Special collections: Modern political papers

History and scope of the modern political collections

The Bodleian Library holds one of the largest concentrations of modern British political manuscripts and archives, providing a breadth of coverage which makes it a resource of national and international significance. The collections have been drawn from the private papers of politicians from all three major political parties, as well as from public servants (mainly diplomats), print and broadcast journalists, and others active in public life. In scale the collections range in size from over 2000 boxes to a single diary.

Prime Ministers and the Cabinet

This unrivalled resource includes the papers of six of Britain's twentieth-century prime ministers: HH Asquith (1852-1928), Clement Attlee (1883-1967), Harold Macmillan (1894-1986), Harold Wilson (1916-95), Edward Heath (1916-2005) and James Callaghan (1912-2005), and one from the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81).

The Library also holds the manuscripts and archives of over 40 British cabinet ministers, from the Liberal minister John Morley (1838-1923) to the papers of the Labour cabinet minister and campaigner, Barbara Castle (1910-2002).

Personal perspectives

The material forms a compelling record not only of the workings of British politics throughout this period, but also of the inner lives of men and women who helped shape the modern world. The diaries, personal correspondence, pencilled notes of conversations, drafts of speeches and articles, photographs and printed ephemera form the documentary record of lives lived which will inform not only the present but later generations. Many bring a personal perspective to historic events, such as Asquith's letter to his young confidante Sylvia Stanley following his resignation as prime minister in December 1916, or Lady Franklin's urgent request to Disraeli in January 1850 that a search should be made for the ships of Sir John Franklin's Arctic expedition.


Some collections include intriguing objects, such as the ivory carriage passes to Constitution Hill and Horse Guards belonging to Lord Bryce (1838–1922), whose career as lawyer, academic, politician and diplomat (he served as British Ambassador to Washington from 1907–13) was both distinguished and varied; as well as locks of hair, pressed flowers and even the odd ceremonial dagger.

International connections

Britain's links with the wider world are reflected in the numerous series of correspondence between British politicians, diplomats and journalists and their overseas counterparts. There are letters to Violet, Viscountess Milner (1872–1958), editor of the National Review, from correspondents as varied as the French Statesman Georges Clemenceau and the legendary American broadcaster Ed Murrow. This collection is by no means atypical.

Recently-acquired papers include:

  • pioneering journalist and broadcaster Honor Balfour (1912–2000), the only woman on the original editorial team of Picture Post and a key English journalist on Time for over thirty years;
  • philosopher and historian of ideas (and war-time official) Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–97);
  • diplomat Sir Roger Makins (later Baron Sherfield) (1904-96).

All of these collections document the strong transatlantic ties between Britain and the USA in the second half of the 20th century.

Anglo-French relations are another topic richly represented in the Library's holdings. The papers of the Earl of Clarendon (1800–70), of Sir Edmund Monson (1834–1909), and Sir Patrick Reilly (1909–90) cover many key events including the settlement of the Crimean War, the groundwork for the 1904 Entente Cordiale, and the negotiations for Britain's entry into the EU in the 1960s.

The United Nations

The United Nations Career Records Project (UNCRP) was set up in 1989 with the aim of constructing an archive of recollections and journals relating to the careers of UN officials from throughout the organization, including its many specialized agencies.

The resulting collection includes a wealth of contributions from workers in the field, peacekeeping forces and administrative staff, as well as material from national representatives to the UN and from Non-Governmental Organization (the Anti-Slavery Society and the Quakers) members involved in UN work. Contributions take the form of contemporaneous papers, memoirs and interviews (recordings and transcripts), almost all of which are available for consultation.

In addition to the papers of the UN Career Records Project, the Bodleian holds a number of major collections relating to the history of the UN. These include the papers of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909–97), Sidney Dell (1918–90), Baroness (Evelyn) Emmet (1899–1980), Gilbert Murray (1866–1957), George Ivan Smith (1915–95) and Sir Roger Makins (later Lord Sherfield) (1904–96), and many individual letters.

Life histories

Many of the Bodleian's collections tell the life history of their creators from their earliest days. A story in the smudged, schoolboy hand of Isaiah Berlin is his earliest known surviving work. The collections are not only concerned with life as lived by the major players in history. The Woolton papers are one of several which include letters from members of the general public, and photographs of everyday situations.

Conservative Party Archive

This collection, on deposit from the Conservative Party, comprises the archives of the various components which make up the modern Conservative Party from the late 19th century when it first developed a truly national organisation, up to the present day.

It consists primarily of the records of Conservative Central Office which was set up in 1870 (but which only survive from the 1930s onwards), including its many departments and committees, the most significant of which was the Chairman’s Office.

Probably the most important part of the archive are the papers of the Conservative Research Department, which was set up by Chamberlain following defeat in the 1929 general election. Its papers are complete back to that date and continue to be added to regularly. Of particular significance are the minutes and papers of its many policy groups, particularly during periods when the party was in opposition, as well as the minutes and papers of some committees of the parliamentary party for the period c.1945–1980s. Besides these, the archive also holds the records of the 1922 Committee (since 1923), the Whips’ Office (since 1923), and the Shadow Cabinet (since 1945).

The oldest extant records of the Conservative Party are those of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, which represented the voluntary wing of the party and its grass-roots membership, from its founding in 1867 until it was superseded by the National Conservative Convention in 1998. Its records include those of the annual Conservative Party conferences (since 1867), its regional area offices (since 1886), and its various national advisory committees for women, trade unions, local government, teachers and students (since 1945).

In addition, there is a small but growing collection of publications and papers of conservative-leaning think tanks and Conservative Party-affiliated groups.

Printed and published material includes:

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