British Library acquires the archive of politician and academic Shirley Williams

Photographs of Shirley Williams and her parents © British Library Board

Our acquisition, which covers both her political career and public life, will also be marked by a free display in our Treasures Gallery later this month, showcasing some of the highlights.

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Shirley Williams (1930–2021) was commonly regarded as one of the most influential figures in British social democracy in the latter half of the 20th century. With a political career spanning 60 years, she is best known for expanding the introduction of the comprehensive school system in the 1960s.

Highlights from the archive include:

  • her CV from when she was 20
  • photographs from her childhood up to the end of her career
  • notebooks and handwritten notes
  • correspondence including a telegram from Williams’ first husband, Professor Sir Bernard Williams
  • biographical papers
  • letters from politicians.

The archive will be available for Readers to consult in the Library’s Reading Rooms on completion of cataloguing in 2025.

Jonathan Pledge, Lead Curator of Contemporary Archives, Politics and Public Life at the British Library, said: ‘Capturing the life of a profoundly committed and popular public servant, the archive – through Williams’ remarkable career – chronicles significant shifts in the social and political landscape of post-war Britain. This fascinating acquisition joins the British Library’s growing collections of contemporary political archives and we are hugely excited to take on the task of making it available to the public for research, inspiration and enjoyment.’ 

Rebecca Williams, daughter of Baroness Shirley Williams, said: ‘It was my mother’s express wish that her papers should be donated to the British Library, an institution whose development she greatly supported when in government in the 1960s and 1970s. I am delighted that the Library has now acquired the archive and is working to make it available to the public in due course.’

Our free display, Shirley Williams: A Life in Politics runs between 15 September 2023 and 25 February 2024 in our Treasures Gallery. An accompanying event Shirley Williams: A Life in Politics (25 September 2023), will bring together people closely connected to her life and work to celebrate her archive being acquired for the nation.

Image: Photographs of the young Shirley Williams along with a photograph of her parents, the pacifist author Vera Brittain and political scientist George Catlin.

Copyright © 2023 the British Library Board.