Alfred Mabbs

The following obituary first appeared in The Times on 26 February 2009.

Alfred Mabbs CB: Keeper of Public Records 1978-82 (born 12 April 1921; died 29 January 2009, aged 87)


Alfred MabbsAlfred Mabbs, known to all as Freddie, entered the Public Record Office (PRO), now the National Archives, in 1938 from the then highly competitive Clerical Officer examination. He was a North London boy and was educated at Hackney Downs Grammar School. After the outbreak of war in 1939 he volunteered for air crew in the RAF in 1941 but was grounded owing to ear trouble and took up duties as a sergeant-instructor in advanced wireless and radar before teaching Latin, French, applied mathematics and civics under the RAF Educational and Vocational Training Scheme.

On demobilisation he returned to the PRO and later passed the Civil Service Commission’s Reconstruction Executive Class examination. His duties were connected with the setting up of a suburban repository at Hayes, Middlesex, for records of government departments that were only occasionally wanted, but some of which might ultimately warrant permanent preservation — the so-called “Limbo” scheme.

In 1950, with early advancement in the PRO seeming unlikely, he contemplated moving to a larger department, but the PRO, realising his potential, strongly tested his Latin, and promoted him to the administrative assistant keeper grade.

Such class-to-class promotions in that era were quite exceptional, and within the PRO there had only been one other when, in 1937, a long-serving higher clerical officer had been appointed after a similar language test — “from Limbo to Olympus,” as a senior colleague said.

All the same his early years in his new grade were not easy. A few of his new colleagues had reservations about his promotion and certain of the more senior executive men felt resentment at being passed over. Yet by the end of the decade he was firmly established, and the arrival in the Office of Stephen Wilson as Keeper opened up new opportunities for him.

Wilson had been specifically appointed to clear up what the Treasury saw as a “nest of medievalists” and to implement the reforms recommended by the Grigg Committee on departmental records and the subsequent Public Records Act 1958. Many of the administrative keepers feared the effect of his mission to switch the PRO’s bias from the older to the more modern, and in terms of public demand, more popular records.

Yet a few of them, including Mabbs, were more tolerant so it was not surprising that Wilson set him to work in the newly created Modern Records Section on Treasury and Cabinet papers. In turn, Wilson’s successor, Harold Johnson, one of Mabbs’s original examiners in 1950, was to appoint him principal assistant keeper and then head of the Records Administration Division, whose job it was to liaise with government departments through a team of inspecting officers.

But it did not end there, for in 1973 when the deputy-Keeper Neville Williams resigned to become secretary of the British Academy the then Keeper, Jeffery Ede, had no hesitation in appointing Mabbs to replace him. In 1978 Ede retired and the Lord Chancellor appointed Mabbs to succeed. He thus enjoyed the distinction, attained only by few civil servants, of ascending to their department’s pinnacle from the clerical ranks.

He was much attached to the Chancery Lane site which had been the PRO’s headquarters from its creation in 1838 and as Keeper spent most of his time there even after the opening of Kew.

His tenure was relatively quiet though he had to contend with the Duncan Wilson Committee, which had been set up to inquire into the workings of the Records Acts in response to critics of the PRO, particularly as regards selection policy. He thought the agitation had been instigated by ministers and officials within government and pseudo-academics. Their activities greatly angered him so he was relieved when the committee’s report proved something of a damp squib.

He was keenly interested in the development of archive administration, had to his credit several publications on records of all periods and was general editor of the Hertfordshire Record Society 1991-1996. He carried out a number of assignments overseas under the auspices of Unesco and the International Council on Archives of which he was an honorary president.

In recognition of his contribution to historical scholarship he was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1954 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1979. He was fully aware of the challenge of the computer age and in 1969 had gone to Washington to see how matters were handled there. In 1982, the year of his retirement, he was appointed CB. He enjoyed the greater leisure but his golfing was curtailed when fitted with two artificial hip joints. From his home in Cuffley he moved to Wallington, Hertfordshire, and was active in local affairs, being chairman of the village hall committee.

Mabbs is survived by his wife Dorothy Lowley, whom he married in 1942. His son John pre-deceased him.