- Public Record Office
The Public Record Office (PRO) of the
United Kingdomis one of the three organisations that make up the National Archives (the others are the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and the Office of Public Sector Information). The name is no longer used officially, though many scholars prefer to continue to use it since there is the possibility of confusion with the National Archivesof several other countries, including the USA. It has been all too often called the Public Records Office, though it should be singular.
The functions of the archives remain unchanged. It holds a collection of records of public business in
England, Walesand the UK, including the records of courtproceedings going back to the Middle Ages, and the original manuscript of the Domesday Book.
The Public Record Office (PRO) was established in 1838, to reform the keeping of government and court records which were being held, sometimes in poor conditions, in a variety of places. Some of these were court or departmental archives (established for several centuries) which were well run and had good or adequate catalogues; others were little more than store-rooms. Many of the professional staff of these individual archives simply continued their existing work in the new institution. A good number of documents were transferred from the
Tower of Londonand the chapter houseof Westminster Abbey, though the Domesday Bookwas not moved from Westminster until the 1850s, when proper storage had been prepared.
The PRO was placed under the control of the
Master of the Rolls, a senior judge whose job had originally included responsibility for keeping the records of the Chancery Court, and was originally located in the mediaeval Rolls Chapel(the former Domus Conversorum), a sort of halfway house for Jews who converted to Christianity, on Chancery Laneat the boundary of the City of Londonwith Westminster. The first Master of the Rolls to take on this responsibility was Lord Langdale, while his Deputy Keeper, the historian Sir Francis Palgrave, had full-time responsibility for running the Office.
There was no right to consult the records freely for scholarly purposes until 1852, despite the 1838 Public Record Office Act's intention of enabling public access. Fees were paid by lawyers who used the archives to consult a limited number of documents. These charges were abolished for serious historical and literary researchers after a petition was signed in 1851 by 83 people including Dickens, Macaulay, and Carlyle.
A purpose built archive was designed and built between 1851 and 1858 (
architect: Sir James Pennethorne) and extended onto the site of the Rolls Chapel, which was demolished as it was structurally unsound, between 1895 and 1902. Public search rooms were opened in 1866, but greater access led the authorities to restrict certain classes of document, and to favour visitors who were experienced in dealing with historical material.
The growing size of the archives held by the PRO and by government departments led to the
Public Records Act 1958, which established standard procedures for the selection of documents of historical importance to be kept by the PRO. Even so, growing interest in the records produced a need for the Office to expand, and a second building was opened at Kewin south-west London in 1977. The Kew building was expanded in the 1990s and all records were transferred from Chancery Lane to Kew or the Family Records Centrein Islingtonby 1997. The Chancery Lane building is now known as the Maughan Library, the largest library of King's College London.
Merger with the Historical Manuscripts Commission
In April 2003 the PRO merged with the
Historical Manuscripts Commission, which moved from a previous site off Chancery Lane to Kew in 2004. The National Archives of Scotlandand the Public Record Office of Northern Irelandwere and remain entirely separate institutions.
Most documents held by the PRO were formerly kept "closed", or
secret, for 30 years, although this changed significantly when the UK's Freedom of Information Actcame into force. The 30 year rule was abolished and closed records in the PRO are subject to the same access controls as all other records of public authorities under the FOIA. However, some records remain closed for long periods, for example individual censusreturns are kept closed for 100 years. In 2002 the PRO set up a websiteto allow online access to the records of the 1901 census, and was overwhelmed by the numbers of people wanting to access the site. Since then, The National Archives has digitised all open census records through partnerships, and all can be searched online.
* [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ The National Archives] - official website.
* [http://www.mytimemachine.co.uk/archives.htm Specialist and Local Records Offices in England and Wales]
* [http://www.mytimemachine.co.uk/archives.htm Specialist and Local Records Offices in Scotland]
* [http://www.mytimemachine.co.uk/visitarchive.htm Research Guide: Visiting a Records Office]
* [http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Home_page Your Archives] - wiki for users of The National Archives
*John D. Cantwell, "The Public Record Office, 1838-1958" (
*Philippa Levine, "The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England, 1838-1886" (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
Australian state of Victoria calls its archives Public Record Office Victoria.
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