Pandas, U.F.O.s and Other Curiosities from Britain’s National Archives

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office in 1981.

LONDON — The sporadic release of documents from Britain’s National Archives gives a glimpse into the country’s inner workings. For instance, there was the revelation that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher debated using the military to quell a miners’ strike in 1984.

The archives are a repository of both the historical and the mundane, storing everything from Shakespeare’s will to countless government tweets.

And then there are the more offbeat offerings: Britons learned on Friday, in the government’s latest release, about Mrs. Thatcher’s refusal to travel with a panda. Previous released included disclosures about leftover moon dust (found in a cupboard), a report concerning U.F.O.’s (there were none) and Princess Margaret’s hoped-for marriage (no government opposition).

Here are some of the quirkiest revelations from recent years.

Image
Credit...Crown copyright, via National Archives UK

“I’m not taking a panda with me,” Mrs. Thatcher scribbled on a memo about the financial struggles of London Zoo. “Pandas and politicians are not happy omens!”

The note came after the president of the zoo, Lord Zuckerman, contacted Mrs. Thatcher through a cabinet minister with a plea for financial help. Lord Zuckerman proposed that Mrs. Thatcher take a panda “in the back of her Concorde” on her first visit with President Ronald Reagan.

The trip would have been a chance for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington to borrow London’s male panda to mate with its female panda. But Mrs. Thatcher was having none of it.

When America’s Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth, they brought with them 48 pounds of rocks from the moon’s surface. President Richard M. Nixon presented Harold Wilson, the prime minister, with a sampling during a meeting in Washington in 1970.

The four tiny pebbles mounted on an a commemorative wooden plaque first went on loan to the Science Museum in London, but as successive prime ministers struggled to find an appropriate spot to display it, the gift languished in a cupboard for years.

Files from other departments, like the Ministry of Defense, provide interesting details about Britain’s security concerns through the past century, including those involving unidentified flying objects.

The ministry received drawings, reports of sightings and questions from concerned citizens over several decades, papers released in several batches through the National Archives showed.

“No U.F.O./flying saucer has landed in the vicinity of Menwith Hill and the base had no connection with U.F.O. research,” the ministry once replied to local farmers who reported sighting a disc-shaped object.

The U.F.O. files are available for browsing on the National Archives website.

Anthony Eden, who briefly served as prime minister in the 1950s, did not seem poised to stand in the way of a potential marriage between Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II’s sister, and Group Capt. Peter Townsend. Even as the royal family was navigating what it would mean for Princess Margaret, then third in line for the throne, to wed Mr. Townsend, who was divorced, the government was coming up with plans to support the marriage.

Mr. Eden’s government would have allowed Princess Margaret to keep her royal title.

“The government was looking for ways of enabling her to marry,” an official at the National Archives told the BBC after government papers were released after the death of the princess.

When Prime Minister Guy Mollet of France visited Britain during the Suez Crisis in 1956, he had a surprising suggestion, according to papers from the National Archives seen by the BBC in 2007. He proposed a union between the two countries.

Later, when Mr. Eden was in Paris, Mr. Mollet reiterated the proposal and said that France would be happy to join the Commonwealth.

The documents had been declassified years before, but, the BBC said, nobody noticed them until 2007.

A suggestion to relocate Hong Kong residents after the territory’s return to China, in 1997, once inadvertently reached the Foreign Office.

A Belfast newspaper published the proposal, by a lecturer in Northern Ireland, that the population be moved to a theoretical city-state to be created in Magilligan, between Coleraine and Londonderry. The piece provoked a flurry of correspondence between an official in Northern Ireland and one in Britain’s Foreign Office.

But the Foreign Office official told the BBC it had been nothing more than a joke between colleagues.

“Sadly, it’s impossible to make jokes like this any more,” the official, by then retired, told the BBC when the correspondence was revealed. “The Diplomatic Service has lost its sense of humor.”

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