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Business records

Bedfordshire Archives collects business records from Bedfordshire businesses of all sorts and sizes for their value for historical research. The records are generally about how the business was run and the trade in which it engaged. They may also be used for wider research into local or social, product and design history. They can provide legal evidence or be inspiration for new works.  

The world of business is very varied from the pillow lace account books kept by Rachel Read of Cranfield (ref: X259) to the complex production records of W H Allens (ref: AQ) or London Brick (ref: Z41) and the colourful catalogues of Meltis sweets (ref: X853).

Business records may be received directly from the firm concerned in which case they may be added to over a period of years, or from other sources such as ex-employees, the official receiver or the next tenant of a building who finds that the previous business left records behind (Z938).

Although records can be an important asset to a business, and as such may remain with the business or be sold to other companies, the importance of most records is likely to diminish over time as the business changes, relocates or closes. It is often at this point that the records are offered to the archives service. Sometimes they have been moved around or stored for many years and they may not be as complete or as coherent as the archivist or researcher would like.

The material may contain records of former or associated businesses in addition to the main business. Mergers and take overs or changes of direction can all add to a complex picture. For example, the records of Cultler Hammer (ref: IG) include records of the former companies of Adams Manufacturing Co Ltd as well as Igranic Electric and Brookhirst Igranic. Hayward Tyler (ref: SP) includes information about aerated bread machines as well as pumps and George Kent Ltd (ref: GKL) includes information about knife sharpening machines as well as the later business of flow metres. X843, T & E Neville, builders and funeral directors of Luton, includes funeral registers from one side of the business and architectural drawings from the other. One of the most complicated collections is that of London Brick (Z41) as this includes the records of a large number of earlier brick companies.

Some business records contain information on other traders and this is particularly true of solicitor’s archives.  For example, the records of Hooper and Fletcher of Biggleswade (ref: HF) include some papers on Dan Albone, the famous cycle manufacturer and inventor (HF21) as well as numerous other local businesses.  The records of builders and architects are another good example of the records of one business shedding light on another.  The records of Manning & Steel (Z558) and Franklin, Deacon, Briars (FDB) and T & E Neville (X843) contain many plans of Luton businesses in the 20th century, including bleach and dye works and warehouses built for straw hat manufacturers. The Richardson & Houfe architect’s collection (RGH) includes office blocks in London and a distillery in Scotland.

There are other less obvious sources of business records. Under an Act of 1824, the Bankruptcy Commissioners who had hitherto sat in London, could go on circuit with the local Clerk of the Peace acting as their Clerk.  Consequently, some of the records of local retailers who went bankrupt in the 1820-1840s, are to be found in the Quarter Sessions papers of insolvent debtors (ref: QDI).

The records of customers, or potential customers, must not be neglected for these may contain receipted bills or trade catalogues.  Finally, rating and valuation records (refs: DBV and DV), local authority records (useful for building plans and details of some businesses, such as slaughterhouses, under their public health functions), directories and maps are also useful sources.

The survival rate of business records is generally poor. The records of retail businesses are particularly thin on the ground considering how common such outlets are. Sometimes a company with a chain of stores across the country will deposit its records in a central location.  A family business may keep records in the family after a business closed. We do hold some records for some co-operatives (X778) and we have the collection of C J Beavis Limited (Z1399). The survival rate of records of major manufacturing firms is perhaps slightly better.

References to a business may be scattered amongst different collections and under different company names but if you are looking for a particular company the best way to try to find them is to start with a subject search under the name of the company - but do try different combinations. We try to cross reference to alternative names but it is not always straightforward particularly where the company name includes initials. If you are interested in businesses that were involved in a particular line of trade then a search for references to that trade, e.g. brick making can be useful. If you are looking for people who are involved in a particular line of work then try searching by the name of their occupation.

The types of record will depend on the sort of business it was and how it was run. There may be minute books, financial records and accounts, manufacturing records, product research and development records, order books, plans of the works. There may be photographs of products, advertising and promotional material. There could be photographs and plans of the premises.

One thing that we are unlikely to have are comprehensive records of employees. Where we do have employee records these may still be subject to data protection legislation and therefore access to them may be restricted. The best records for employees are often the company in-house magazines. These may record appointments, promotions and retirements or celebrate success within the company but they are also likely to record aspects of the social life that large businesses established around them such as the various sports teams. You may even find pieces about someone’s particular hobbies and announcements of marriages and births.

Large companies, particularly some of the large engineering companies, often had links across the world. Visits to and from other companies, trainees, apprentices or employees may be recorded. Business deals and installations in other countries may be explained with a certain amount of pride for the success they brought to the company and the work and wealth they provided to Britain. Many employees relocated to Bedfordshire from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean to help with the labour shortage in Britain particularly after 1945. Sadly this cultural diversity does not often show in official company records, which as previously explained rarely include material about the employees. There have been efforts made to capture more information on the experiences of employees through oral history projects and the archives service has a number of collections resulting from these projects (For example: X214, X962, Z1205, Z1453).

You can also see details about our business collections on our YouTube channel