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Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 3
Last updated: 10 March 2008

1. Privy Council responsibilities

The Privy Council was the executive arm of the royal prerogative, and as such was closely involved in colonial matters (including Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands) where the crown had a direct relationship with the colony or royal possession. It was involved in administration, legislation and litigation, and as a result the Privy Council's records are a prime source for the earlier history of the colonies. Several committees and commissions of the Privy Council were set up: the first permanent one was the Commission for Foreign Plantations in 1634. The various later committees and commissions developed into the Board of Trade, which dealt with colonial matters in partnership with the Secretaries of State. Colonial records of these bodies are now in the CO record series (although the Colonial Office as a separate department was not established until 1854). By the nineteenth century, the main role of the Privy Council in colonial affairs was to approve certain locally enacted statutes.

Records originating in the Privy Council will now be found in both the PC and CO department codes. For details of the relationship between the colonies, the Board of Trade and the Privy Council, see Ann Thurston, Sources for colonial studies in the Public Record Office: records of the Colonial Office, Dominions Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office (London, 1995), I.

2. Judicial Committee of the Privy Council: colonial appeals

In 1834, the judicial work of the Privy Council in appeals was given a formal structure as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which still functions as the supreme court of appeal for British dependencies and several ex-colonies. For more information on the judicial history of the Privy Council and the Judicial Committee, see under PC and PCAP in the Catalogue. Although The National Archives holds some records from the Judicial Committee, under the department code PCAP , it does not in general hold records of colonial appeals. These are in fact retained by the Judicial Committee at its office in Downing Street, and can be seen, by prior arrangement only, at the convenience of the Judicial Committee (very recent judgements can be found on the Privy Council website). Having said that, appeals from some colonial admiralty courts may be found in both PCAP and in the records of the High Court of Admiralty, in HCA , and references to other appeals can sometimes be found among the records of the Colonial Office (CO).

3. Administration of the colonies: the Privy Council registers

Material in the Privy Council registers relating to colonial affairs is calendared in the Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series, ed W L Grant, J Munro (London, 1908-1912), I-VI, which is on open access in the Open Reading Room at The National Archives. This calendar includes summaries of the entries in the registers relating to colonial affairs, 1613-1783 and is indexed. It also includes colonial business which was referred to various Council committees after 1660. The calendar entries should be cross-referenced with the Privy Council registers PC 2 catalogue list, matching the date of the entry with that of the volumes. The page or folio number for the entry in the register is given at the end of each summary in the calendar. Cross-references to the Calendar of State Papers Colonial (available as an electronic resource at The National Archives) are also included in this calendar as appropriate. The calendars can also mention documents now in Colonial Office (CO series). Volume VI of the Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series refers to unbound colonial papers in PC 1 .

In volume VI of the calendar (unlike previous volumes), the index at the back of the volume refers to individual numbered entries rather than page numbers in the calendar. In the text, the marginal references are no longer valid and should be ignored. Note instead the date and match it up with the date in the PC 1 catalogue list covering bundles PC 1/1/46 to PC 1/57/85B , which contain the papers mentioned in the calendar. Each bundle in PC 1/1/46 to PC 1/57/85B consists of a number of boxes. To find the item described in the calendar, you will have to sift though all the documents in the boxes under that date reference.

4. Privy Council correspondence relating to colonial affairs

The Privy Council unbound correspondence in PC 1 is a very rich source for colonial policy, and includes some minutes of the Committee for Plantation Affairs. The series includes many papers concerning colonial regulation and policy towards the American colonies before and during the war of American independence. PC 1 is arranged in bundles of colonial and non-colonial material. The colonial papers are arranged thus:

Date range Catalogue reference(s) Description
1676-1783 PC 1/1/46 to PC 1/57/85B Colonial papers, calendared in the Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series, vol VI, (1912)
1671-1799 PC 1/1/58 to PC 1/66/40 Colonial papers not included in the above calendar
1911 PC 1/141 Delhi proclamation
1702-1872 PC 1/1/142 to PC 1/4574 Miscellaneous bundles, colonial and non-colonial

5. Colonial material in other Privy Council series

You should try the supplementary minutes of proceedings and Council decisions in PC 4 , covering 1670 to 1928, with some gaps, and in SP 45 , 1696-1752. The Plantation Books, which are entry books of colonial acts, orders in council and instruments, 1678-1806 (with gaps between May 1755 and November 1767) are in PC 5 . Many of the original documents referred to in the Plantation Books are in the CO and BT record series. The Plantation Books are also referred to in the Acts of the Privy Council of England Colonial Series as described above.

6. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in the The National Archives' Library. Where indicated a publication is also available to buy at The National Archives' Bookshop.

Acts of the Privy Council of England, Colonial Series, ed W L Grant, J Munro (London, 1908-1912), I-VI

Charles McLean Andrews, British committees, commissions, and councils of trade and plantations, 1622-1675 (Baltimore, 1908)

George Louis Beer, The old colonial system, 1660-1754 (New York, 1912), I

Joseph Henry Smith, Appeals to the Privy Council from the American Plantations, (New York, 1950)

Ann Thurston, Sources for colonial studies in the Public Record Office: records of the Colonial Office, Dominions Office, Commonwealth Relations Office and Commonwealth Office (London, 1995), I

Guide reference: Overseas Records Information 3 | Last updated: 10 March 2008
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