Prime Ministers' papers and correspondence

A letter from William Gladstone to John Bright showing Gladstone's signature at the bottom. The letter, dated 1861, is found in the The Gladstone Papers at Add MS 44112, folio 15.
Letter from William Gladstone to John Bright, 1861. Add MS 44112, f. 15, The Gladstone Papers.

Papers and correspondence of British Prime Ministers from Sir Robert Walpole to H. H. Asquith.

About the collection

The British Library holds archives and collections relating to the majority of Prime Ministers of Great Britain and of the United Kingdom, from Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) to H. H. Asquith (1852-1928). These archival collections often incorporate personal and working papers, correspondence, and diaries. Examples include the extensive Gladstone Papers and the Peel Papers. In addition to these extensive collections centered on individual Prime Ministers, there is a plethora of correspondence from various Prime Ministers across other collections. This guide aims to highlight some of the major Prime Ministers' papers that we hold and give guidance on how to find additional relevant collection items within the wider Modern Archive collections. 

The collections relating to British Prime Ministers can offer insights into significant events in British and European history and to international relations. They can also shed light on the emergence and development of the role of Prime Minister; the interior workings of the British Parliamentary system; the development of party politics; networks of influence and power; as well as the personal reflections and opinions of some of the most influential and well-known figures of British history.

This guide highlights some of the major archival collections relating to British Prime Ministers held in the British Library. It begins with the appointment of Sir Robert Walpole in 1721, who is generally acknowledged as Britain’s first Prime Minister, and ends with Herbert H. Asquith’s resignation from government in December 1916. The guide covers this period because the British Library holds fewer distinct archival collections for Prime Ministers after 1916. Significant and notable archival collections from Walpole to Asquith are listed below. However, even if an individual is not listed here, entering the name of the Prime Minister – for any period – in the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue will generally yield a number of relevant records. 

18th Century 

Major holdings of 18th century Prime Ministers include the Papers of Sir Robert Walpole at Add MS 74062-74068.  The Wilmington Papers (Add MS 45733) include the miscellaneous Papers of Spencer Compton, 1st Earl of Wilmington (1674-1743). The Pelham Papers (Add MS 64813) include papers and correspondence of the Pelham family, including those of Whig Prime Minister, Thomas Pelham-Holles (1693 –1768). We hold the register of correspondence (Add MS 36796), for the first Tory Prime Minister, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792), as well as his copybook of letters at Add MS 36797, which includes his advice to the future George III (1738-1820). We hold the extensive Grenville Papers at Add MS 42083-42088 and the Supplementary Grenville Papers at Add MS 57804-57837. These collections include the correspondence and papers of Whig Prime Minister George Grenville (1712-1770). There are items of correspondence from William Pitt ‘the Elder’, 1st Earl of Chatham (1708-1778), within the Chatham Papers at Add MS 43771. The Library also holds a volume of Pitt Funeral drawings, which depict the funerals of both William Pitt ‘the Elder’ and William Pitt ‘the Younger’ (1759-1806) at Add MS 47896. The North (Sheffield Park) Papers (Add MS 61860-61876) hold extensive correspondence and papers of Lord Frederick North (1732-1792). The Holland House papers (Add MS 51518) also contain transcripts of correspondence between Lord North and George III.

19th Century

Major 19th century holdings of Prime Ministers’ Papers include the extensive papers of Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) at Add MS 49173-49195. The Liverpool Papers (Add MS 38190-38489) include correspondence, official letters, official papers and private papers of Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (1770-1828). The collected papers of George Canning (1770-1827) at Add MS 89143 cover the entirety of Canning’s career. These include extensive correspondence, political memoranda, copies of dispatches and pocket diaries. There are letters across the collections from successive Prime Ministers Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) and Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), but notable volumes include: Add MS 60411-60415, featuring correspondence between the Duke of Wellington and Lord Beauvale (1782-1853); and correspondence between Earl Grey and Princess Lieven (1785-1857) at Add MS 47360-47365. There are a number of very extensive archives of 19th century Prime Ministers. The papers of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) (Add MS 40181-40617) consists of 437 volumes. The Palmerston Papers (Add MS 48417-48589) (173 volumes), include the correspondence and papers of the first Liberal party Prime Minister, Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865). The Gladstone Papers (Add 46474-46486) include 154 volumes of papers and correspondence of Sir William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). Correspondence from the last Prime Minister of the 19th Century, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903) is available at Add MS 88906/19/6-7.

Early 20th Century

The Balfour Papers (Add MS 49683-49962) comprises extensive papers of Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour (1848-1930). These papers include royal correspondence, correspondence with former and successive Prime Ministers, correspondence with cabinet members and papers relating to the Committee of Imperial Defense. The Papers of Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) consist of papers and correspondence relating to his various political positions up until his death during his premiership in 1908. They include royal and special correspondence, diaries, journals and speech drafts in the 1st series of papers at Add MS 41206-41252 and the supplementary papers at Add MS 52512-52521. There are three volumes of letters written by the Asquiths at Add MS 59895, Add MS 62126 and Add MS 61727. These include correspondence from Margot (1864-1945), Raymond (1878-1916) and Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928), Liberal Prime Minister. These letters are predominately of a personal rather than professional nature. 


What is available online?

The Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue contains descriptions of Prime Ministers' papers and related materials.


What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The archives and manuscripts described in this guide can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. In some cases, you may need to provide us with a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Read the full description of the item in the online catalogue to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library. Up to 5 working days’ notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

What is available in other organisations?

  • The National Archives holds the papers of the Prime Minister’s Office, established as a separate department from 1916. This includes official correspondence of successive Prime Ministers, policy and operational papers, recommendations for honours and appointments. 

Further information