We were founded in 1934, and our first overseas offices opened in 1938, making us the oldest cultural relations organisation in the world.
Originally, we were called the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries.
Why the British Council was created
The early 1930s were a time of global instability. Britain’s influence was weakened because of a global financial depression, which reduced living standards, jobs, and trade.
At the same time, extreme ideologies were gaining ground, with the rise of Communism in Russia, and Fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain.
The UK government created the British Council in response. In our annual report for 1940-41, the aim was:
‘to create in a country overseas a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy, whatever for the moment that policy may be and from whatever political conviction it may spring.’
One mission since 1940
Our work has evolved, but we continue to make a positive contribution to the countries we work with. In doing so, we improve the UK’s international standing, prosperity and security.
In 1940, we were granted a Royal Charter – a formal document issued by the monarch. It set out our mission as:
‘promoting a wider knowledge of [the UK] and the English language abroad and developing closer cultural relations between [the UK] and other countries.’
We do not physically hold archive material. Our records are held in UK repositories, which are listed below with a summary of the type of material available.
- The National Archives are the main repository of British Council records. Here, you can find policy records, committee minutes, and reports on British Council activities.
- The Tate Archive holds the archives of our Visual Arts teams.
- The British Library collects our publications, including annual reports.
- The British Library Sound Archive holds the work of our recordings unit from the 1940s onwards, and the recordings of a staff oral history project.
- The British Film Institute (BFI) holds a collection of films produced and sponsored by us in the 1930s and 1940s. These are available to watch on the British Council Film website.
- The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick holds the archives of our staff association and trade union.
- The Special Collections of the University of Reading holds a collection of letters between notable British authors and our Literature department.
Contact our Records and Archives team
Do you have a question or need assistance? Contact our Records and Archives team.