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article imageOp-Ed: Lost documents – conspiracy or cock-up?

By Alexander Baron     Aug 15, 2011 in World
London - When official documents go missing, the conspiratorially-minded naturally suspect foul play, but is this necessarily anything sinister?
Earlier this month it was reported that a large number of documents have gone missing from The National Archives since 2005, a staggering 1,600 folders according to one source, including “letters from Sir Winston Churchill to General Franco...minutes of Harold Wilson's meetings with the Queen; and documents from the courts of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I”.
Some of them have not been seen since the early 1990s, and this has naturally led to a certain amount of speculation, including on Facebook, that there is foul work afoot, but this is probably not the case, and for a very simple reason.
In his 1982 book The Black Game, Ellic Howe reported that immediately after the Second World War, an archivist was appointed "to destroy rather than preserve" his department’s files. The British are obsessed with bureaucracy, and files from government departments are routinely archived; most are sent to the Public Record Office (as it then was) at Kew, but it is impossible to keep every single piece of paper generated by every government department, quango or bureaucrat.
Files at Kew are indexed according to the relevant government department; this is called the Class List; for example, the WO Class List contains War Office files. (The War Office is the forerunner of the Ministry of Defence). The CRIM series includes files related to criminal trials from the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey); files from many of the more famous (or infamous) trials are retained, plus a random selection of others, about a 10% sample; the rest are destroyed.
Some documents are incredibly well indexed, probably none more so than the Foreign Office correspondence series FO/371, which may just contain virtually every letter written by some Foreign Office official if not every piece of paper ever generated by the department. Because there is so much documention, it is hardly surprising that some files get lost from time to time. As long ago as 1994, there were over 90 shelf miles of documents at Kew; since then, there have been major acquisitions, not to mention the addition of countless Gigabytes of digitised material.
Returning to Ellic Howe, the full title of his book is THE BLACK GAME British Subversive Operations against the Germans during the Second World War. Howe was one of the “black men” who worked for the Political Warfare Executive during World War Two, and he says that “As could be expected, no files containing material which was regarded as sensitive reached the PRO.” Personnel records were not available. It was Howe who came up with the pithy saying "If it's printed it's true and if one can find a plausible excuse for using or faking a rubber stamp impression on the printed document, then it must be doubly true!"
This will give the reader some idea of what Howe and his chums got up to. As the man himself says: “The material for a coherent history of PWE's clandestine broadcasting activities does not exist and the researcher must glean whatever he can from the very miscellaneous collection of papers now available at the PRO.”
There are indeed a few papers of the PWE scattered throughout the Catalogue, but Howe’s name does not appear in it, although a few (unimportant) documents relating to his boss Sefton Delmer can be found therein.
Anyone who expects to find evidence of government duplicity in a government archive is looking in the wrong place; generally speaking there will be no sinister “missing” documents either, because the nature of conspiracy – that sort of conspiracy - is such that no records are kept, while those that are generated will be of a minimal nature, and mostly unavoidable, such as those left by financial transactions.
Among the documents that have gone missing from Kew there are said to be “Dozens of regimental diaries, medal records and squadron and battleship logbooks”. It is difficult to believe there could be a sinister motive behind the disappearance of any of these, most likely they have simply been mis-shelved, although there have been occasional thefts from the Archive, an inexcusable brand of looting that should warrant an immediate custodial sentence.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Kew, public reord office, The National Archives, Conspiracy, Theft
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