The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion

Promoting the language, literature, arts and science of Wales

A Record Office for Wales

home > Selected Articles 1873-2023 > A Record Office for Wales

In a paper delivered at the National Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth for the Cymmrodorion on 15 August 1916, only months after completion of the transfer of the initial collections to the new National Library building, R. Arthur Roberts FRHistS made the case for a Record Office for Wales. It was an important stage in a national conversation and was amplified through publication in the Transactions.  Roberts’ voice carried great weight. Not only was he a member of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, but he was also the Secretary of the Public Record Office (“the PRO”).

Roberts recognised that the question of whether Wales should have a Record Office was “disputable,” even if the preservation of records as a general proposition was generally accepted. His argument was premised on that fact there was a Welsh nation distinct from the English nation, and that there were distinctive Welsh national objects. Although nearly 30 years had passed since the notorious 1888 Encyclopaedia Britannica entry “WALES, See ENGLAND”, this was still a striking notion. Roberts looked at matters concerning Wales in a broad context. Not merely did he make comparisons with Scotland and Ireland, but he also referred to Brussels, the Hague, Paris, and Vienna. He also noted that Canada and Australia were building Record Offices at great expense. Wales, he implied, deserved the mark of nationhood that a Record Office represented in the same way as other distinct nations did.

Roberts particularly envisaged that a Welsh Record Office would allow the systematic preservation of the records of church and state concerning Wales. As current users of the National Library of Wales (“NLW”) know, that vision has to a significant degree been achieved over time, for example in respect of parish records and church probate records from the Welsh dioceses.

At the time of Roberts’ paper, the future role of the NLW as the natural home of public records was not settled. The foundation stone for the infant NLW was only laid in 1911, following a lengthy debate about where the NLW should be based. The debates about the founding of the NLW reflected a wider growth of national consciousness that had been growing since the late nineteenth century and had also (amongst other things) led to the foundation of the National Museum of Wales.

Just over 100 years later, the position is very different. The NLW is not as such a national archives: although there is provision for a national archives for Wales to be created under the Government of Wales Act 2006, to date no separate archives has been created, and record-keeping is regulated by a 2011 concordat between the National Archives and the then Welsh Assembly Government.  But in practical terms the NLW has an important and established role as a repository for many of the historic public records of church and state concerning Wales.

Roberts’ subject remains a topical one. In a country which increasingly has different institutional characteristics to England, it can be argued that the creation of a Welsh national archives is an unfinished journey, particularly taking into consideration the growth in specifically Welsh legislation of interest to Welsh practitioners and (undoubtedly) future Welsh scholars.

Aside from the question of whether to have a Record Office, the paper contains much that illuminates the period in which it was written, as a few examples illustrate.

One notable (and deft) sidestep was in relation to the potentially vexed question of where a Record Office might best be located. Roberts said this: “Let me say at this point that I do not propose, myself, at this juncture to express an opinion as to the locality where it should be situated, nor to raise the further question whether it should consist of two branches, for North and South respectively, or of a central one only.  I venture to suggest that we rule both these questions out of the present discussion, postponing them for later consideration by some deciding authority appointed for this very purpose.”  Nevertheless, there are grounds to suspect that his personal sympathies lay with the NLW fulfilling the role. He regarded the core national records as being the principal series of records of the Court of Great Sessions, which had administered the main criminal and civil courts for Wales between 1541 and 1830. These records had been gathered by the PRO in the nineteenth century. Roberts considered that these records were “a nucleus, and nucleus of great importance and value which will fill a high and dignified place in the category of records which we are now discussing.”  They might be reunited with subsidiary Great Sessions records already deposited at the NLW for preservation “which I had the satisfaction of inspecting this morning in conditions beyond praise” (i.e., in the newly built NLW).

A second topic of great importance concerns changing perceptions of women’s position in society. It is worth reflecting on what Roberts had to say on the subject. He clearly welcomed the role that women would in future play: “since the Colleges have been pouring out women graduates, with degrees in history, there has been sound of knocking for admission at the Record door by these capable and learned young women, and I suspect that in the future the staff of Record Officers will to some degree be recruited from among them” though to modern readers it is jarring to see that he had to make the qualification that it would lead to fewer jobs for men (“consequently the career will to that extent be more restricted in its opportunities for the sterner sex”).  But Roberts was writing at a time when woman were amongst other things still not permitted to vote, and his views were no doubt enlightened compared to those of many of his contemporaries.

Thirdly, the backdrop was the Great War is unsurprisingly evident. Roberts acknowledged that a Welsh Record Office was not a priority until the war was over. But the Great War finds expression in more oblique ways, and the hand of wartime censorship (or perhaps more accurately self-censorship) seems detectable. Roberts says at one point “suppose we could get the Parish Registers of Wales as the Public Record Office in Dublin has got those for Ireland, then from Elizabethan times downwards, what a splendid series there would be, gathered too from a kind of custody which at present is often not too good or too safe”.  To modern eyes, it seems remarkable that the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, only a few months earlier, does not even get hinted at.

That leads on to a final thought. Subsequent events leave a sad irony to his words just quoted. On 30 June 1922, the Dublin Record Office was destroyed during the Irish Civil War. The scale of the loss of Irish records was a direct consequence of the success of the collection exercise which Roberts had praised. Comprehensive collection can lead to comprehensive destruction.

To read the original article click the link below and follow the right hand arrows to page 1 of the Contents.

The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion reach a venerable 150 years in 2023 and throughout the year we will be publishing articles on the website that have appeared during the decades. Many deal with issues that have since ceased to be important, but others still have a strong contemporary resonance.

Look out on the website for regular new uploads of this fascinating material. Or you can read all the articles by visiting the National Library website where you will find the material at