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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection


Coronation celebrations in Cyprus in 1937

The historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was transferred to King’s on permanent loan in 2007.

Arguably the most important library collection to be acquired by King's in its history, it comprises some 80,000 volumes of books, pamphlets, reports, typescripts and manuscripts with a date range from the early 16th century to the present day.

This web page provides a summary description of the collection and also includes information on current access arrangements and on other relevant collections held elsewhere.

Explore 500 years of world history (pdf, 1,210 KB), an introductory leaflet about the collection is available as a PDF file here.

Finding material and access to the collection

The FCO Historical Collection principally represents the library collection of the FCO, not the documents and records generated by its staff. The records of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and of its various predecessor departments are held at the National Archives, as is the bulk of the photographic collection. Please see Other related collections elsewhere for further information.

The FCO Historical Collection is primarily housed within the Foyle Special Collections Library, where it is available for consultation by King's students and staff, and members of the public. Some of the post-1945 material has now been integrated into the Maughan Library for addition to the main lending collection.

Records for all items that have been catalogued to date can be found on the main King’s College London Library catalogue. There are several ways to search for material. The image below, for example, shows a 'basic search' for the words 'Foreign and Commonwealth Office' as 'Former owners, provenance'. Searches can be limited or refined by subject, keyword, author etc. or sorted by date. See the catalogue's FAQ section for search tips.

Examples of some search techniques are also provided in the following guide: Foyle Special Collections Library: hints for searching the catalogue (PDF).


Screen from Library catalogue demonstrating search

Printed catalogues

Various printed catalogues to the libraries of the Foreign and Colonial Offices were produced during the course of their history and may be consulted in the Foyle Special Collections Library. However, these catalogues all pre-date the substantial reduction in the size of the libraries’ collections that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. They are therefore not an accurate reflection of the current contents of the FCO Historical Collection.

Great Britain. Colonial Office. Library. Catalogue of the Colonial Office Library, London. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1964 [Special Collections Ref. FOL. Z921.L624 CAT]

Great Britain. Foreign Office. Library. Catalogue of the Foreign Office Library, 1926-1968. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1972 [Special Collections Ref. FOL. Z921.F65 CAT]

Great Britain. Foreign Office. Library. Catalogue of printed books in the library of the Foreign Office. London: H.M.S.O., 1926 [Special Collections Ref. Z921.F65 CAT]

Great Britain. Foreign Office. Library. A short title catalogue of books printed before 1701 in the Foreign Office Library, compiled by Colin L. Robertson. London: H.M.S.O., 1966 [Special Collections Ref. Z921.F65 ROB]

To date the Foyle Special Collections Library has catalogued around 50,000 items from the FCO Historical Collection, about 60% of the collection; the remainder of the collection, however, is currently uncatalogued.

A group of mice feeding in the desert. From 'Narrative of an expedition into central Australia' by Charles Sturt (1839)Material that is not yet catalogued can often be consulted, though inevitably its identification and retrieval takes longer. 

Special Collections staff members proactively look for material that might be of interest to readers and if you are interested in consulting material that has not yet been catalogued, please contact us and we will be happy to help.

About the FCO Historical Collection

Front cover of 'Nyasaland and the Shir Highlands railway', depicting a coffee bush (1913)

The FCO Historical Collection embodies in its contents not only the comprehensive scope, both chronological and geographical, of the Foreign – and later the Colonial and Dominions – Offices’ interests but the central role which their libraries, particularly that of the Foreign Office, played in the formulation of government policy. As Lord Granville, Foreign Secretary to Gladstone’s government, observed, the Foreign Office Library was the ‘pivot on which the whole machinery of the Office turned’.

History of the collection

The collections which now go to form the FCO Historical Collection have a long and complex history. The Foreign Office Library was formally founded in 1801, with the appointment of Richard Ancell as its first librarian, but its functions and collections go back much earlier. The Foreign Office itself was formed in 1782 out of the old Northern and Southern Departments (the division was between the two areas of Europe – broadly speaking, the Protestant north and the Catholic south – with which the Departments dealt), which themselves dated back to the reign of Charles I.

Cryptic message written in symbols from 'Cryptographia denudata' (1739)The Commonwealth Office, meanwhile, was formed only in 1966 from the former Commonwealth Relations Office (itself founded in 1947 from the combined Dominions Office and India Office) and Colonial Office. Material from the Colonial Office, itself formally established as a separate government department in 1854, and from the Dominions Office, which branched off from it in 1925, form a major component of the FCO Historical Collection.

Prior to the formation of the Colonial Office in 1854 responsibility for colonial matters had lain with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (from 1801), with the Council for Trade and Plantations (from 1768) and with the Council of Foreign Plantations (from 1660). Finally, in 1968, the combined FCO was formed and the separate libraries amalgamated.

Scope of the collection

Plate entitled 'The author in Cafaria' depicting a European talking to two Africans. From 'Travels through the Interior of Africa ...' by Christian Friedrich Damberger (1801)Lewis Hertslet, Librarian from 1810 to 1857, observed that ‘there is no divisible period in our foreign affairs, nor any limit to our researches’, and the comprehensive nature of the collection is one of its most immediately striking features. All countries and peoples of the world are covered extensively and all post-medieval periods of history. History, government, geography, natural resources, trade, anthropology – all are dealt with in depth.

Naturally, there is a particular emphasis on those parts of the world where Britain had strategic interests – Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America in the 18th century, for example – but there is no part of the world that is not covered.

Material from the former Colonial Office Library provides superb coverage of the UK’s former colonies and dominions, but there is also much on those of the other major powers; there is material on the Belgian Congo, on German imperial ambitions in Africa and on France’s Indian Ocean possessions, to give just three examples.  

Foreign Office Library

Two Araucanos playing bandy ball in Chili. From 'Travels into Chile, over the Andes, in the years 1820 and 1821' by Peter Schmidtmeyer (1824)For much of its history, the Foreign Office Library fulfilled functions over and above those normally assigned to a library. The Librarian not only acquired, documented and managed collections of books and papers; he maintained the correspondence files of the Foreign Office, had custody of all treaties with foreign powers, undertook research on all aspects of international affairs at the request of ministers and others, provided guidance as to precedent in affairs of state and was the author of numerous reports and memoranda on international affairs (producing up to 300 a year by the late 19th century). 

He was, in short, as Lewis Hertslet was described by one Foreign Secretary, ‘a Walking State Paper’, who had a considerable influence on British foreign policy. This helps to explain another notable feature of the collection, the large amount of manuscript annotation. The entire collection – and this applies to Colonial Office, as well as to Foreign Office material – was very much a working tool of government. 

Internal documents and publications

Both the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office were major producers of documents in their own right, and the presence of so many internal publications is another defining feature of the collection. These include rulebooks for colonial officials, confidential reports of civil unrest in the colonies, transcripts of trials, peace treaties, reports on trade figures, mineral resources or educational policy in the colonies and dominions and so on. Most of these items are extremely rare, with copies held in maybe one or two other libraries – many are unrecorded elsewhere. 

The collection holds large volumes of parliamentary papers of interest to the Foreign Office and those relating to Great Britain’s colonies, all arranged chronologically by year, and commercial reports by secretaries of legations (1858–1886).

Pamphlets and press cuttings

Also of rarity are the extensive holdings of bound volumes of printed pamphlets on particular themes; for topics such as the rise of the anti-slavery movement and the history of colonial settlement and emigration the FCO Historical Collection forms a unique resource for the historian. The collection brings together thousands of pamphlets that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, many of them bearing evidence, through manuscript annotation, of the use to which they were put by government.

A number of the more recent pamphlets held in the collection are available in digitised format through the FCO Historians webpage, which contains documents published by them from the past 25 years.

The University of Manchester Special Collections also holds the pre-1920 volumes of the FCO pamphlet collection, with information about this important complementary resource available here.

Cover of the official souvenir programme for the coronation of George VI in 1937.Of equal interest to the historian are the large volumes of press cuttings, arranged by subject and copiously indexed, covering the First World War, the Russian Revolution and Civil War and other events of the early 20th century, and the equally large volumes in which Colonial Office librarians amassed material connected with the British Empire exhibition of 1924 and with the coronation of George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 – circulars and confidential despatches, official programmes and souvenir booklets and photographs sent by commissioners from around the globe.


The FCO Periodicals collection spans the 17th to the 20th century and contains some rare series that, to the best of our knowledge, are not found elsewhere in the UK. The online exhibition Highlights of the FCO periodicals collection focuses on a selection of journals that show the different strengths of the collection. 

The Maori messenger (Auckland, 1855–60), for example, was an illustrated magazine of news, religious articles and poetry published by the Native Office of the colonial government of New Zealand, the text printed in parallel columns of English and Maori. Some sample pages are available to view in our online exhibition.

Cover page of 'The Falkland Islands Magazine' featuring Christ Church CatherdalEqually uncommon is The Falkland Islands magazine (Port Stanley, 1899–1933), founded by Lowther Edward Brandon, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral in the Falkland Islands. Brandon, who also founded the islands’ first savings bank and established a Sunday school, typeset the early issues of the magazine himself. It follows the standard format of a parish magazine, and includes advertisements, details of church services, births, baptisms, marriages, deaths, attendance figures and details of Brandon’s itinerary. It is also full of information useful to the local community, on such matters as libraries, concerts, schools, recreation, court cases and shipping news. A sample issue is available to view in our online exhibition.

Pre-1701 items

Title page of 'Prima parte delle gverre di Alamagna' by Girolamo Faleti (1552)Many of the pre-1701 items in the collection were part of the original Foreign Office Library collection. They mirror the great variety of subjects, languages and genres contained in the later items in the collection and also reflect the broad-mindedness of its early compilers. 

Anything that could give the reader an insight into a foreign country, its political system, its inhabitants and their customs was collected, be it in English, French, Italian, Spanish or Latin. Sometimes the same item was collected in several languages, like Adam Brand’s A journal of an embassy from Their Majesties John and Peter Alexowits, emperors of Muscovy, &c. into China (1698), of which there is also another copy in French (1699).

A wide range of subjects are covered. Law is particularly well represented with titles such as the Law and Acts of Scotland (1683 and 1707), the Charter of London granted by King Charles II (1680) and a book containing the Treaties of Nijmegen (1697). There are also a significant number of  books covering history and politics, including John Milton’s History of Britain (1695), Pierre Bontier’s Histoire de la premiere descouverte et conqueste des Canaries (1630), Gasparo Contarini’s La republica e i magistrati di Vinegia (1564) and Cardinal Mazarin’s Letters in French (1693).

The collection’s geographical scope is as wide. Books covering European countries were collected side by side with items on such faraway places as Macaçar, a kingdom which was situated in the southern part of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Travel descriptions and memoirs, e.g. Barnardin Martin’s Voyages faits en divers temps en Espagne, en Portugal, en Allemagne, en France et ailleurs (1700), Robert Knox’s Relation ou voyage de l'isle de Ceylan, dans les Indes orientales (1693) or Madame d’ Aulnoy’s Memoirs of the court of Spain (1692) were collected alongside tracts on courtesy and diplomacy like John Finet’s book on the reception and the treatment of foreign ambassadors in England (1656) or Le parfait courtisan by Baldassare Castiglione (1585).

Rare and unique items

Watercolour of the plant 'Telfairia volubilis'. From 'Sketches of plants made at the Mauritius to accompany the report of May 1829' by John NewmanA high proportion of items catalogued appear to be unique to King’s. Some of these are manuscripts, which of course are by definition unique. These include: a volume of watercolour sketches of plants grown in the Royal Botanic Garden at Pamplemousses, Mauritius, and sent to the Colonial Office in 1829 by the Garden’s curator John Newman; and a number of manuscript accounts relating to early British exploration and settlement in Australia, such as the explorer John Oxley’s reports of the two expeditions he made in 1817 and 1818 to track the courses of the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers.

Others, however, are printed publications; for some of these we have been unable to trace any other recorded library copy, either in the UK or further afield. In many more cases it appears that we hold the only recorded UK copy. Statements on the uniqueness or rarity of printed items, particularly pamphlets, must always be treated with caution – some libraries holding collections of material of this type may only have catalogued them in manual form, meaning that they remain hidden to the user of online library catalogues – but even with this caveat borne in mind, there is no doubt that the FCO Historical Collection contains much primary source material new to the historian.

The following are a sample of some rare items we have found to date in the collection:

Modern pamphlet collection

Material catalogued so far from the modern pamphlet collection, comprising material dating from 1945 to the present day, provides excellent coverage of topics such as the break-up of the Soviet Union, the history of the European Common Market and European Community, the Balkans, Cyprus, South Africa during the apartheid era and the Iran-Iraq war.

Because of its completeness as a collection, the rarity of many of the items contained within it and the inherent fragility and vulnerability of the pamphlet format, this collection is housed within the Foyle Special Collections Library, despite the recent date of its contents.

Modern monograph collection

The modern monograph collection, also comprising material dating from 1945 to the present day, is a sizeable portion of the FCO collection, numbering up to 15,000 items. Unless it is found to be inscribed, rare or otherwise unsuitable for general loan (e.g. through physical fragility), post-1945 items are transferred, once catalogued, to the open shelves of the Maughan Library, where they can be borrowed by members of King's and other registered library users. Items found to be rare or unique or which contain significant manuscript annotations are kept in the Foyle Special Collections Library with the rest of the FCO Historical Collection.

Subject strengths

The FCO Historical Collection complements and augments the existing strengths of the Foyle Special Collections Library’s collections in fields such as military history and strategy, the literature of exploration, discovery and travel, Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, Portugal and its former possessions, and Germany from 1918 to 1990. The collection also brings new areas of strength. Major subject strengths include:

Exploration and discovery
Portrait of an Aboriginal native from 'Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia' by Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1839)

All the major accounts of voyages of exploration are represented – Cook, Anson, Dampier, Franklin, Park and so on – often in several editions, as well as sumptuously illustrated 18th and 19th century works on natural history and a number of important manuscript accounts.

A bound volume of manuscript items concerning Madagascar contains a number of extracts from original works transcribed by the naval officer Matthew Flinders while he was imprisoned on the island of Mauritius from 1803 to 1810. A journey from the Siberian frontier through Songaria and Little Bucharia to the western Tibet and the superior branch of the Indus details a secret Russian expedition undertaken in 1801 to discover an overland route to Britain’s Indian possessions and is thus perhaps one of the earliest evidences of the ‘Great Game’. Nor were genres such as memoirs of big game hunting or of Christian missionaries neglected by the librarians of the Foreign and Colonial Offices in their efforts to build a truly comprehensive collection on the countries of the world; there are even runs of Baedeker’s and Murray’s travel guides for tourists.

The collection is rich in works on the exploration of Australia, including accounts of 19th-century expeditions into the interior of the continent by explorers such as Charles Sturt and Sir Thomas Livingston Mitchell. Another notable item is a manuscript report made by Colonel Peter Egerton Warburton to Messrs Elder and Hughes, the colonists who financed the Warburton expedition across the western interior of Australia. The report takes the form of extracts from the journal kept by Warburton during the expedition and was subsequently published in 1875 as Journey across the western interior of Australia.

Photograph of the Luddendorf Railway Bridge crossing the Rhine. From a secret war-time report 'The Rhine system' (1943-4)

The collection provides a wealth of resources on wars, civil wars and rebellions down through the centuries across various parts of the world. The list below gives an indication of the range of material held. 

In anticipation of a growing interest in documents and resources relating to the First World War, the Foyle Special Collections Library ran a project in 2013 to catalogue materials relating to the causes, course and aftermath of the war. An overview of items relating to the First World War from the FCO Historical Collection is available from our web pages.

Diplomacy and peace-keeping

The collection holds a number of interesting works on diplomacy and peace-keeping, including, for example, The embassador and his functions by Abraham de Wicquefort, an important landmark in the history of diplomatic writing. First published in French in 1681, Wicquefort’s work is the first guide to the diplomatic practice of the modern European states system as it emerged from the Congress of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). A unique manuscript volume documents the papers sent and received by Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, during his time as representative at the Congress of Vienna from September 1814 to June 1815.

A list of specific conditions insisted upon by Britain under the 1815 Treaty of Paris with France. From 'Treaties, &c. between Great Britain and foreign powers, for the maintenance of the peace of Europe' (1815)The “custody of [all] original treaties with Foreign Powers” was one of the prime responsibilities of the Foreign Office Library for much of its history. Amongst numerous treaties in the collection is an annotated bound volume of peace treaties between Great Britain and Foreign Powers (1814–41). Its manuscript index, carefully compiled by the Librarian Lewis Hertslet, lists each treaty in chronological order and also notes any “Specific British Engagements”. Volumes of press cuttings relate to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the Treaty of Versailles and the foundation of the League of Nations. Further volumes in the collection contain versions of the Treaty of Versailles in various languages.

The collection contains several works on international arbitration, border disputes and negotiations. For example, a number of volumes concern the arbitration proceedings in the late 19th century between the United States and Britain to settle the Alabama claims dispute. Thomas Falconer’s Oregon question, or, A statement of the British claims to the Oregon territory (London, 1845) deals with the competing British and American claims to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the first half of the 19th century. The set of press cuttings mentioned earlier, relating to the First World War and its aftermath, includes a volume relating to Italy’s dispute with the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the later Yugoslavia, over former territory of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

In the 20th century, as developments in transport and communications made long trips overseas easier, the ceremonial visit or tour by a head of state or leading politician became an increasingly common method of diplomacy. Numerous royal and state visits are featured in the collection, with all kinds of commemorative booklets and official programmes of events gathered by the Colonial Office librarians. For example, an unpublished typescript logbook documents the 1927 tour of the West Indies, New Zealand and Australia made by the then Duke and Duchess of York (the future George VI and Queen Elizabeth).

The growth, rule and decline of empires

Wood cut map of the islands in the West IndiesThe growth, rule and decline of the British Empire is a major strength of the collection. During the early 17th century England founded settlements on the Atlantic coast of North America and in the Caribbean, spurred on by Spain and Portugal’s early explorations around the globe. The English empire in America (London, 1739), first published in 1685 by the bookseller Nathaniel Crouch under his pseudonym Robert Burton (c1640–1725?), provides an early historical account of England’s colonies in North America and the West Indies, illustrated with woodcut pictorial maps. The pamphlet Jamaica viewed (London, 1705), first published in 1661, contains a description of the infant colony of Jamaica by the soldier and religious controversialist, Edmund Hickeringill (1631–1708), who served on the island in its early years.

England’s rivalry with the Netherlands in Asia is documented in a bound volume containing John Skinner’s True relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies, by the Netherlandish governour and councell there (London, 1632) and A remonstrance of the directors of the Netherlands East India Company (London, 1632), printed for the Dutch East India Company. 

Numerous works deal with the Stamp Act 1765, a tax imposed by the British Parliament on the colonies of British America, and the resistance it met with in the colonies. Following the loss of its 13 American colonies after the American War of Independence, Britain turned its attention to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. The English East India Company propelled the expansion of the British Empire in Asia and British India became the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. Works such as The Queen’s empire, published by Cassell (London, 1897-9) to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee of 1897, provide an account of life in all parts of the Empire.

The expansion and decline of the British Empire in the 20th century is well documented in the collections. The Empire reached its greatest size in the 1920s, following the award of the so-called mandated territories, former possessions of defeated Germany and Turkey placed under British administration by League of Nations mandate as part of the First World War peace settlement. Following the Second World War, Britain implemented a process of decolonisation; India, Pakistan and Ceylon joined Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as independent members of the Commonwealth.

Also of interest is a unique volume containing valedictory letters sent to Colonial Office staff by outgoing Colonial Secretaries upon retirement or appointment to another ministerial post. In 1881 the Colonial Office Library collected all such letters as could be located and bound them in a single volume. Subsequent valedictory letters were added systematically until 1967, the last letter in the volume being from Fred Lee, the last Colonial Secretary. Lord John Russell, Gladstone, Bulwer Lytton, Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill, Bonar Law, Leo Amery, Reginald Maudling – all are represented.

Portrait of Henry Morgan. From 'Bucaniers of America' by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (1684-5)In addition to extensive holdings of material on the British Empire, the collection provides a range of resources on the growth and decline of European empires around the world. Early European imperial rivalry, between the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and British, in Africa, the Caribbean and India are extensively covered.

The collection broadens the geographic coverage of our collections considerably, greatly enhancing our holdings of material relating to the Balkans, for example. A number of 19th- and early 20th-century items address the ‘Eastern Question’ as the power of the Ottoman Empire fell into decline. The collection contains a broad selection of material relating to the Ottoman Empire, Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean in general. The collapse of the ‘Soviet empire’ is well represented in the modern pamphlet collection.

Colonial emigration and settlement
A New Zealand woman. From 'The British colonization of New Zealand' (1837)

Anyone interested in examining the role which emigration played in the politics and life of 19th century Britain will find the collection a rich resource for study; the Colonial Office assiduously collected books, pamphlets, draft parliamentary bills, broadsheets and posters, emigration forms and other administrative documents – even literary magazines published in the colonies and novels presenting fictionalised accounts of colonial life.

Australia and New Zealand are particularly well represented, with a huge amount of material on their discovery, exploration, colonial settlement, natural resources, administration and social and cultural life. European colonial settlement in South Africa is also covered extensively, and there is a small but interesting section on 19th century Malta, notable for the high proportion of items unrecorded elsewhere.

From the 18th century, colonial North America and the debates that preceded the American War of Independence are well documented in the pamphlet literature of the time. There is an excellent collection of general travel accounts aimed at both emigrants and tourists, many of them lavishly illustrated with maps and plates, some supplemented by guidance on currency and transport facilities, covering all parts of the known world and written in a range of European languages.

The growth and abolition of the Atlantic slave trade

An interior view of a Jamaica house of correction. From 'A narrative of events since the 1st of August 1834 ...' by James Williams (1838)The collection contains a wealth of pamphlet material from the mid-18th century to 1830s relating to the emancipation of slaves in Britain’s West Indian colonies and the introduction of the apprenticeship system which immediately followed emancipation. Pro- and anti-emancipation campaigners waged a vigorous pamphlet war over this divisive issue and many of these pamphlets, particularly those printed in the Caribbean and representing the planters’ interests, are unrecorded elsewhere.

A number of items in the collection were owned by the author and slavery abolitionist Granville Sharp (1735–1813) and include his manuscript annotations. A bound volume of slave trade tracts relate to the politician and slavery abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759–1833) and the debate on a motion for the abolition of the slave-trade in the House of Commons.

The creation of the Commonwealth

Page 1 of the leaflet 'If you ask me...', vol. 1, no. 8, February 1953The roots of the Commonwealth date back to the 1880s when Lord Rosebery described the British Empire as ‘a commonwealth of nations’. The collection contains a number of pamphlets about the organisation’s history and about relations between Great Britain and Commonwealth countries.

The mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Britain’s colonies shift towards dominion status; Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada became dominions within the Empire. Following the Second World War most of the territories of the British Empire were decolonised and granted independence.

The leaflet “If you ask me...”, issued in monthly parts from July 1952, deals with decolonisation. It was produced by the Colonial Office ‘to help those who are in close contact with the people in the Colonies to answer some of the more difficult questions put to them’. Topics covered included self-governance, trade unions, economic independence, Communists (in particular the difference between Communists and Nationalists), Apartheid, race relations, neo-colonialism, women’s rights and international politics. Two sample issues are available in our online exhibition Highlights of the FCO periodicals collection.

Trade, transport and communication

Lithograph of the steamship SS Austral from 'Illustrated guide of the Orient Line of steamers between England & Australia' (1883?)Colonial industry and commerce, transport and trade routes are comprehensively covered in the collection. For example, a volume of 19 tracts (1823–50) documents steam navigation and communication through the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. Another item of note is a de luxe souvenir guide from the Orient Steam Navigation Company, Illustrated guide of the Orient Line of steamers between England & Australia (London, 1883?). The British colonies in Australia and New Zealand, rich in natural resources, were heavily dependent for much of their history on a reliable, frequent trans-oceanic shipping service, capable of transporting both goods and passengers.

The collection’s holdings illustrate the phenomenal growth in railway networks during the second half of the 19th century. The building of railways across Canada is well charted, along with the construction of railway networks across several other countries including South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, North and Central America.

Supplementing existing strengths in the Library’s collections on the history of the telegraph, the FCO collection contains some notable works on telegraph communication including John W Brett’s 1858 publication On the origin and progress of the oceanic electric telegraph. Brett championed the idea of laying a submarine transatlantic cable to connect Britain and America by telegraph –  a successful cable was laid in 1866.

Several currency guides for Great Britain and its colonies are held. Early works include John Wright’s American negotiator (London, 1761), examining currencies of the British colonies in America and Gibbes Walker Jordan’s 1791 account on currency in Barbados.

The collection provides illustrated accounts of numerous world fairs and international exhibitions, at home and abroad, including the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the British Empire Exhibition 1924–5. Material ranges from descriptive catalogues of exhibits to souvenir publications and reports of the juries.

Natural history and anthropology

A bee-eater from 'A natural history of the birds of New South Wales' by John Lewin (1822)The collection is rich in works on the flora and fauna of countries all over the world and includes such notable items as John Richardson’s Fauna boreali-americana (London, 1829–37) and the artist John Lewin’s A natural history of the birds of New South Wales (London, 1822). The collection is particularly strong in accounts of voyages, travels and embassies, which often include details of the natural history of the regions visited.

The collection contains numerous illustrated works describing the indigenous peoples of colonies belonging to Britain and to other European countries, including, for example, South Africa, Western and Southern Africa, Sierre Leone, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Namibia, Gabon, the Congo, Sarawak, British Guiana, Jamaica and the West Indies, the Philippines and British Columbia.


FCO material in exhibitions

View of Zante from 'Journal of a tour in the Levant' by William Turner (1820)We actively promote the collection to the King's community, the wider scholarly community and the general public through exhibitions, visits and talks. Many Library exhibitions have drawn on the FCO Historical Collection and when exhibitions are taken down, they are digitised and made available online, as you will see from the links below.

Our first exhibition on the collection 'The pivot of the whole machinery': the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provided an overview of its strengths and riches and ran from October to December 2007.

Other early exhibitions featured the history of zoology; exploration and early colonial history of Australia and New Zealand; and 500 years of world history as represented by the holdings of the FCO Collection. This last exhibition featured material selected by notable academics, diplomats, friends and graduates of the University, broadcasters, politicians and other figures in the public eye.

For further information on any of the exhibitions. please contact us

Online exhibitions

Please see the online exhibition index for a full gallery of online exhibitions and many examples of how items from the FCO Collection have been used recently.

Some details of how we have used the FCO Collection in exhibitions are available below.

‘I speak of Africa’: Europeans and Africa, 1500–1950

Table Bay, with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background. From 'The importance of the Cape of Good Hope as a colony to Great Britain ...' by Richard Barnard Fisher (1816)This exhibition explored, through five centuries of written accounts and visual representations, the changing nature of the European encounter with sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition now features as an online exhibition.

'The paradise of the world': conflict and society in the Caribbean

View of the Botanic Gardens St. Vincent. From 'An account of the botanic garden in the Island of St. Vincent ...' by Lansdown Guilding (1825)'The paradise of the world': conflict and society in the Caribbean, drew on the FCO Historical Collection’s world class holdings of material on the Caribbean. The exhibition is now available on our online exhibitions pages.

The exhibition explores the documented history of this region, from the first Spanish settlements, through the age of slavery and sugar production to the development of post-emancipation societies and the rise of the tourist industry.

‘A brighter Hellas’: rediscovering Greece in the 19th century

This exhibition explored how Greece captured the imagination of British travellers, writers and artists during a period in which it fought for independence from the Ottoman Empire and emerged in 1833 as a new nation-state. The exhibition also examines the story of the Ionian Islands under British rule (the islands were a British Protectorate from 1815 to 1864), and this exploration of a little known episode in Britain’s imperial history was drawn exclusively from the FCO Historical Collection. The exhibition now features as an online exhibition.

Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

In Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed we looked at the sub-continent’s tumultuous history, particularly as affected by those foreign countries - Britain, Spain, Portugal and the United States among them - which have sought to gain a position of power or influence over Latin America’s destiny. Items included in this exhibition were drawn principally from the FCO Historical Collection and from the library of Canning House, transferred to King's in 2012. The exhibition is now available to view online.

Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Late 19th century depiction of a paperworks factory in Kent. From: Orient Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. Illustrated guide of the Orient Line of steamers between England & Australia, 1883In this exhibition we explore some of the technological achievements of the period when Britain arguably experienced the peak of her imperial and industrial power. In the years 1815 to 1870 she was undoubtedly the ‘workshop of the world’, and there was no rival posing both a military and an economic threat. We look at developments in railway and maritime transport, in telegraphic communication and in architecture, tunnelling and sanitary engineering, and at the role of scientific enquiry in furthering technical advance.

Many of the items in this exhibition were drawn from the FCO Historical Collection and it is now available to view online. 

From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

Illustration of a colourful fish. From John Whitchurch Bennet. A selection of rare and curious fishes found upon the coast of Ceylon, 1841‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – this commonplace adage reflects a widespread appreciation of the value of the visual image as both an aid to understanding and a stimulus to emotional or aesthetic response. That appreciation is reflected in the long and varied history of book illustration and in the constant striving by printers, illustrators and inventors to develop better ways of reproducing illustrations accurately and economically - themes we explore in this exhibition.

It is now available to view online here.

Other exhibitions featuring many items from the FCO Collection are available to view through the main online exhibition index

Using the collection in teaching programmes

Illustration entitled 'A Melee' depicting men hunting with dogs. From 'The rifle and the hound in Ceylon' by Samuel White Baker (1854)Working with colleagues in academic departments, we have continued to increase the number of seminars for undergraduate and postgraduate students involving material from the FCO Historical Collection. These seminars typically last an hour and involve an introduction to the collection, followed by a detailed examination and discussion of a selection of items. In most cases students are expected to follow up this initial visit to the Foyle Special Collections Library with individual consultation of material as they prepare essays or other coursework. 

Seminars have been run for BA History students taking the option in Australian history, for MA History students taking the MAs in Early Modern History, Modern History and World History and Cultures and for MA English students taking the MAs in Early Modern Literature: Text and Transmission, Eighteenth Century Studies and post-1850 English Literature.

In addition, organised visits to the Maughan and Foyle Special Collections libraries are run regularly for a variety of groups and individuals. Visiting groups are generally shown a display of material from our collections, including the FCO Historical Collection, tailored to their interests. Please contact Katie Sambrook, Head of Special Collections, if you are interested in arranging a seminar or group visit.

Cataloguing projects 

George Robinson surrounded by Tasmanian aborigines. From 'The last of the Tasmanians' by James Bonwick (1870)The 18-month project, Discovery and Empire: accessing resources in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection, funded by the University of London Vice-Chancellor’s Development Fund, ran from January 2009 to July 2010. This cataloguing project targeted in particular material relating to the themes of exploration and discovery, colonial expansion, rivalry and settlement, slavery and mass emigration, and ranging in geographical coverage from Africa to North America to Australasia. The project exceeded its original target – to create catalogue records for 11,000 items – by a sizeable margin, delivering catalogue records for a total of 13,000 items. All pre-1801 monographs are now catalogued.

Through internal and external funding, cataloguing activity continues and is currently directed towards several discrete areas of the collection. Cataloguing is in progress for 19th century material on topics in which the collection is notably strong and/or which meet current teaching and research needs of departments within King’s, such as the abolition of the slave trade, the Caribbean, colonial emigration, arctic exploration and France’s Indian Ocean possessions. The Schilizzi Foundation has supported the cataloguing of material relating to Greece and Cyprus. A number of 18th-century items have been catalogued through funding from the Leche Trust. In addition, the John S Cohen Foundation has funded the cataloguing of a number of items of Jewish interest.

Principal aims in cataloguing

Draft of a proposed charter for the South Australian Association (1834) with manuscript annotationsIn cataloguing a collection such as this, which not only contains numerous individual items of rarity and significance but whose interest equally lies in its creation as a collection (when and how items were acquired, how they were handled and used by officials of the Foreign, Colonial and Dominions Offices), we have two principal aims: to create a full and accurate bibliographic record of each item and to assign appropriate and consistent index entries for people, places and subjects so that the researcher can identify items of potential interest. 

Thus we note imperfections, such as missing maps or plates, the presence or otherwise of advertisement leaves (often of considerable interest to bibliographical or historical researchers) and evidence of early ownership, such as manuscript inscriptions, bookplates or armorial bindings; and we assign indexed headings for former owners (when we can identify them), printers, booksellers and publishers from the hand-press period, as well as for countries, regions, people and topics covered by each item.

We report all British, Irish, North American and other English language material with a pre-1801 publication date to the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC ) project. All our catalogue records are retrievable not only on our own Library catalogue but on national and international collaborative library catalogues, such as the UK’s Jisc Library Hub Discover and the US-based OCLC WorldCat.

Other related collections elsewhere

The National Archives is the UK government’s official archive. Holdings include the records and photographs of:

  • the Colonial Office (covering the period 1570–1990)
  • the Dominions Office (covering the period 1843–1990)
  • the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (covering the period 1918–2005)
  • the Foreign Office (covering the period 1567–2004)
  • the War Office (covering the period 1568–2007)

Readers wishing to consult material at the National Archives should be aware that government records remain closed for 30 years after their creation.

The National Archives have digitised some of the FCO photographic collection on Africa and these are available to view at Africa through a lens.

The National Archives also houses a substantial reference library, containing over 65,000 volumes relating to local, national and international history. Please see its library catalogue for further details. 

The British Library holds the records of the India Office. These include the records of:

  • the East India Company (covering the period 1600–1858)
  • the Board of Control or Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India (covering the period 1784–1858) 
  • the India Office (covering the period 1858–1947)
  • the Burma Office (covering the period 1937–1948)

The School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London holds some material relating to China which was transferred from the FCO Library.

The Institute of Commonwealth Studies of the University of London holds important collections of published and archival material on Commonwealth countries and their history.

The Churchill Archives Centre at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, holds the records of the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme, comprising interviews with former diplomats and other officials on aspects of their work.

Cambridge University Library holds the library of the Royal Commonwealth Society, founded in 1868 as the Colonial Society, containing over 300,000 printed items, 600 archival collections and over 100,000 photographs of the former British colonies. The RCS Official Publications Project aims to catalogue official publications from this collection that were published within the colonies themselves.

The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford has created a searchable database of the Foreign Office Confidential Print series.

The University of Manchester Special Collections also holds the pre-1920 volumes of the FCO pamphlet collection, with information about this important complementary resource available here.

The University of Leicester Diplomatic Archive is a catalogue of the diplomatic, consular, foreign service and foreign ministry lists dating from the 1950s to the 1990s, transferred from the FCO to the University of Leicester.

Electronic resources

The website of the FCO contains:

Other useful electronic resources: 

Centre of African Studies (University of Cambridge - portal for African Studies)

Early Canadiana Online

Empire Online  

House of Commons Parliamentary Papers

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