A Report of our Group Visit to the London Metropolitan Archives, 16 January
A visit to the London Metropolitan Archives Business Collections and Pension Archive may not sound the most stimulating afternoon out, but those members who did attend were treated to a glimpse of a treasure trove of historical and genealogical gems.
It is easy to think of a business collection being little more than a list of dull company financial and employee records. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the archivist stressed that not only have few such records have survived, but are mostly subject to the 100 year privacy rules. Whereas there is a wealth of people information in other ‘unofficial’ documents such as employee photographs, local authority licensing and building records, factory production records, company sports club records, etc etc etc. Just one example of an unusual source of names came from the County of London Electricity Company archives. They regularly published a news magazine throughout the Second World War, listing employees who had been called up for active service, taken prisoner of war, were missing or had been killed in action. These magazines also provided a sharp reminder of some of the wartime hardships when, for example, they apolo-gised for the size of the magazine because they couldn’t obtain enough paper!
Many readers will be aware of the extensive Sun Insurance records held by the LMA’s sister library at the Guildhall, listing policy holders and their addresses. I always assumed, erroneously, that these policies only applied to London, but in fact the Sun Insurance records also cover other parts of the UK. However, for the historian, there are even more fascinating documents in the Sun records. For example, we had the privilege of looking at a thick notebook written in 1868, from their Damascus office, describing that town in the utmost detail, yet most succinctly. Water supplies; abundant. Housing; miserable in the Christian and Jewish quarters. The ledger went on, page after page, to describe in detail the businesses, building construction, the infrastructure and a host of other information. Where else could one find such a detailed contemporaneous account of life in Damascus at that time.
Space does not allow a description of the many other examples that the archivist had provided for our interest, but clearly time spent exploring the LMA catalogue for such unusual and unex-pected records could be rewarding for both the historian and the genealogist. To help in this task, the LMA are producing a Guide To Business Records later this year.
We were also treated to a glimpse behind the scenes of the conservation work that is constantly being undertaken. One example that we were able to see, and almost touch, was a mediaeval Royal Charter of one of the City Livery Companies. One thing that become clear, talking to the conservator, was that in spite of the development of modern scientific materials and processes, conservation was still very much an art. But they still use handmade mulberry paper which, ap-parently, cannot be obtained anywhere else in the world except Japan. Its principal properties being it’s light weight and great strength from its fibrous construction.
Neither were there any standard conservation procedures, other than to do the minimum; conservation, not restoration. Each document’s requirement was unique and only decided after it had been examined. Conservation practice has changed over the decades to today’s minimalist ap-proach which comprises just enough to support the document. The main object being to reduce long term damage and to ensure repairs are reversible. Indeed, much earlier conservation work now requires revisiting because of the further damage it caused.
A fascinating afternoon well spent and I would commend this visit to everyone should the opportunity arise to repeat it in the future.
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