From the sixteenth century onwards, Britain’s relations with foreign countries were the responsibility of the Sovereign and the two Secretaries of State. After 1640 their work was divided on a geographical basis, with a Northern Department and a Southern Department. Neither Secretary of State was concerned exclusively with foreign affairs, as they each dealt with various domestic matters, especially law and order. This arrangement came to an end in 1782, with the creation of the Foreign Office and the Home Office, each headed by a Secretary of State. Charles James Fox was the first Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Office was initially staffed by former officials of the Northern Department. Since 1868 the Office has been located in a grand Italianate building in Whitehall.
Although other departments, such as the Board of Trade, had overseas interests, the Foreign Office has always had the principal responsibility for the formulation of British foreign policy, relations with foreign legations in London, and the staffing and control of British embassies, legations and consulates throughout the world. The colonies were the responsibility of the Colonial Office and the India Office and their successor departments. In 1968 the Commonwealth Office merged with the Foreign Office to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
In 1829 the Foreign Office began the practice of printing papers, despatches and correspondence on important subjects for circulation among the staff of the Foreign Office, the Cabinet, other government departments, and staff of British legations and consulates. The Confidential Prints, as they were called, were produced on the Office’s own printing press and by the 1850s the series was assuming significant proportions. They ranged from a single page to hundreds of pages and documented British reactions to particular events, problems and crises, as well as Britain’s relations generally with particular countries and regions.
The set of Confidential Prints held in the Library was donated by the Foreign Office in 1961-63 and 1973. Microfilm copies of several classes of Confidential Prints were purchased from the Public Record Office in London in 1972.
The set of Foreign Office Confidential Prints held by the Library is by far the most substantial held outside Britain and is possibly second in completeness to the master copy in The National Archives in London. Of the 12,000 prints produced between 1829 and 1922, the Library holds about 10,800.
The Confidential Prints are numbered in the order of printing. They contain (i) despatches and cables between the Foreign Office and British diplomatic and consular missions abroad (ii) communications between the Foreign Office and other government offices (iii) exchanges between the Foreign Office and British organisations and individuals (iv) exchanges between the Foreign Office and foreign diplomatic missions in Britain (v) memoranda prepared by the staff of the Foreign Office or persons outside engaged by the Office (vi) miscellaneous papers, such as minutes and proceedings of conferences, law officers’ reports, consular notifications, Orders in Council, proclamations, and administrative documents.
Most of the Confidential Prints relate to specific geographical areas, ranging from small countries such as Borneo, Bulgaria, Ecuador, the Holy See and Muscat to regions such as North Africa, South East Europe and the Pacific Islands. The largest groupings deal with China, East Africa, Egypt, France, Turkey and the United States. Other prints relate to subjects: international copyright, international law, Law Officers’ reports, Panama Canal, slave trade, Suez Canal, sugar, and World War I.
The Library holds microfilm copies of Confidential Prints relating to seven geographical areas or subjects. They fill a few of the gaps in the Library’s set of original prints and, in some cases, extend well beyond 1922.
The Prints are contained on the following reels:
mfm G 13312-73 Africa, 1834-1941 (F.O. 403)
mfm G 13268-311 China, 1848-1937 (F.O. 405)
mfm G 13251-54 Korea, 1891-1902, 1909 (F.O. 523)
mfm G 13255-67 Japan, 1859-1937 (F.O. 410)
mfm G 13633-39 Siam and South East Asia, 1883-1922 (F.O. 422)
mfm G 13374-422 Turkey, 1841-1940 (F.O. 424)
mfm G 13240-50 Asia, Central, 1834-1911 (F.O. 539)
mfm G 13623-32 Slave trade, 1858-92 (F.O. 541)
The Confidential Prints are housed in the general collection at Sq 327.42 GRE. Shelved with the set is a bound typescript list of the Prints that are actually held, starting with no. 1 and ending with no. 6924.
A classified listing of numbers 1-10,600 (1829-1915) of the Confidential Prints was published as volume 23 in number 13 of the Public Record Office’s Lists and indexes, Supplementary Series, New York, Kraus-Thomson, 1975 [Sq 942 GRE]. The list is also available on microfilm at reel mfm G 7667. A manuscript numerical listing and a printed subject index of the Confidential Prints (nos. 1-10,000) can be found on reel mfm G 7668. There is no single numerical listing for the post-1915 Confidential Prints. They can, however, be found listed in the Kew Lists, which are held on microfilm (mc 1924), under the relevant geographical class. For instance, the F.O. 405 class list covers the confidential prints for China and the F.O. 432 class list covers the confidential prints for France.
Atherton, Louise, Never complain, never explain: records of the Foreign Office and State Paper Office 1500-c.1960, London, PRO Publications, 1994
Lo Hui-Min, Foreign Office confidential prints relating to China and her neighbouring countries, 1840-1914; with an additional list 1915-37, The Hague, Mouton, 1969
Roper, Michael, The records of the Foreign Office 1782-1968, London, Public Record Office, 2002