Catalogue description Records created or inherited by the Foreign Office

Details of FO
Reference: FO
Title: Records created or inherited by the Foreign Office

The vast majority of these records are those of the Foreign Office, which from 1782 to 1968 was responsible for correspondence and negotiations with other states and the conduct of British foreign policy. Also contained are some records of the Foreign Office's successor body, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. First there are the series of general correspondence from Political and Other Departments with related indexes and registers (most series in other groups will have related material within this general correspondence). The general correspondence is supplemented by series of Confidential Print, organised by country or subject. There are also private and official papers of Foreign Office officials.

In addition to these are the records of the business departments which carried out its administrative and statutory duties. They include the records of:

  • Slave Trade and African Departments
  • Information Policy Department, Regional Information Department and Information Research Department
  • Claims Department and Foreign Compensation Commission

There are records of bodies which performed internal services for the Foreign Office:

  • Chief Clerk's Department
  • Library, Research Department and Research and Library Department
  • Treaty and Royal Letter Department
  • Communications Department

There are a large number of series containing the records of Embassies, Legations and Consulates as well as those containing records of other field organisations, comprised of:

  • Consular courts and other extra-territorial jurisdiction
  • British Middle East Office
  • Chinese Secretary's Office

There are the records of departments or bodies that only existed for limited periods comprising:

  • First World War Departments
  • Milner Mission
  • Allied administration of occupied territories in post Second World War Europe
  • Allied Commission for Austria
  • Foreign Office Administration of African Territories
  • Second World War Departments
  • Delegations to international organisations
  • Commissions
  • Conferences, Committees and Councils
  • Tribunals

The Passport Office section contains the records of this semi-independent body. Finally there is a group of miscellaneous records.

Date: 1567-2004

From the beginning of 1950 a revised filing system was adopted by the Foreign Office. This system was based on:

  • i) an initial letter (or letters) indicating the Department concerned
  • ii) a file number
  • iii) a further number indicating the particular paper in the file

Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1968-

Foreign Office, 1782-1968

Physical description: 1113 series
Closure status: Open Document, Open Description
Access conditions: Subject to 30 year closure unless otherwise stated
Immediate source of acquisition:

Foreign Office , from c.1858

Custodial history: Transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1968.
Publication note:

Records of the Foreign Office 1792-1939, (PRO Handbook 13, 1969) Louise Atherton, Never Complain, Never Explain: Records of the Foreign Office and State Paper Office 1500-c.1960, (PRO Readers' Guide, VII, 1994)

Administrative / biographical background:

Before 1782 the conduct of foreign affairs was divided on a roughly geographical basis, together with responsibilities for home and colonial affairs, between the secretaries of state for the Northern and Southern Departments. On 27 March 1782 Charles James Fox was appointed specifically as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Office came into existence, being staffed by the clerks of the former Northern Department.

The basic structure of the Foreign Office, headed by a Foreign Secretary and assisted by officials within the office and a diplomatic and consular service abroad, continued throughout its existence. The Foreign Office was responsible for all correspondence with foreign states and negotiations with representatives of other states, liaising with other ministries where necessary. The Foreign Secretary was responsible for the conduct of the British Government's foreign policy on a day to day basis and for presenting that policy to the Cabinet and Parliament.

At first the office was divided into two departments, Northern and Southern, but as the work of the office became greater and more complex the number of departments increased. Most of these departments were organised on a geographical basis and known as political departments, being responsible for policy towards and relations with particular countries or regions. There were, however, other non-political functional departments, such as the Slave Trade Department. In the twentieth century the numbers of these functional departments grew, while the number of political departments fluctuated although the trend was towards a growth in numbers.

On 17 October 1968 the Foreign Office merged with the Commonwealth Office to become the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Service had already in 1965 been merged with the Commonwealth Service and Trade Commission Service to form a new united Diplomatic Service.

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