Modern British historical archives and manuscripts

Evelyn family Arms, with manuscript notes by John Evelyn. Add MS 78351, f 142r.
Evelyn family Arms, with manuscript notes by John Evelyn. Add MS 78351, f 142r.

We hold a wealth of unpublished documents useful for the study of modern British history (1600 to date)

About the collection

The British Library holds a vast array of archival material and manuscripts useful for the study of British history from 1600 to the present day. These range from individual letters and diaries to large archives documenting the lives of particular people, families or institutions. We hold the papers of British politicians, campaigners, writers, explorers and other public figures, plus the records of the East India Company (1600-1858) and the India Office (1858-1947), which document the history of British trade, politics and colonialism.

Collection highlights

  • Letters and documents of British sovereigns, their families and the Royal Household
  • Archives of leading politicians and Prime Ministers, including the Earl of Danby, the Duke of Newcastle, W E Gladstone, Lord Balfour, and Jeremy Thorpe
  • Papers of diplomats, colonial governors, and other civil and military office-holders
  • Archives spanning several generations of families with significant roles (men and women) in public and social life often named for the great house in which they were preserved, including: Holland House (Fox), Portland (Cavendish and Harley), Dropmore (Grenville), Blenheim (Marlborough and Sunderland), Althorp (Spencer), Trumbull, Evelyn, Bowood (Lansdowne), and Melbourne (Coke and Lamb)
  • Papers of reformers, journalists, and public campaigners including Francis Place, Sylvia Pankhurst, William Lovett, members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU),  John Burns, Lord Northcliffe, Henry Wickham Steed, Sir Basil Blackett, J L Garvin, Gerald Austin Gardiner (abolition of the death penalty), Women’s Football Association, and Peter Tatchell 
  • Archives of scientists, mathematicians, medical researchers, institutions and reformers, including: the Royal Society, Sir William Petty, John Pell, Sir Hans Sloane, Charles Babbage, John Tyndall, Alfred Russel Wallace, Florence Nightingale, Sir Alexander Fleming, Marie Stopes, Anne McLaren, Marilyn Monk, Donald Michie, John Maynard Smith, W Ross Ashby and George Price. We also hold an extensive collection of medical recipe books and illustrated botanical and natural history volumes.
  • Explorers' records, including diaries, correspondence, maps and artworks of Sir Joseph Banks, James Cook and Robert Falcon Scott
  • Collections of antiquarians, valuable for the study of local history, heraldry and genealogy
  • Charters, rolls and seals, many of which date from the early modern period

List of named collections in Western Archives and Manuscripts (PDF)

What is available online?

The Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue contains catalogue entries for modern historical papers and manuscripts. Some manuscripts have been digitised in full on Digitised Manuscripts and selected images are available in the Online Gallery. You may also be interested in the resources held by the India Office Records and Private Papers and the India Office Family History Search. Some remote E-resources are available to registered Reader Pass holders.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The majority of archives and manuscripts relevant to British history, including personal, family and estate papers are available to view in the Manuscripts Reading Room. You can consult India Office Records and Private Papers in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Digital and microform surrogates can also be viewed in the Reading Rooms.

We provide onsite access to a wide range of relevant subscription resources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the British Newspaper Archive, UK Parliamentary Papers, Nineteenth-Century Collections Online and Find My Past. 

What is available in other organisations?

The National Archives at Kew is the official archive of the UK government and for England and Wales; it holds the records of the Home Office, the Foreign Office and other government departments; it also continues the work of the Historical Manuscripts Commission to locate documents of value to understanding the past. The National Archives holdings and over 2,500 other UK archives can be searched via the Discovery online service. The catalogues of archives held at over 300 UK institutions can be searched via Archives Hub. The Institute of Historical Research provides resources for historians, including a major research library and research training.

How to guides

How to reuse images of unpublished manuscripts

Guide to the copyright of unpublished documents

Guide to researching provenance of books now in the British Library

Where do the British Library’s old printed books ‘come from'? Who owned or read them in centuries past? Why does it matter?

Access manuscripts and archives

Accessing manuscripts and archives and obtaining a Letter of introduction or recommendation

Find charters, rolls, and seals

How to access medieval and early modern European documentary collections

Find and request Lord Chamberlain's Plays

How to locate items in our largest single manuscript collection

Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

How to use the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC)

About Explore Archives and Manuscripts

With Explore Archives and Manuscripts you can search for information about our rich and unique archive and manuscript collections.

Guide to Explore Archives and Manuscripts

A guide to help you use the catalogue, covering: login, search, how to manage your results, how to browse the collections and how to request items

Get a Reader Pass

Access over 170 million collection items for free with a Reader Pass.

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

Find Arabic manuscripts

Details of Arabic manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

How to handle archives

Watch our guide and help us keep our archive material in good condition

Search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

How to search for Cyrillic items in the catalogue

Find papyri

How to identify papyri and request them

Find Persian manuscripts

Details of Persian manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

How to handle folded items

Find out how you should hand items like large maps and book inserts.

Find Hebrew manuscripts

Guide to finding Hebrew manuscripts in our online catalogues