Modern Records Centre

Sources for Business History and the Modern Records Centre

Charles Fonge, University of Warwick

"Nothing is truly the property of any man; at any moment in the passing hour,
whether by entreaty, by purchase, by force, by the final extremity of death, all things change their
owners and pass to other hands."

(Horace, Epistolae II, 2, 174)

The life of a record, like that of any business, is a far from certain one. Despite a life cycle from creation to disposition, eternal salvation is, statistically, a rarely achieved event. Pitted against this elusive grail are a myriad of factors from the creator or owner of the record to its own inherent worth or physical condition. Less obvious a factor is a suitable haven or resting-place.

The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick was established in 1973 as a repository for the archives of industrial relations and labour history, and has since become internationally renowned for its large and comprehensive collections of trade union records. Alongside these have grown significant holdings of the records of employers' and trade associations, political parties and organisations, pressure groups and material directly relating to the field of industrial relations. With the records of individuals prominent in these arena, its archival collections relating to business are also an important part of the material in its care.

Business Records

There are over a hundred collections that directly relate to business and management in the Centre, the majority of which are the records of particular enterprises. Records from Rubery Owen Ltd (MSS.338), Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd (MSS.19), and the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust (comprising the archives of Rover Ltd and predecessors) are just some of the major firms whose records reside at the MRC.

Strong in the field of automotive history, with a special reference to the West Midlands, these particular business archives, also include the likes of those of the publishing house of Victor Gollancz Ltd (MSS.157) or Ragosine Oil Co. Ltd (MSS.198).

Collections such as that for Rubery Owen Holdings Ltd (MSS. 338), whose materials date from 1949, cast light not only on its manufacturing activities, but also the life of its chairman and joint managing director, Sir Alfred Owen, relations with local government and the region and chart the "post-war expansion and contraction of ... a proto-multinational corporation." A major manufacturing concern in the West Midlands, the records of Triumph Engineering Co. Ltd (MSS.123), Rover Co. Ltd and BSA Co. Ltd complement this collection and have informed a number of works on the motorcycle, car and road haulage industries.

Many collections, the Rubery Owen archive included, hold a wealth of material from parent, subsidiary and associate companies. Similarly, the large British Motor Industry Heritage Trust archive (MSS. 226) holds selected records from British Leyland plc, Rover and their constituents (Austin Motor Co., MG Car Co., Morris Motors and others). While far from being 'hidden' treasures, the relative value and significance of such archives within a collection can nonetheless be underestimated and their oversight can be the price paid by those who skim past top-level finding aids and collection-level descriptions without due care and attention!

Alongside company records are those of business management. These encompass records such as those of the Institute of Administrative Management and its predecessors (MSS. 337) and the large Operational Research Society and Operational Research Archive (MSS. 335). In the case of the Operational Research (OR) material, beyond its immediate value to the historians and practitioners of OR, it charts the discipline's growing use and impact in business and industry. Moreover, it highlights through, for example, commissioned reports, issues such as the optimal purchase of advertising slots on television by companies like Pedigree Petfoods and the use of OR in industries as diverse as whisky distilling. Then there are the records of OR sections in institutions such as GKN Ltd, British Gas, British European Airways and the coal industry.

Stepping away from these broader classes of holdings, are collections such as MSS. 201, Courtalds Group One Staff Association, and MSS.361, Alcan Foils Personnel Department. Although more specific in both material and context, smaller archival holdings in this vein supply an important insight into labour relations and specific issues, as well as furnishing further contextual material to aid a comparative approach.

Trade Unions

The records of trade unions are an obvious source for those interested in industry, commerce, the economy, business and industrial relations. The Centre holds an extensive collection of trade union archives dating from the eighteenth century to the present from national (and some local) organisations. There are over 640 collections in this class alone and they include the registry files of the Trades Union Congress (MSS.292) which date from 1920 and are open until 1989. A crucial source for furnishing an alternative perspective to that provided by governmental, 'business' or 'corporate' records, trade union records - besides alleviating a 'top-down' perspective - can also provide an important vantage on thematic subjects, from issues of gender or race to pieces of legislation, industrial safety or immigration. Consequently, the TUC archive "is probably the most important single primary source for British labour history."

The late Arthur Marsh talked of a "pot pourri of trade union types and objectives" and whether one believes their existence and activities "incompatible with the pursuit of modern business objectives and . . . a major obstacle to economic progress and individual freedom" or not, the number and the importance of their records and the light they cast on political, economic and social culture is indisputable.

Employers' and Trade Associations

The records of trade and employers' associations provide another tranche of material closely related to the 'business' held at the Centre. Like the trade unions, these organisations are important for their role (intentional or otherwise) as intermediary between their members and government. From their rapid formation in the post-war period they have played an integral part in business-government relations, not to mention economic performance, research and development, education and training in industrial and commercial society.

Certainly their importance in the study of industries, industrial districts and individual associations has been recognised, and in collections such as those of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and its predecessors (including the FBI) and the EEF, there are records more specifically related to particular business sectors. That their records extend beyond government-business relations is not always appreciated but as the range of CBI directorates indicates, there again exists significant scope for comparative and thematic approaches. Nor is the nation-state the dominant focus, the CBI also having its Smaller Firms and Regional Councils Directorate, with its constituent councils, policy groups and working parties. A regional aspect is very much in evidence in the records of the EEF, through its publications and local agreements and in the records of its predecessors and regional associations, some of which form part of the archive. The papers of the Coventry and District EEF (MSS.66) constitute a particularly good example. They firstly include a large series of the proceedings of local and works conferences from 1913, a series which also demonstrates local links with unions such as the TGWU and AEU (both of whose archives are at the Centre). Files regarding the association's links with Alfred Herbert Ltd, 1909-29, papers on wage rates in the region during the 1940's and 1960's, as well as material on the Coventry Toolroom Agreement of 1941 and the Coventry Toolroom dispute of 1971 also form part of these papers, which demonstrate the breadth of interaction between a variety of institutions, individuals and interests on an equally varied array of economic, social, political and institutional stages.

Political Papers and Individuals

Political papers, such as those of cabinet minister R.H.S. Crossman (MSS.154) and MP Maurice Edelman (MSS.125), with the records of various local political parties and a broad spectrum of political, union and business leaders and individuals, all supply further avenues of historical enquiry to the Centre's users. Similarly, to the political, social and economic fora in which business operated.

The individual is rarely eclipsed by the more evident 'institutional' material - a fact attested on one level by the increasing number of genealogical enquiries the Centre receives. Careers and personalities can be traced, and though these cases are generally confined to the more prominent, this is simultaneously a reflection of the nature of the records and the range of uses to which they might be put.

Electronic Access

Access to the records in the Centre's care remains of prime importance in the work undertaken by its staff and continues to be aided by the use of internationally recognised descriptive standards and the application of the latest technology in this field. Its adoption of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) in 1998 means that now more than 75% of its collections have been provided with collection-level descriptions in electronic form available through the Centre's web-pages and that all new finding aids are produced in electronic and paper format. The rapid development of electronic access has enabled participation in national projects such as the Higher Education Archives Hub and the incipient 'Access to Archives' project which, in turn, further and promote access to the Centre's finding aids and collections.

These initiatives bring together not only the collections of different repositories but help to consolidate (virtually and intellectually) possibly disparate parts of a 'single' collection and significantly related material and genres. In this the Centre is among the pioneering institutions, based mainly in the higher education sector, which herald a new era in the use and extended accessibility of archival collections.

* * *

The Modern Records Centre is particularly useful in the array of perspectives and research avenues its records can provide, and their ability to balance the 'top-down' model or vantage frequently dictated by the nature of the central records of corporate institutions. Thus, important sources for business history are by no means confined to those collections listed under 'Business and Management' in the Centre's guides. The range of its collections and their selection around key classes encourages a lateral as well as hierarchical approach to their use and discovery. This consequently enables thematic and comparative enquiries across collections and between countries, trades, institutions or industries. With organisations like the TUC, CBI, ITF and the EEF one can draw on international, national and local events and aspects whilst simultaneously accessing material garnered from an organisation that works with and for a membership and that interacts with, if not always alongside, central government and related organisations.

In this way the Centre, its collections, supporting finding aids and publications provide an array of useful source material that helps bridge the gaps and pitfalls engendered by the turbulent and unpredictable life cycles of corporate institutions and their records.

Dr Charles Fonge
Assistant Archivist
Modern Records Centre
University of Warwick

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