Lownie campaign sees some Mountbatten archives released but tribunal looms

Lownie campaign sees some Mountbatten archives released but tribunal looms

Southampton University has published some of the personal diaries and letters belonging to Lord and Lady Mountbatten after a campaign by historian and literary agent Andrew Lownie, however others are still unavailable.

Lownie launched a crowdfunding campaign earlier this yer to gain access to the diaries, which are held by the university, after finding omissions while researching for his biography The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves (Bonnier Books UK). Southampton purchased the wider Broadlands archive from the Mountbatten family trust in 2011 and helped attract funding by stating it would “preserve the collection in its entirety for future generations to use and enjoy” and “ensure public access”.

The university confirmed it had now been able to make available online the early diaries of Lord Mountbatten covering the period 1918 to 1934 and diaries of Countess Mountbatten of Burma from 1923 to 1934, “after communication from the Cabinet office”. A spokesperson told The Bookseller: “In addition, some selected diaries up to 1960 have also now been published."

Lownie said he believed press coverage of the battle as well as a parliamentary campaign “has done the trick” in getting most of the diaries released, which he says have not been redacted.

However, he will continue to fight for diaries from 1947 and 1948, when the couple were in India, to be released, as well as some of the wartime diaries and the correspondence between Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten at a tribunal in November. “There’s still quite a lot still to come,” he said.

Lownie had previously made a freedom of information request to access the materials, which was refused. Southampton University said it was directed by the government to keep a small number of the papers private until told otherwise.

He then complained to the ICO which contacted the university. After the university failed to respond for 12 months, the commissioner was prompted to issue contempt of court proceedings.

In December 2019 the university responded, and the ICO ordered it to release the Mountbattens’ diaries and letters. However, the university and the Cabinet Office launched an appeal against the ICO decision, which is due to be heard in November and which Lownie hopes to challenge.

He argues the diaries could shed light on the royal family as well as the independence and partition of India. Lord Mountbatten was the uncle of Prince Philip, and the last Viceroy of India. His wife, Lady Mountbatten, also had a close relationship with the Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru. 

A cross-party group of MPs, led by Conservative Julian Lewis, previously raised concerns over the lack of access to the personal diaries of the Mountbattens. In an early day motion tabled in the House of Commons, the MPs state said: "It is deeply regrettable that their distinguished biographer, Dr Andrew Lownie, has so far had to pay £250,000 pursuing a campaign for the diaries' release to historians; and accordingly calls for their disclosure for publication without further obfuscation and delay."

Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez, in response to written parliamentary questions about the matter, said: "Before he retired as Chief of Defence Staff in 1965, the first Earl Mountbatten accepted that personal diaries could not be put into the public domain without first being vetted. Earl Mountbatten made clear that ownership of all of these papers would be handed over to the Broadlands Trustees. In 1969, the Broadlands Trustees entered into undertakings not to give general or particular access to these papers without the express permission of the Prime Minister of the day through the Cabinet Secretary. A copy of the undertakings is available at the National Archives. In line with this agreement, the Cabinet Office is continuing to work with the University of Southampton to support the release of the Mountbatten archive whilst ensuring sensitive and official information is handled appropriately and in line with the Freedom of Information Act and Data Protection Act. 

"This case is currently before the Information Tribunal. It would not, therefore, be appropriate to make further comment whilst this is subject to ongoing legal proceedings."

Lownie has since won the support of the Royal Historical Society but says he is “disappointed” that other writers’ organisations have not thrown their weight behind his campaign: “I think there are important issues here about freedom of speech, and academic freedom and support of writers. I’m hoping that maybe they will step up to the plate now as we continue the fight,” he said. 

A spokesperson for the University of Southampton added: "The university acquired the Broadlands Archives in 2011 after a successful fund-raising campaign, to raise and self-fund a total of £2.85m. Some of the archives had come to the university in the 1980s (formally under loan agreements in 1989). Our curatorial work, through extensive listing and cataloguing—including the creation of online databases and investment in purpose-built, environmentally controlled facilities—ensures the continued preservation, accessibility and the physical well-being of the collection. 

“As part of the allocation of the archives in August 2011, the university was directed to keep a small number of the papers closed until we were otherwise advised. The university has always aimed to make public as much of the collection as is possible whilst balancing all its legal obligations. The collection consists of some 4,500 boxes of documents of which the vast majority are publicly available and accessed regularly by researchers globally, as an invaluable historic resource. We have also organised exhibitions, conferences and other events which allow the public to enjoy and appreciate the archives.” 

The material is online and can be accessed by clicking on the Broadlands Archives Digitisation box.