Foreign Office Confidential Print

By | 19 June 2013

by Hannah Chandler, Official Papers Librarian

When I took over the Official Papers section in 1998 I was shown 46 m metres of shelving containing many very dusty old brown boxes, it was apparent the contents had not been shown the love of a librarian for a very long time. The contents turned out to be the Foreign Office Confidential Print (FCOP). The Official Papers staff set about carefully arranging the documents in conservation friendly boxes whilst recording each item on the Foreign Office Confidential Prints database.

The confidential printing of papers for circulation within the Foreign Office, to the Cabinet, other government departments, for staff in legations and consulates abroad started in 1829. From the 1850s the practice grew until by 1906 nearly every important despatch or telegram was routinely printed. The printing was carried out in-house, by the Foreign Office, which operated its own printing press from about 1825. A virtually complete set of confidential prints are held at the National Archives while our set, though substantial, is less complete, our database shows whether we hold a particular print or not.

Most of the confidential prints are in series which relate to the affairs of a particular country or a group of countries. In addition there are many prints concerned with particular subjects or events (e.g. Commercial Treaties and Tariffs; Fisheries; the Hague Conference, etc.) or reproducing single memoranda (reports, etc.).

Salient documents from the collection have been reproduced in print in ‘British Documents on Foreign Affairs’ and have been digitised by Adam Matthew Group working with the National Archives in the areas of Africa, the Middle East and North America.

Many however, have not been digitised or reproduced in print, such as the ‘Third report by Mr Adams on silk culture in Japan, dated August 10 1870’ [Print no.1846]. Throughout Mr Adams 600 mile horseback inspection of silk production in Japan it is apparent that he was treated kindness and the utmost courtesy. The report is full of detailed information on silk production and the care of the silk worms. As with many reports in the collection illustrations were included. Here is a rather lovely image of a woman setting the silk machine in motion by using a chop stick.

silk 003

The collection of over 13,000 documents really is  fascinating;  from ‘Correspondence relating to supplies forwarded to Dr Livingstone’ 1872[Print no.2081] to Captain Spratt’s view on a report of the soundness of the Suez Canal, 1858 [Print no.685]. Subjects covered include, slavery, whaling, disease, opium and exploration to name but a few. Search the database by keyword, print no. or geographic area and date. Short bibliographic citations  document numbers will be returned, which you can then use to find items in the physical collecton. All FCOP are on open shelf in the Official Papers reading room.  Search results can also be sent to you via email as an excel spreadsheet.

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