The Public Record Office



The Public Record Office and the Record of Limited Companies: Some Problems and Issues

Gill Cookson

Recent attempts to track down the records of some small and obscure local property development companies led me into a quagmire about PRO policies on record retention. It emerged that some of these records had been destroyed, and despite the PRO's openness about their policies and willingness to discuss the issue, I am concerned that material is being discarded which may turn out to be historically valuable. The issue is complex. As I understand the situation, there is still a threat that records of private companies, and that extraneous documentation not microfiched, may be permanently lost.

The PRO web-site has a page dealing with their approach to the selection of records for preservation. This page gives some background to the operational selection policy programme and includes a link to their industrial policy guidance:

http://www.pro.gov.uk/recordsmanagement/selection/default.htm

The PRO's Project Manager, Susan Graham (susan.graham@pro.gov.uk), says that these selection policy guidelines are a working document which can be revised at any time should it prove necessary, and that comments are welcome. ABH members may wish to put their views directly.

This is a summary of the location of the records of limited companies, and of the PRO's current policy:

Companies House:

The records of any company registered since the introduction of limited liability in 1856 may still be lodged at Companies House, depending on the company's current status. This can be confirmed by e-mailing enquiries@companies-house.gov.uk, who will also provide a reference number, details of any past name changes or take-overs, and year of incorporation (and where appropriate, of dissolution). For companies still in existence, or which have been amalgamated into or taken over by a surviving company, or dissolved within the last twenty years, Companies House retains records from the date of incorporation. These may include annual financial returns, memoranda of association, lists of shareholders and directors, details of shares held in other companies, increases in capital, and so on, at various points in its history. There may of course be omissions, for instance where annual returns were not submitted. Companies House can usually supply a fiche for £5.00 or £8.00 containing much of the information they hold on individual companies, although more historical and bulky elements (e.g. early shareholders' lists) are not usually included on the fiche. It is possible to obtain copies of this extraneous documentation for a flat fee (e.g. £10 per document, which can run to many pages) though the price list is not very clear and it would be wise to enquire more closely for specific advice. See 'products and services' in http://www.companies-house.gov.uk, bearing in mind that they are geared up to deal with modern business people rather than historians. Something called an Archive Search is advertised for £20 but it's unclear what this might be.

Public Record Office:

Twenty years after a company has been dissolved, its records are offered by Companies House to the Public Record Office. In practice this means that records are physically transferred at any time between twenty and thirty years after the dissolution of the company. At present the PRO has records relating to companies dissolved in 1971 or earlier, while those from 1972 onwards are still at Companies House. Readers are advised to consult the PRO's on-line catalogue (http://www.pro.gov.uk/finding/default.htm) for specific information on which records are actually physically available at the PRO.

The records accepted by the PRO are in the Board of Trade class BT 31, which is searchable online. However, by no means all records offered are retained. The PRO's selection criteria changed during the course of the twentieth century, to take account, they say, of the changing nature of the records and feedback from researchers. The current situation they summarise as follows:

1. We have taken all the records of dissolved companies registered between 1856 and 1931 and dissolved before 1932.

2. We have taken some records of companies incorporated between 1856 and 1900 and dissolved between 1933 and 1948.

3. We have taken or will take all records of public companies incorporated up to 1974 and dissolved between 1948 and 1980 and we have taken or will take a sample of the records of private companies.

4. For companies registered after 1974 we are taking all the records.

From 1974 onwards we are taking all the records because they are on microfiche and, therefore, we are able to store them. Pre-1974 records are on paper and the PRO has taken the view that the research benefits to be gained from preserving all the records (as opposed to a sample) does not justify the cost of their long-term preservation. Deciding to sample records rather than to preserve all of them, may limit the research opportunities for those interested in the history of a particular company but it does still enable general research on the economy or particular sectors of the economy. (And we do preserve all records about public companies, which are those most likely to attract researchers interested in a specific company.) As the number of researchers likely to be interested in the history of any one private company is quite small, it is difficult to justify the preservation of all these records."

Furthermore, when company records are accepted by the PRO, some of the contents are discarded. For companies dissolved between 1966/67 and 1974, the following papers were stripped from the files of dissolved companies prior to transfer to the PRO:

i) all share allotments

ii) all annual returns except for the first and last full annual return and intermediate full annual returns for every tenth year (or nearest year for which they are available).

From 1974 onwards the microfiche record contains a complete set of all records of dissolved companies, although these presumably lack the extraneous material mentioned above. (For companies dissolved before 1966/7, a different policy was followed, about which the PRO can supply information if required.)

[Editor's note: Susan Graham of the PRO will discuss the policies of the PRO on historical business records in the next issue of Business History News]

Back to the links page.