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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection

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.

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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.

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.

A group of mice feeding in the desert from 'Narrative of an expedition into central Australia' by Charles Sturt (1839)

About the FCO Historical Collection

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’.

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

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.

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.

Cryptic message written in symbols from Cryptographia denudata (1739)

Scope of the collection

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.  

Plate entitled 'The author in Cafaria' depicting a European talking to two Africans.

Foreign Office Library

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.

Two Araucanos playing bandy ball in Chili (1824)

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.

Cover of the official souvenir programme for the coronation of George VI in 1937.

Periodicals

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.

Equally 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.

Cover page of The Falkland Islands Magazine featuring Christ Church Catherdal

Pre-1701 items

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).

Water colour of the plant Telfairia volubilis by John Newman (1839)

Rare and unique items

A 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:

 

View of Zante from 'Journal of a tour in the Levant' by William Turner (1820)

FCO material in exhibitions

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.

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)

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

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.

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

'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.

Late 19th century depiction of a paperworks factory in Kent.

Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

In 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. 

Illustration of a colourful fish from an 1841 work on the fishes of Ceylon

From woodcut to photograph: techniques of book illustration

‘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

Illustration entitled 'A Melee' depicting men hunting with dogs from 'The rifle and the hound in Ceylon' by Samuel White Baker (1854)

Using the collection in teaching programmes

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.

George Robinson on his mission surrounded by Tasmanian aborigines

Cataloguing projects 

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.

 Draft of a proposed charter for the South Australian Association (1834) with manuscript annotations.

Principal aims in cataloguing

In 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 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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