The earliest mention of an object we might recognise as a passport appears in the Bible, in Nehemiah 2:7-9: “Moreover I said to the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah.” This is around 450BC. The Persian king Artaxerxes did indeed grant letters to Nehemiah, requesting that the rulers of the lands beyond the Euphrates grant him safe passage so he could go off and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Which he did. In 52 days.
In Britain, “safe conduct” documents appeared during the reign of King Henry V in an Act of the English Parliament, the Safe Conducts Act, in 1414.
The idea that the main function of a passport was to keep its owner safe (rather than the country he or she was entering) persists to the present day. The looped writing on the inside cover of one of my passports reads:
It conjures up a lovely picture of the queen trying to persuade border guards to lend you an umbrella, or that the customs officers keep you safe from a pack of slavering wolves.
Passports were not generally required for international travel until the first world war.
A 32-page passport with a dark blue cover, with the lion and unicorn crest in gold, came into use in 1921, according to the Home Office.
For more than 70 years, this passport, commonly known as the old blue style, was the identification UK citizens needed to leave their island.
In 1988, the old blue-style began to be replaced by the burgundy European Union-style, machine-readable passport, which was in a common format agreed amongst member states. It had the words “European Community” on the cover, changed to “European Union” in 1997.
The old British passports seem curiously old-fashioned in many details now, such as the laminated photograph stuck onto the paper, instead of a digital image, details written in by hand, and children merrily added to the front page when you had one more.
Now, we have holographic and biometric identification chips. Plus, 3D watermarks of Shakespeare and other anti-fraud features are all over the thing, making it one of the “most secure documents in the world”, according to the Passport Office’s Director General.
Within days of Prime Minister Theresa May triggering Article 50 in March 2017, the Home Office sent out a £490 million tender to firms for the “design, production and personalisation of the UK passport”. Which left some to voice the obvious and most vital of all the Brexit questions: Could the blue passport come back?
Of course it could.
The new passports could not be the same as the hard-backed versions, as passports have to comply with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s standards on machine-readable formats. So the old-style hard-backed British passport was out of the question. But the blue cover did come back.
The first ones began to be issued from March 2020.
(Just not by a British company, though. Instead, a Franco-Dutch firm got the contract.)
Personally, I’m not so fussed about the blue. But I do mourn the loss of a passport that gave me the right to live and work in 28 different countries.