Robert Rhode James – 1978 Speech on the Blenheim Papers

Below is the text of the speech made by Robert Rhode James, the then Conservative MP for Cambridge, in the House of Commons on 6 March 1978.

It is unusual for an hon. Member to have the opportunity of raising in this House a matter which is of concern to him personally and professionally, in addition to his constituency interest, and although the subject which I am raising at this late hour at first sight appear to be somewhat recondite, it has implications and significance which go beyond this particular episode.

Early in 1977, the Treasury accepted, in partial settlement of the estate of the late Duke of Marlborough, the Blenheim archive, which consists of a very substantial quantity of the papers of John, first Duke of Marlborough, and including the Sunderland papers.

In April 1977, libraries and archive centres were invited to apply for consideration by the Minister for the Arts—who in such matters seeks the advice of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts—for custody of this uniquely important collection. On 12th April 1977, immediately after this announcement, application was made by Churchill College, Cambridge.

Churchill College, which was established as a living memorial to Sir Winston, possesses an archives centre which was opened in 1973 and which contains the most modern facilities for the safe storage and use of historical documents. It is a purpose-built archive centre, with the most advanced protection against fire and theft, air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, with a special fumigation for the safe destruction of fungal infestation of documents. It also possesses a comprehensively equipped conservation workshop and a full-time conservationist of very high reputation, whose preservation work, particularly on damaged documents, is of outstanding quality.

The centre has a keeper, a full-time qualified archivist and graduate assistant, and a secretary, in addition to the conservationist, and full supporting facilities. If it is a small unit, it is a highly efficient unit and its facilities are outstanding, it is widely respected and its staff is devoted to the administration of the archive and its service to scholars.

The archive contains the voluminous papers of Sir Winston, his father, Lord Randolph, and a considerable number of the papers of John, first Duke of Marlborough. These include some 1,200 original Marlborough documents collected by Sir Winston while he was researching his biography of his ancestor, and presented to Churchill College by Lady Churchill, and also the highly important correspondence between Marlborough and Antonie Heinsius, grand pensionary of The Netherlands during the war of the Spanish succession. These papers were the gift of Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government to Sir Winston in gratitude for his unforgettable services to the cause of Dutch liberation.

The archive also contains the papers of General Thomas Erie, one of Marl-borough’s most trusted officers. This represents a major collection in itself of the Marlborough papers. Among its more modern collections are papers on Lord Attlee, Lord Swinton, Lord Slim, Lord Esher, Lord Hankey, Lord Vansittart, Reginald McKenna, Sir Edward Spears and—a most satisfactory renewed liaison—Mrs. Virginia Crawford and Sir Charles Dilke. But the gems of the collection are, obviously, the papers of the first Duke, Lord Randolph, and Sir Winston, kept in one archive under perfect conditions in the college that bears their name and commemorates three centuries of brilliant service to this nation by one extraordinary family.

It was the wish of the present Duke and Lady Churchill that the Blenheim archive should join this collection in Cambridge. Indeed, Lady Churchill felt so deeply about the matter that she joined me in a public letter to The Times and she wrote privately to the Prime Minister. Among others who pressed the case for Cambridge were Mr. Harold Macmillan, Sir John Colville, Professor J. H. Plumb and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill), who is unable to be present at the debate tonight but has asked me to emphasise his personal and family concern about this matter.

Although the decision in such matters is technically that of the Secretary of ​ State for Education and Science, effectively it is that of the Minister for the arts, who in his turn is advised by the Royal Commission on Historical Documents. I believe that that excessively complex chain was at least partly responsible for the subsequent confusion and for the extraordinary decision made by the Minister that the papers should be sent to the British Library in London.

Having invited representatives of the Department of Education and Science and the Commission to visit the centre, Churchill College was surprised and concerned to receive no reply to its application apart from a single printed card of acknowledgement. When a member of the Commission visited Churchill in July 1977, six days before the Commission met to consider the matter, he emphasised that he was doing so informally. It became evident that he was unclear on certain vital and fundamental aspects of the Churchill application.

When the college raised the matter with the secretary of the Commission, Mr G. R. C. Davis, the eminent former deputy keeper of manuscripts at the British Library, it was informed that a member of the Commission staff had recently visited the archive. In fact, the visit was paid over a month before the public announcement of April 1977 and was again entirely informal and casual in nature.

It should be said at this point that a major misunderstanding seems to have arisen between the Commission and the DES. The Commission says that its role is purely advisory and that it is not entitled to be in direct contact with applicant institutions. How it is to evaluate their merits without such contact is to me inexplicable. For its part the DES firmly states that the processing of applications lies in the hands of the Commission. In any event, no representative of the Department, let alone the Minister responsible for the decision, has visited Churchill or has been in contact with it except in response to telephone calls.

As this curious proceeding has taken so long and so mysterious a course, I asked the Minister to meet a deputation consisting of myself, the Duke of Marl-borough, Sir John Colville, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford, Professor Plumb and representatives of the college on 24th January, the day of Lady Churchill’s memorial service. On 19th January I was informed that the decision was to be announced on 23rd January. In the event it was made on 25th January. There was accordingly no point in the Minister meeting the delegation.

I assure the Minister of State that I do not want to make any particular point about this, but it seemed unfortunate that the decision was announced in the week of Lady Churchill’s memorial service and that it was not possible for the Minister for the arts to delay the decision until he had heard the distinguished delegation.

In his announcement of 25th January the Minister said that he had been particularly influenced by the advice of the Commission that

“the cataloguing, arrangement and scholarly use of the Blenheim archives will require constant reference to and close comparison with other papers of the period already held by the British Library.”

That statement could not have been made by a scholar and certainly not by anyone with any personal experience of working in the manuscript department of the British Library. The advantages of having the complete archive of the first duke in one site far outweighs the quite illusory asset of “constant reference” to other papers. The Minister’s argument is untenable in historical, scholastic and practical terms.

The Minister went on to say:

“I have also been impressed by the scale of the resources required for the proper cataloguing and conservation of the collection.”

By that he means that he is impressed by the resources of the British Library as he has not discovered those of Churchill College.

What are the resources at the British Library? I refer the House to a devastating recent article by Mr. Nicholas Barker, the new head of conservation at the British Library, in The Times Literary Supplement of 18th November 1977, entitled “Blight in Bloomsbury”, in which he rightly relates the lamentable conditions for the preservation of books and papers in the library, and concludes that

“The crisis can only be resolved by an increase in trained conservation staff, and by the provision of proper conditions for the storage and use of all the different kinds of material in the British Library “.

Mr. Barker’s strictures are fully merited. The British Library does not have air-conditioned or humidity-controlled storage facilities. It does not have adequate staff. Its record in preparing catalogues, in which it has made promises to the Minister which seem to me impossible to fulfil, is poor. The collections themselves are deteriorating. None of this is secret or new information. Indeed, the crisis to which Mr. Barker refers—and such it is—is spelt out clearly and starkly in the annual reports of the Library since 1973, and they make dismal reading. I shall quote only from the 1976–77 report:

“Strenuous efforts are being made to reduce the cataloguing backlog … The problem of how to best to conserve the priceless collections in the care of the Library while making them available for study to present and future readers has been the subject of a major review. It is clear that substantial additional resources will be required over a considerable period in order to halt the progressive and accelerating deterioration of the collections.”

All the evidence at my disposal makes me profoundly doubtful whether the British Library is technically capable at present of handling the collection in anything approaching the matter which Churchill College can, and the Duke of Marlborough has authorised me to express his considerable concern on this aspect.

I should like now to put two questions to the Minister. Is it correct that the board of trustees of the British Library had never been consulted or made a collective decision about either the application or the acceptance? Secondly, can the Minister confirm the points that I have made about facilities at the British Library?

I am asking for this decision to be at least reviewed, and at best reversed. What it means is that the wishes of the Churchill family—including what was virtually the last wish of Lady Churchill—have been ignored; that the papers of John, first Duke of Marlborough, will have been split up permanently, to the great detriment of scholars and scholarships: that these papers have been entrusted to an institution which does not at present possess the proper facilities for their conservation: and that the archive centre that is most qualified and is most appropriate has had its claims virtually unconsidered.

There is no case, in terms of scholastic value or practicality, for the Minister’s action. It would, indeed, be a national tragedy if the papers were thus to be divided and for the concept of the Churchill archives—complete, and meticulously maintained—to be damaged so severely by this ill-considered and indefensible decision.

I should like to conclude on a personal note. As the youthful biographer of Lord Randolph Churchill and of Lord Rosebery, and who played some part in ensuring that the Rosebery papers remained in Scotland, I do not accept the proposition that great collections should necessarily be in London. The Rosebery papers belong to Edinburgh and the Chamberlain papers to Birmingham. Ideally, the Churchill papers should be housed either at Blenheim or Chartwell, but the fact is that the vast bulk of them are now in Churchill College, in my constituency. I appeal to the Minister, and to the House, that this unique collection should be housed in one place, in the building created as a memorial to that family, where it would be complete, and where it would be treasured and preserved for all time.

I am deeply obliged to the Minister for attending this debate. I am sure he will understand that I am making rather more than a constituency appeal to him.