The Wiener Library, London

Dr Alfred Wiener
Dr Alfred Wiener

Next up on my whistle-stop tour of London archives is the Wiener Library, nestled opposite Russell Square and located in close proximity to Senate House and SOAS university. The Wiener Library has a fascinating history as an ‘eyewitness’ archive that recorded and documented Nazi atrocities from the 1920s onwards.

The library was originally founded by Dr Alfred Wiener in response to the surge of right-wing antisemitism in Germany and used as a device to monitor and collect information on the Nazi Party. Dr Wiener later fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office at the request of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association.

Following the November Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to transfer his collection to the UK, which later served to help the British Government as it fought the Nazi regime. In the post-war years the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial, amassed early survivor testimony and helped to shape the emerging academic study of the Holocaust.

I first came across the Wiener Library at an archives conference hosted at the London Metropolitan Archives earlier in June. The Wiener Library came up again a few months later following an email exchange with an archivist at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. I’d originally got in touch to gather more information about a series of records created by the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) featured on the ITS website. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately for the prospect of any future Euro trips!) the ITS archivist kindly advised me that digitised copies of the UNHCR records were housed at the Wiener Library, having been donated by the Foreign Office in 2011. A couple of days later I braved the wind, rain and generally miserable London weather to take a closer look at the records held on the library’s computer terminals – and what I found was well worth the visit.

The library’s UNHCR records provide a near complete set of case files – over 80,000 in fact – created by the organisation’s Hong Kong branch from around 1951 onwards. The files pertain to individuals or families who stayed in Hong Kong or in the Asia region and include documents and application forms concerning assistance, resettlement and emigration to various countries. The collection has been catalogued by first name, surname and date of birth. The library staff kindly allow patrons to copy documents (onto Wiener Library USB’s to avoid viruses and malware) which means files can be taken home for closer analysis.

Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of records held in the UNHCR collection make it difficult to refine searches unless names are cross-referenced across archives or according to a pre-designated list. For example, not all of the individuals recorded as part of the collection may have transited through Hong Kong, and individually saving 80,000 documents onto a fair few USB’s is also no mean feat!

Needless to say, it’s clear that these records will be an invaluable resource for the Hong Kong Refuge project. The UNHCR collection includes official and administrative information on European Jewish and White Russian refugees exiting China, reports and memorandums written by the Kadoorie brothers (Lawrence Kadoorie, later Lord, and Horace Kadoorie, later Sir) and correspondence with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Philippines and Far East Branch and Shanghai Branch, as well as government departments such as the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Now that the collection has been located, the hard work of sifting through the UNHCR files and pin-pointing the refugees who transited through Hong Kong begins.




FCO Historical Collection at Foyle Library


One of my first archive visits as part of the Hong Kong Refuge project was to the Foyle Special Collection Library. Housed at the entrance of the impressive Maughan Library, the main research library of King’s College London, the building was once (very aptly) home to the headquarters of the Public Records Office, known as the ‘strong box of Empire’.

King’s College London acquired the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on permanent loan back in 2007. The collection represents one of the most important historical acquisitions for the university and comprises over 80,000 items including books, periodicals and pamphlets spanning 500 years and touching all corners of the globe. The library was originally compiled as a tool of government so as to inform and influence British foreign and colonial policy. Luckily for the Hong Kong Refuge project, a portion of this collection therefore pertains to colonial era Hong Kong and the treaty port history of Shanghai.

The Shanghai series comprises 111 records, with the majority of the collection pre-dating 1945 (only four items are listed as post-1945). The major bulk of the collection is housed in the Foyle Library whilst modern and robust items have been transferred to the Maughan Library.

Early items within this collection include books written by missionaries, business records (such as deeds) for corporations including the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the China Navigation Company (held by the Chinese Maritime Customs), reference books on China’s customs, history and traditions and information related to Shanghai’s treaty port history.

The annual reports of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) represent an important acquisition as the most complete set of SMC reports owned by any library outside of China. The Foyle Library holds annual reports for the years: 1871 – 76, 1877 – 1892, 1893 – 1899, 1907 – 1940 (1900 – 1906 are missing). See my blog posting on the 1939 report here.



The FCO collection also houses an important resource for Hong Kong historians, including early reference materials written by missionaries and Hong Kong government officials (including governors), correspondence on the Praya Reclamation Scheme between government officials and Sir Paul Chater (1880s), letters from Governor Bowen, general Hong Kong guide books (1930s) and a ‘Who’s Who of China’ as well as various maps (such as district zoning plans) and photograph collections.

Although the Hong Kong series is a more detailed and wide ranging collection, reflecting Hong Kong’s position as a colony until 1997, the FCO Historical Collection is an invaluable (and at present, little used) resource for scholars of both Hong Kong and Shanghai.