Researching the history of public buildings

These are among the easiest buildings to research, since the documentation should be held in one archive - that of the relevant local or national body - though administrative changes may have produced division between archives in some cases. Also see general sources of maps and images.


England and Wales

Records of buildings owned now or earlier by the Crown and national government are generally in The National Archives. The NA divides its vast collection into classes, each with a prefix indicating the source e.g. ADM = Admiralty, CRES= Crown Estate and predecessors, DEFE = Ministry of Defence, ED = Education. The catalogue is online. To supplement it there are finding aids for each classin the search rooms, manyof whichare published in the official Lists and Indexes series, or its continuation by the List and Index Society. For example the records of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works 1609-1956 (WORK) are listed in List and Index Society volumes 59, 65 and 79. The online catalogue will be more up to date than any printed source, but sometimes gives less detail. Clicking on the Full Details tab for any result may provide more information on the content, and any printed calendar of the document series should be listed.

Some architectural drawings for the Ministry of Defence are held in the MOD Art Collection.

Some grand post offices were erected in major cities by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. The records for post offices are divided between the National Archives (WORK) and the post office archive. The National Achives has made available online guides to sources for Lunatic Asylums, Prisons, Official Residences and Pre-fabricated Buildings.

There are also some references to public works, including fortifications, in Parliamentary Papers, now partly catalogued online. The Defence of Britain Project aims to record all 20th-century military structures. For medieval fortifications by the Crown see castles.For hospitals see charity buildings. For schools see educational buildings.


Design for King's Inns, Dublin by James Gandon c.1800 (Irish Architectural Archive)From 1831 the Office of Public Works (Ireland) was responsible for public buildings in Ireland and its papers are in the National Archives of Ireland. Some earlier material on Irish public buildings may be in the National Archives, London. However the Irish Architectural Archive holds many architect's plans and drawing, including some for public buildings, such as the design for King's Inns, Dublin, shown here.


The National Archives of Scotland holds the records of Scottish government from medieval times. Since the government was responsible for many types of buildings throughout Scotland, the administrative records deposited in the NAS may contain building information in various classes, such as education (ED), health provision or prisons. The ED series contains information on museums, galleries and libraries, while ED31 is a series of files on school buildings and further education colleges.The records of the Masters of Works (MW) yield details of work on royal buildings and palaces prior to 1707. Many of these records are published in Accounts of the Master of Works, 1529-1649 (2 vols, (1957, 1982). The files of the Ministry of Works (MW) and Environment Department (DD) provide information on public buildings, roads and bridges. There is an online catalogue.


County JPs were responsible for the upkeep of shire halls, gaols, asylums, and houses of correction for the county and any bridges not maintained by another body. See quarter sessions and other records in the relevant county record office. County councils were established by the Local Government Act of 1888. Their records are also in the relevant county record office and include those for county-run schools.

City and town

Exchange or Guildhall, Newcastle by S.H. Grimm (British Library)City archives have records of guildhalls, town halls, market halls, bridges, baths, fountains, libraries, schools, town walls and other buildings owned now or originally by the corporation or other urban authority. J. West, Town Records (1983) gives the location of many such archives in England and Wales. Corporation,borough or burgh accounts become increasingly common after the time of Elizabeth and can give details of spending on buildings. From the 18th century detailed building accounts by architects, surveyors,masons and other workmen may survive, while local authority decisions to commission building work may appear in council minutes. Some material from borough archives has been calendared in print - see bibliographies: texts and calendars. From the 19th century local newspapers can be an important source for local public buildings. Council or public meetings on the topic may be reported at great length. See also local archives and towns.

Studies and gazetteers