Emmeline Pethick and Fred Lawrence met through their involvement in social work in London and became, as the Pethick-Lawrences, two of the best-known figures in the peace and suffrage movements of the early twentieth century. After the First World War Fred embarked on a parliamentary career, which included two years as Secretary of State for India and for Burma in the period leading up to Indian independence. On his appointment to this office in 1945 he was created Baron Pethick-Lawrence of Peaslake. Emmeline died in 1954, and in 1957 her widower married Helen McCombie, whom he had known since she was a suffragette.
The Pethick-Lawrences were helped in the organisation of their engagements and correspondence by two devoted secretaries, Esther Edith Knowles (1895–1974) and Gladys Elizabeth Groom (later Groom-Smith) (1908–1978), and the efficiency and meticulousness of their system were well-known (see ODNB). The secretaries also often replied to correspondence on the Pethick-Lawrences' behalf (see e.g. PETH 2/41, 2/46).
Most of Lord Pethick-Lawrence's official papers were deposited with the India Office Library in 1958 (see 2/67–72), so that those which remained in his possession at his death on 10 September 1961 were mainly private papers. He had left instructions with his secretaries that certain of his papers were to be preserved, but unfortunately Lady Helen, his second wife, was unacquainted with his wishes and one weekend she destroyed a large number of the papers before the secretaries were able to intervene. When Lady Helen emigrated to North America the surviving papers passed into the possession of the secretaries – some to Miss Knowles's house in Harrow, the remainder to the house of Miss Groom at Solihull.
Ten years after Pethick-Lawrence's death his secretaries began jointly to examine the papers in their custody with a view to finding a suitable home for those they thought worth keeping. As a result of this examination a number of papers (1/1–4/306) was offered to Trinity College in 1971 and duly accepted, these documents having been entirely selected from those in the possession of Miss Groom (now Mrs Groom-Smith). It is not known whether, after this first deposit, any significant material remained in the possession of Mrs Groom-Smith, who died in 1978. Miss Knowles was prevented by illness from transmitting any of the papers in her own house before her death on 8 May 1974, and it was not till 1980, after an exchange of letters between the College Librarian and Nita M. Needham, Miss Knowles's niece and executrix, that the second group of papers (5/1–9/124) arrived at Trinity. This accession apparently comprised all the Pethick-Lawrence papers in Mrs Needham's possession, with the exception of certain printed publications, and also included a few papers of Lady Constance Lytton (9/9–29). A further deposit of four items (9/125–8) was made by Naomi Lutyens in 1981. Neither these papers, nor those of Lady Lytton, belong, strictly speaking, with the Pethick-Lawrences' own papers.
The bulk of the Pethick-Lawrences' papers was originally kept in a series of numbered folders, associated with a series of index-cards. This scheme was disrupted in the interval between Lord Pethick-Lawrence's death and the arrival of the papers at Trinity, but a few of the folders and cards survive, and, since many of the documents were inscribed with the number of the file into which they were to be put, the numbers of many of the files can be known, though no pattern has been discerned in their allocation. Especially private or important papers, such as the correspondence between the Pethick-Lawrences themselves and other family papers, were evidently kept separately from the main series and are therefore not marked with file numbers.
It is likely that some rearrangement of the papers took place after their arrival in the Library, but no record of the process has been found. The original cataloguer is probably responsible for the alphabetical arrangement of the papers in the first accession, though the contents of the original files appear to have been largely kept together. A summary list, giving only a personal name or subject for each item or group of items, was completed in 1981. The papers were placed in a series of boxes numbered from 1 to 9, and the contents of the boxes were numbered in separate sequences. The numbering scheme therefore represents a physical, rather than logical, arrangement. The papers have since been reboxed and the reference numbers no longer exactly reflect the way they are stored. A few items were omitted from the original numbering; these omissions have now been rectified.