News | September 18, 2023

British Library Acquires Baroness Shirley Williams’ Political Archive

British Library Board

Shirley Williams' notebooks

The British Library has announced that it has acquired the archive of politician and academic Shirley Williams (1930-2021), commonly regarded as one of the most influential figures in British social democracy in the latter half of the 20th century.
With a political career spanning 60 years, Williams entered parliament as Labour MP for Hitchin in 1964 as one of 29 female representatives, and is best known for expanding the introduction of the comprehensive school system in the 1960s. She co-founded the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and later became a Liberal Democrat Peer in the House of Lords, before retiring in 2016. Williams was also a distinguished academic and was Professor of Elective Politics at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard for more than a decade. 
Highlights from the archive, which is on display in the free Treasures Gallery through 25 February 25, 2024, include Williams’:

  • CV from when she was 20, which states ‘politics’ as her special interest 
  • Photographs, from childhood through to campaigning in the 1980s and towards the end of her career
  • Notebook from a 1993 visit to the countries of the former Yugoslavia including the city of Sarajevo, then under military siege
  • Notebook from 2005 listing the large number of causes she was involved in, from national and international organisations to honorary academic positions and political causes
  • Correspondence including a telegram from Williams’ first husband, the philosopher Professor Sir Bernard Williams on her victory in the 1981 Crosby by-election, an email concerning Williams’ work in the Ukraine and a letter from a member of the public on Williams’ retirement from politics
  • Biographical papers including membership cards for the Labour Party, The Fabian Society and the Society of Women Journalists
  • Handwritten notes in response to a Conservative leaflet for the 1979 General Election criticising Labour’s education policy
  • Letters from politicians, including a letter of support from Hugh Gaitskell on Williams’ first election campaign in 1954 and a 1985 letter from Michael Foot, former Labour leader, expressing his surprise at Williams’ account of her departure 
Congratulatory telegrams to Shirley Williams
British Library Board

Congratulatory telegrams to Shirley Williams 

Photographs of Shirley Williams and her parents
British Library Board

Photographs of Shirley Williams and her parents  

Jonathan Pledge, Lead Curator of Contemporary Archives, Politics and Public Life at the British Library, said: "Capturing the life of a profoundly committed and popular public servant, the archive chronicles significant shifts in the social and political landscape of post-war Britain. This fascinating acquisition joins the British Library’s growing collections of contemporary political archives and we are hugely excited to take on the task of making it available to the public for research, inspiration and enjoyment."
Rebecca Williams, daughter of Baroness Shirley Williams, said: "It was my mother’s express wish that her papers should be donated to the British Library, an institution whose development she greatly supported when in government in the 1960s and 1970s. I am delighted that the Library has now acquired the archive and is working to make it available to the public in due course."
Williams wrote a number of books including Politics is for People (1981), Unemployment and Growth in the Western Economies (1984), A Job to Live (1985), God and Caesar: Personal Reflections on Politics and Religion (2003) and an autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (2009).
The archive will be available for Readers to consult in the Library’s Reading Rooms on completion of cataloguing in 2025.