Fonds PETH - Pethick-Lawrence Papers

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Pethick-Lawrence Papers


  • 1825-1970 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

9 boxes

Context area

Archival history

Emmeline Pethick and Frederick Lawrence met through their involvement in social work in London and became, as the Pethick-Lawrences, two of the best-known figures in the peace and suffrage movements of the early twentieth century. After the First World War Frederick embarked on a parliamentary career, which included two years as Secretary of State for India and for Burma in the period leading up to Indian independence. On his appointment to this office in 1945 he was created Baron Pethick-Lawrence of Peaslake. Emmeline died in 1954, and in 1957 her widower married Helen McCombie, whom he had known since she was a suffragette. Lord Pethick-Lawrence resigned as Secretary of State in 1947, but his involvement with politics continued until his death in 1961.

The Pethick-Lawrences were helped for many years in the organisation of their engagements and correspondence by two devoted secretaries, Esther Knowles and Gladys Groom (later Groom-Smith), and the efficiency and meticulousness of their system was well-known (see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). The secretaries also sometimes replied to correspondence on their employers’ behalf (see, for instance, 2/41, 2/46). Lord Pethick-Lawrence left most of his official papers relating to India at the India Office, but a few additional items were deposited by him with the India Office Library in 1958 (see 2/67-72); these are now British Library Mss. Eur. D540. The papers in his possession at his death were mainly private. He left instructions with his secretaries regarding those he wished to be preserved, but unfortunately Lady Helen, his second wife, was unacquainted with his wishes, and one weekend she destroyed a large number of them before the secretaries were able to intervene.

When Lady Helen emigrated to North America the surviving papers passed to the secretaries—some to Miss Knowles’s house in Harrow, and some to the house of Mrs Groom-Smith at Solihull. The former included documents which Vera Brittain had used in writing her biography of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, published in 1963, and duly returned. In 1971 the secretaries jointly began to examine the papers with a view to finding a suitable home for those they thought worth keeping. Miss Knowles wrote to Trinity asking whether the college would be interested in having what they selected, and when a favourable reply was received, a parcel of papers chosen from those at Solihull was despatched (1/1-4/306). This deposit comprised papers from the Pethick-Lawrence’s main series of correspondence files, letters of condolence sent to Lady (Helen) Pethick-Lawrence on the death of Lord Pethick-Lawrence, and one or two items probably added by the secretaries (4/302-3). It does not appear that, after this deposit, any significant material remained in the possession of Mrs Groom-Smith, who died in 1978. Miss Knowles was prevented by illness from transmitting any of the papers in her own house before her death on 8 May 1974, and it was not till 1980, after an exchange of letters between the college librarian and Nita M. Needham, Miss Knowles’s niece and executrix, that a second group of papers (5/1-9/124) came to Trinity. This accession comprised all the Pethick-Lawrence papers in Mrs Needham’s possession except some printed material. It also included some letters to Miss Knowles from the Pethick-Lawrences (6/201-224 and 8/101-16), presumably from Miss Knowles’s own papers, and some papers of Lady Constance Lytton (9/9-29). Four further items were presented by Naomi Lutyens in 1981 (9/125-8), and shortly afterwards a box-list of the papers was completed.

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

Esther Knowles and Gladys Groom-Smith

Content and structure area

Scope and content

This collection contains, firstly, the surviving contents of the Pethick-Lawrences’ correspondence files, including letters from, and copies of letters to, a wide range of politicians and public figures. It also contains papers relating to the Lawrence family and the early life of F. W. Lawrence; articles and scripts of talks by Lord Pethick-Lawrence; correspondence between the Pethick-Lawrences themselves; papers of Lady Constance Lytton; papers relating to the separation of the Pethick-Lawrences from the Women’s Social and Political Union; and papers relating to prison conditions. The collection includes particularly notable material on the subjects of Indian independence, the suffrage movement, and other aspects of social reform.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

Most of the Pethick-Lawrences’ papers were filed by their secretaries in a series of numbered folders, associated with a series of index-cards. This scheme was disrupted in the interval between Lord Pethick-Lawrence’s death and the arrival of the papers at Trinity, but a few of the folders and cards survive, and, since many of the documents were marked with the number of the file into which they were to be put, the numbers of many of the files can be known. There is no discernible pattern in the allocation of the numbers. Papers of a particularly private or important nature, such as the correspondence between the Pethick-Lawrences themselves and other family papers, were evidently kept separate from the main series and are therefore not marked with file numbers.

The alphabetical arrangements of 1/1-3/333 and 4/1-306 were probably made after the papers came to the Library. Apart from this, no substantial reordering of the papers seems to have taken place. The papers were placed in a series of boxes numbered from 1 to 9, and the items in each box were numbered in the order in which they lay. This numbering is reflected by the class and item numbering of the present catalogue. The number of items in each box was determined by how many documents could be fitted into it, so the numbering scheme does not reflect the original grouping of the documents, which is fairly clear. Some boxes contain several distinct sequences of documents, while some sequences are divided between two or more boxes. A few items—mainly envelopes, labels, and wrappers—were omitted from the original numbering. These have now been numbered.

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    Script of material

      Language and script notes

      Physical characteristics and technical requirements

      Digital images of all the documents in this collection are available online. These can be accessed by clicking on the reference images in the item descriptions.

      Finding aids

      Allied materials area

      Existence and location of originals

      Existence and location of copies

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      Alternative identifier(s)

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      Rules and/or conventions used

      Addresses of institutions and Government offices are sometimes given in a shortened form. Most of the copy letters are, as indicated, carbon-copies of typed originals. The place of writing is often not indicated on the copies of Lord Pethick-Lawrence’s letters, as the top copies would usually have been typed on headed paper, but in most cases it may be assumed to be his London home, 11 Old Square.

      In descriptions of ‘extent and medium’, a ‘single sheet’ is a single un-folded leaf of paper comprising 2 pages; a ‘folded sheet’ is a sheet of paper folded once, comprising 2 leaves and 4 pages.


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      Dates of creation revision deletion

      This catalogue was compiled by A. C. Green in 2004, and revised by him in 2020. The images were created by Sam Forder-Stent and James Kirwan.




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