred from the Master of the Rolls to the Lord Chancellor, who was given a general responsibility for public records with power to appoint a Keeper of Public Records to take charge, under his direction, of the PRO and the records therein. The Master of the Rolls remained responsible for the records of the Chancery of England with power to determine where they should be deposited, but the custody of other public records was transferred to the Keeper. The Master of the Rolls also retained charge and superintendence of manorial documents and of the sealed (local) copies of tithe apportionment, conferred on him by the Law of Property (Amendment) Act 1924 and the Tithe Act 1936 respectively.
Registers recording the places of custody and the movements of these documents, which previously had been maintained by the PRO, became the responsibility of the Historical Manuscripts Commission in 1959. The Commission, which hitherto had been housed at the Public Record Office, moved in that year to separate accommodation.
The Public Record Office, 1958-1992
By the 1950s the cost of records storage in government was a pressing concern for the Treasury, and a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the issue under Sir James Grigg. The recommendations of the Grigg report in 1954 led to the Public Records Act 1958. It simplified the procedure under which records not selected for permanent preservation could be destroyed, and required that public records selected for permanent preservation be transferred to the PRO within thirty years of their creation. Provision was made for the transfer to be delayed in special circumstances and the Lord Chancellor was authorised to arrange for the deposit of records in places other than the PRO in suitable cases. It provided that, as a general rule, public records should be open to public inspection when fifty years old. Under the 1958 act it is the duty of the Keeper to arrange reasonable facilities for the public to inspect and obtain copies of those public records in the PRO which are open.
By the Public Records Act 1967, the 50 year period before which records were available to the public was reduced to 30 years.
The PRO's functions were extended in April 1972 when the department took custody of the British Transport Historical Records from the British Railways Board, and furthered in 1977 by the Finance Act which closed the Tithe Redemption Office and transferred certain residual functions to the PRO.
In 1976, a new building at Kew in South-West London was built to house the modern records of government.
The Public Record Office from 1992
Under the Next Steps Initiative, and following a Scrutiny Report in 1990, the Public Record Office became an Executive Agency of the UK Government in 1992, responsible directly to the Lord Chancellor, and governed by the Keeper of Public Records and the Management Board. In 1996, the Public Record Office at Chancery Lane was closed and the pre-1750 records which remained there were moved to the Kew site, where a new extension had been built to house them.
In 1997, the census and wills microfilm reading rooms were moved to a site in Islington, Central London, which along with the reading rooms of the Office for National Statistics, formed the Family Records Centre.
In April 2003, the PRO combined with the Historical Manuscripts Commission (HMC) to become The National Archives (TNA).