18 of the Most Important Documents in 20th Century British History

History Hit Podcast with Peter Snow

6 mins

18 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Treasures of British History with Peter Snow on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 28 September 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

Dan Snow and his father, Peter, sifted through more than 2,000 years of British history in search of key surviving documents to include in their book Treasures of British History. 

Here are 18 documents that they believe are among the most important in 20th century British history.

1. Diagram of the FA Cup

This document dates back to 1910.

2. Last page of Robert Falcon Scott’s final diary

Scott and his friends died during a tragic expedition to the South Pole when they were on their way home. The last page of his diary just says: 

“I do not think I can write anymore.”

Scott writes in his journal in a hut in Cape Evans, Antarctica, in the winter of 1911.

3. Distress call from the Titanic

This is the radio officer’s document in his own print, and reads: 

“We have struck iceberg, sinking fast, come to our assistance.” 

Then he gives the position of the Titanic. What an incredibly emotive piece of paper it is, unbelievable. There’s so much in history, of course, that hasn’t survived. But it’s amazing what is out there. 

The appalling irony and tragedy and awfulness of the Titanic is that there was a ship going past at the time of this distress call that didn’t pick up the message. And so many people’s lives were lost.

4. Police report of Emily Davison’s fatal collision with the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby

The suffragette died after being hit by George V’s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby in 1913. While it had previously been speculated that she had been trying to hurt either the horse or herself when she walked onto the racecourse during the race, it is now thought she was trying to attach a banner to Anmer.

5. Balfour Declaration

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This document consists of a letter sent to Lord Rothschild in 1917 by the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, saying that he and the British government were happy to support a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The memo might have said a “national home” but it was a Jewish state that ended up being established in Palestine, and, of course, which led to the catastrophic result in the Middle East of Jews and Arabs fighting over Palestine.

This document is the wellspring of all of the animosity and conflict in today’s Israel and Palestine. It’s an amazing letter. It’s quite naive in a way because it says: 

So it was sort of unworkable even before the ink had dried on the piece of paper. 

6. Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s “Backs to the Wall” order

You could fill up a whole boat with amazing documents, letters, poetry, maps from just World War One, let alone the Second World War. But British Field Marshal Haig’s order for his men to carry on fighting with their “backs to the wall” in spring 1918 is particularly important for various reasons. 

Kaiserschlacht, the great German offensive of early 1918, was probably Britain’s worst defeat on the Western Front.

One British army had almost sort of collapsed and it briefly looked as if a great wedge would be driven in between the French and British armies – something that did in fact happen in 1940 when a pocket of British and French troops were trapped up in northern France and Belgium, while the rest of the army and the rest of the Allies were over to the Eastern Front.

In the spring of 1918, such a wedge ultimately didn’t occur, but Haig did issue this emotional call to arms to the British army which was rather remarkable.

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7. First edition of the Radio Times

This marvellous document from 1923 has a really mellow, antique-looking front page and talks about what the BBC’s plans are for that week and so on. It’s a lovely piece of work.

8. Edward VIII’s declaration of abdication 

This is interesting because it shows the changing nature of the monarchy in Britain. Over the years, of course, it’s become a monarchy in name only and kings and queens have had their power slowly taken away by the politicians.

And this document is a good example of that process coming near its completion: Edward VIII unable to marry the woman he wanted to marry because she was a divorcee. And the politicians made him abdicate the throne. This is a huge document really, when you think about it.

It was signed by Edward VIII, while he was briefly king. Interestingly, Edward VIII was one of the few kings in Britain who was never crowned. Edward V, the little prince in the tower, was another.

9. Anglo-German Declaration

Another sensationally important document, this declaration was signed by Adolf Hitler and the then British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, on 30 September 1938, hours after the signing of the Munich Agreement.  

When  returned from Munich, he famously declared:

“I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.”

Of course, the declaration led very quickly to Hitler invading Czechoslovakia, and, ironically, ultimately resulted in the end of peace and the beginning of World War Two.

10. Winston Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”

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11. Logbook of Guy Gibson, commander of the Dam Busters

This document really does represent the valour of one of the many people who fought in one of the two world wars. If you open the logbook to the last page, it says that on 16 May 1943 Gibson was piloting the Lancaster – “Pilot: Self.” – and names the crew. It also says, “We attacked the Mohne and the Eder dams, successful.” 

12. D-Day map

This amazing map shows the plan for D-Day, a plan that actually went rather well.

Now, the plan for the rest of Operation Overlord after D-Day didn’t go quite so well and it took a lot longer to capture Cologne and Normandy than had been supposed. But this map is telling of one of the reasons why the plan for D-Day itself went very well – because an incredible amount of planning went into it.

Thought and hard work went into determining where every ship in that fleet was going to go go, the shipping lanes, the landing, the channels through the minefields, the works. And it is just a beautiful map.

It also documents the legendary codenames of the landing beaches: Utah, Omaha, Sword and so on.

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13. Ticket to The Beatles’ first concert with Ringo Starr

It was on the night of 18 August 1962 that Ringo joined the Beatles at Sunlight for his first concert with the group. At that point, they still weren’t that famous. But by the following year they had just simply taken off.

When they went to America soon after, they took the country by storm. And they were extraordinary. They hit the high times and the crest of the wave so soon after they began singing. It was a great success story.

14. Design for Mary Quant’s mini-skirt

Quant’s mini-skirt was a fashion revolution.

15. Argentina’s Falklands letter of surrender

A pile of discarded Argentine weapons is pictured at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, on 16 June 1982.

Going from one extreme to the other, this was a military document signed by the commanders of the Argentine and British forces that fought in the Falklands War, and marked Argentina’s unconditional surrender. It’s notable that the document doesn’t talk about any political settlement; it was purely a military document. 

There was no political settlement at that time, of course, and there still hasn’t been one. It’s extraordinary when you think about it.

16. Queen Elizabeth II’s nuclear strike “speech”

This speech was written for the queen as part of an exercise carried out by the British government to practice what would happen in the event of a nuclear strike. It is chilling, particularly because it’s not hard to imagine the circumstances in which it could have been read out for real. But thankfully it remained in the National Archives and was never actually read by Her Majesty because it’s pretty brutal stuff. 

17. Tim Berners Lee’s plans for the World Wide Web

This document was written in 1989, which is extraordinary. Many adults today will think back to the times before 1989 and they will seem to be really very vivid memories. And yet there was no internet; we couldn’t even send emails.

18. Good Friday Agreement

This document appeared to have sort of settled a big constitutional question and political crisis for a generation or two. But now, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, things look a little less clear.