Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

article - Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

The Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts (widely known as the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and abbreviated as the HMC to distinguish it from the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England), was a United KingdomRoyal Commission established in 1869 to survey and report on privately owned and privately held archival records of general historical interest. Its brief was “to make inquiry as to the places in which such Manuscripts and Papers were deposited”, and to report on their contents.[1] It remained in existence until 2003, when it merged with the Public Record Office to form The National Archives. Although it technically survives as a legal entity, its work is now entirely subsumed into that of The National Archives.

Not to be confused with Record Commission.
A set of bound HMC reports at Kenwood House, London

. . . Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts . . .

John, 1st Baron Romilly, Master of the Rolls 1851–1873

Following the passing of the Public Record Office Act 1838, which made statutory provision for the care of government archives, pressure began to grow for the state to pay attention to privately owned records.[2] Largely on the initiative of Lord Romilly, the Master of the Rolls, the first Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts was appointed by Royal Warrant dated 2 April 1869. The first Commissioners were Romilly himself (as chairman); the Marquess of Salisbury; the Earl of Airlie; Earl Stanhope; Lord Edmοnd Petty-Fitzmaurice; Sir William Stirling-Maxwell; Charles Russell, President of Maynooth College; George Webbe Dasent; and T. D. Hardy, Deputy Keeper of the Records. They were shortly afterwards joined by George Butler, Bishop of Limerick; and Lord Talbot de Malahide.[3] A new Royal Warrant of 1876 confirmed the appointment of what had effectively become a standing commission; and the Commission’s work was extended by further warrants dated 18 December 1897 and 27 March 1919.

Four inspectors (including H. T. Riley) were appointed in 1869 to survey records under the Commissioners’ direction.[4] Later inspectors included Henry Maxwell Lyte, John Knox Laughton, Joseph Stevenson, Reginald Lane Poole, W. D. Macray, J. K. Laughton, Horatio Brown, W. J. Hardy and John Gwenogvryn Evans.[5][6]

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Commission remained closely associated with the Public Record Office: indeed, in 1912 it was stated that “for all practical purposes the Commission itself may be regarded as a branch of the Record Office”.[7] However, in the wake of the Public Records Act 1958 (which transferred responsibility for public records to the Lord Chancellor, while the Commission remained under the authority of the Master of the Rolls) the two bodies diverged to achieve a greater degree of independence from one another. A new Royal Warrant, dated 5 December 1959, gave the Commission revised and greatly extended terms of reference.[8][9] Over the next few decades the Secretaries to the Commission included Roger Ellis, 1957–72, Godfrey Davis, 1972–82, Brian Smith, 1982–92 and Christopher Kitching, 1992–2004.

This period of independence ended in April 2003, when another Royal Warrant effectively merged the Commission with the PRO to form the new National Archives. The Chief Executive and Keeper of Public Records is now the sole Historical Manuscripts Commissioner, while the role of Secretary of the Commission is combined with that of Head of Archives Sector Development.[10][11] Since the creation of The National Archives the role of Secretary of the Commission has been filled by Nicholas Kingsley, 2005–15 and Isobel Hunter, 2015–date.

. . . Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts . . .

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. . . Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts . . .

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