The Friends were originally formed in 1988 by an enthusiastic group of volunteers who had begun the process of indexing and cataloguing the vast collections of national documents.  In 1990 the Friends became a registered charity, and in 2020 it then moved on to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO).  Throughout the years the Friends have thrived and grown because of the amazing commitment and generous support of both its volunteers and membership.

In 2018, to mark thirty years of support and endeavour on behalf of the National Archives, the Friends published a brochure Thirty Years of Support and Endeavour 1988-2018 and copies can be provided on request.

Recollections from past Vice-Presidents give an insight into the early years of the Friends.

Dr Andrea Tanner wrote:

The Friends of the Public Record Office was founded at an archives conference organised by Stella Colwell in August 1988. I believe that the original idea came from discussions between Stella and Jane Cox, then an assistant keeper at the PRO who was at the forefront of developing services at Chancery Lane and Kew specifically for amateur genealogists. At that time I was genealogist to John Brooke-Little, Norroy & Ulster King of Arms, and Stella invited me to be the organisation’s first honorary secretary. As became painfully obvious, I had never sat on a committee before and my fellow committee members were patient and immensely kind, as we set up what was an unusual organisation at a time when government agencies were unaccustomed to having bodies of supporters.

The committee was chaired by Sir Geoffrey Elton, the eminent Cambridge Tudor historian, and was made up of representatives from the Society of Genealogists, (including Anthony Camp, the then director), Dr Alice Prochaska (then Secretary of the Institute of Historical Research), the Keeper of the Public Records, Geoffrey Martin, and seconded staff from the PRO, including the redoubtable Sue Lumas, who was a minute-taker of genius. After Sir Geoffrey stepped down, we were fortunate in finding Professor Barrie Dobson and Professor Paul Harvey as succeeding chairs, and later Keepers of the Public Record Office, Michael Roper and Sarah Tyacke, were hugely supportive.

The first members (paying £10 per annum) were attendees at the conference, and were a fair representation of amateur historians and genealogists, professional researchers, and academics. The first meetings of the board were dominated by drawing up a constitution, drafting an application for charitable status, and agreeing a strategy to attract new members. A membership leaflet was created, using an illustration of a friendship ring that researcher and artist Zelide Cowan had found amongst Chancery Lane exhibits. The initial programme of events and activities was modest, being a monthly lunchtime talk at Chancery Lane or Kew, an annual conference, a newsletter, and a proposed indexing project.

Eve McLaughlin, the author of many successful genealogical publications, cheerfully took on the task of editor, and we decided on the title, PROphile as being suitable. The first indexing project was the calendars of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury from 1700, and Miriam Scott was recruited as project leader and volunteer co-ordinator for this project. Miriam’s son William created the computer programme for the project, and acted as technical trouble shooter.

Once this had been launched, Lesley Wynne-Davies accepted the role of co-ordinator for the volunteer project at Kew, which focussed on the soldiers’ attestation and discharge papers, W097. Just retired, I don’t think that Lesley had any inkling that she would build such a dedicated team of volunteers at Kew, and that her life would henceforth be shaped by her work on this and subsequent projects. She managed to complete her PhD while acting as ring master on the projects, and it was a great pleasure to share in her delight at being awarded an MBE for her work.

The first one-day conference, entitled, ‘Mirror on a Secret World’, was on the history of intelligence gathering and spying, and was held at the National Army Museum, in collaboration with the Birkbeck College Extra-Mural Department. Later conferences centred on the themes of railway research, the Royal Air Force (held at the RAF Museum), and on migration, at University College London. Paying the venue fees became an increasingly difficult problem, and Sarah Tyacke will forever be held in my heart for arranging the magnificent facilities of Fleming’s Bank in the City (complete with Robert the chef) at very reasonable rates.

The early days of the Friends were characterised, I suppose, by amateur enthusiasm, by constant pleas to friends, colleagues and family for help with finding speakers, venues, copy for the newsletter, and finding more members. The volunteers at Kew had a little space in which to do the checking, but the rest of us undertook our work for the Friends at home. The relationship with the PRO was friendly, but unstructured, and almost informal. With the prospect of closing Chancery Lane, it was time for me to hang up my pencil, and hand over to the magnificent Hilary Marshall, who I don’t think has ever quite forgiven me for underplaying how much of her life would be taken up by the Friends.

Further recollections from Professor Paul D.A. Harvey, Professor Anthony Stockwell and Sarah Tyacke CB can be found here.