About Documents on British Policy Overseas

Documents on British Policy Overseas is a fully searchable collection of primary source documents from Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, shedding light on diplomatic history throughout the twentieth century. It is based on three distinct print series which form a record of British peacetime diplomacy since the end of the nineteenth century: British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914, Documents on British Foreign Policy 1918-1939 and Documents on British Policy Overseas. Documents are selected and edited by the official historians of the FCO, with many documents specifically declassified for inclusion.

The Documents on British Policy Overseas database is produced in collaboration between ProQuest and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Three collections, one aim

Documents on British Policy Overseas contains three distinct collections, which together form a continuous exploration of British foreign policy and diplomatic history:

  • British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914
  • Documents on British Foreign Policy 1918-1939
  • Documents on British Policy Overseas

British Documents on the Origins of the War 1898-1914

This series, in eleven volumes edited by G. P. Gooch and Harold Temperley, presents the key documents in British diplomatic history from the abandonment of the policy of 'splendid isolation' in 1898 to the declaration of war against Germany on 4 August 1914.

The decision to publish the British Documents on the Origins of the War was announced in a letter of the 28th November, 1924 by Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain. A collection of the documents between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the declaration of war had already been made by J. W. Headlam-Morley, the Historical Adviser of the Foreign Office, and this became the first volume to be published, in 1926, as Volume XI of the series. Volumes I-X were subsequently published between 1927 and 1938.

In addition to the official records of the Foreign Office, selected minutes and private letters were also included. Documents which had previously been published elsewhere were usually excluded.

Documents on British Foreign Policy 1918-1939

The decision to publish a collection of Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-39, was announced in the House of Commons by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden on March 29, 1944, in the following terms:

'His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have decided to publish the most important documents in the Foreign Office archives relating to British foreign policy between 1919 and 1939. The documents will be published in a series of volumes which will be issued one by one as and when they are ready. The volumes will form a continuous chronological series, but in order to make available as soon as possible documents dealing with events most relevant to the outbreak of the present war, it is proposed, for purposes of publication, to divide the work into two parts: the first part to begin with the year 1919, and the second part to begin with the year 1930. The preparation of each part will be undertaken simultaneously.'

It was decided that this collection should cover the twenty years from June 28, 1919, to September 3, 1939, from the signature of the treaty of peace with Germany at the end of the First World War to the declaration of war upon Germany by the United Kingdom at the beginning of the Second World War. The first volume therefore opens immediately after the signature of the Treaty of Versailles.

The initial volumes in each series were published in 1947. The editors, E. L. Woodward and Rohan Butler, then suggested that a third series be begun in order to accelerate the publication of the documents immediately preceding the outbreak of war (which would otherwise have formed the conclusion of the second series). The first volume in series III, covering March-July 1938, was thus published in 1949 and the ninth and final volume of documents in this series was published in 1955 (an index volume was added in 1961). Meanwhile, volumes in series I and II covering the 1920s and 1930s continued to be published until the final completion of Documents on British Foreign Policy in 1986.

The number of documents held by the Foreign Office for this period is significantly higher than for the pre-1914 era, making the selection process more complicated. Priority was given to instructions to overseas officials, reports from overseas missions on business transacted with foreign governments, records of negotiations with foreign diplomats in London, and records of the proceedings of international conferences where these had not been previously published elsewhere. Further documents were then included in order to provide background information on the context for which policy was made - typically dispatches and telegrams from British ambassadors on political and economic conditions. Documents are footnoted with brief summaries of additional documents referenced but not included in the collection.

Documents on British Policy Overseas

In 1973, the government announced its intention to publish a new collection, continuing the publication of documents on British foreign policy into the post-war era. This was again to be published in two simultaneous series (a third series was subsequently added) and the same selection principles as used in Documents on British Foreign Policy were applied. However, due to the continued increase in the number of potentially relevant documents, supplementary documents were calendared within the volumes and published on microfiche. The first volume was published in 1984 and new volumes continue to be published; the more recent volumes have included supplementary CD-ROMs or DVDs rather than microfiche. The scanned images of the supplementary documents are linked from the calendars within the online Documents on British Policy Overseas.

The main sources are the archives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but documents are also selected from other government departments. The editors do not consult personnel files or specifically intelligence material, but otherwise the documents they select are excluded or censored on security grounds only in exceptional circumstances.

Documents on British Policy Overseas begins with the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. Subsequent volumes are organised around specific themes rather than proceeding in a strict chronological series.