How to look for records of... Companies and businesses: further research

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1. Why use this guide?

This is a guide to the various kinds of company and business records held at The National Archives and how to access them. These are predominantly records of companies established since 1844 which have since been dissolved. You may find better sources for the history of a company or business in a local record office or in a company’s own archive. The National Archives does not hold files for Scottish and Irish registered companies. For a broader introduction to sources of company and business records beyond The National Archives, see our Business history held by other archives guide.

2. Essential information

What kinds of company records are held at The National Archives?

The vast majority of company records held at The National Archives are for registered companies and amongst these most are for companies which have now been dissolved. In the majority of cases, they are not a company’s own records but merely the government records of a company’s registration and dissolution. Registers for live companies are held at the Companies Registration Office, known as Companies House. When a registered company is dissolved, its files are kept by Companies House for twenty years, after which time they are either destroyed or transferred to The National Archives.

What are corporations and registered companies?

Companies acquire their legal status by incorporation. Over the years corporation status has been achieved either by royal charter or letters patent (chartered companies), Act of Parliament (statutory companies) or, since 1844, by registration (registered companies). Registration, under the various Companies Acts since 1844, has become the most common and the most important form of incorporation, with nearly all commercial companies nowadays being registered companies.

3. Company numbers

When companies register they are issued with certificates of registration and the numbers of these certificates used to identify companies. Though many records are now indexed online by the name of the company, many are also indexed by company number and it may be useful to establish a company’s number when conducting a search. To do this, you may wish to contact Companies House (see 6.1, below). Alternatively, you may wish to consult the three printed indexes to company numbers in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew:

1. Companies registered from 17 July 1856 to 30 June 1920 (2 volumes)
2. Companies on the register on 30 June 1930
3. Companies on the register on 30 June 1937

The entries in these indexes are arranged alphabetically by the legal title of the company. For example, Joseph Lucas Limited will be under ‘Joseph’ and not under ‘Lucas’.

4. Records of registration and dissolution

The registration of companies and businesses has been carried out under the direction of the Board of Trade and its successors, found at The National Archives under department code BT. Under the Joint Stock Companies Registration and Regulation Act, 1844, all companies formed after 1 November 1844 which had more than 25 members, or with shares which were freely transferable, were to be registered. The act did not apply to joint stock companies already in existence or to chartered and statutory companies, or to banking companies, charitable institutions, friendly societies and building societies. However, joint stock companies formed before November 1844 had to notify their existence by ‘formal’ registration and were allowed to register voluntarily. This legislation was then replaced by the Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856 and the countless Companies Acts since then. In general, the percentage of records kept has decreased over time, reduced to ever smaller samples as the number of companies registering has increased.

Records of companies dissolved after 1860 (BT 31)

Files for a sample of companies dissolved after 1860 and registered under the Joint Stock Companies Act 1856, and all subsequent Companies Acts, are held in record series BT 31. Search Discovery, our catalogue, by company name or number and restrict your search to records in BT 31. These files do not contain the internal day-to-day business records created by the running of a company. Many of the documents are of a legal and procedural nature and are primarily concerned with the winding-up arrangements prior to the dissolution of a company, and the company’s compliance with the Companies Acts. Specific documents often found in these files include memorandum and articles of association containing particulars of the company’s constitution; lists and stakes of shareholders; location of registered office; a register of directors; and annual returns.

Whether or not a company appears in these records can depend not only on whether it was selected as part of the sample kept, but on the changes in legislation down the years. From 1907 some private companies were exempt from a public return of accounts and won’t appear in the records at all. On the other hand, the files for public companies dissolved since 2 July 1960 have all been preserved.

Records of companies dissolved before 1860 (BT 41)

BT 41 contains the files of all Joint Stock Companies which were registered under the Act of 1844 and dissolved before 1856, and of those re-registered under the 1856 Act and dissolved before 1860. The files in BT 41 are arranged in alphabetical order by the company title and are divided into a General series and a Railway series. To find a company’s records, search our catalogue by company name, restricting your search to records in series BT 41. The files are likely to include some or all of the following: name, purpose and address of the business; names of the company’s promoters and their solicitors; a prospectus; details of capital, issue and allocation of shares and balance sheets. There is some overlap between BT 31 and BT 41, with about 2,000 companies registered under the 1856 Act appearing in both series.

Other records of registration and dissolution

Liquidators’ accounts for companies dissolved between 1890 and 1932 have been preserved separately and can be found in series BT 34. A sample selection of files for dissolved private companies which were exempt from a public return of accounts have been kept in series BT 95 and are arranged by the date of incorporation and company number ranges. They consist of a set of loose-leaf sheets which include details of the nature of the business.

Unincorporated companies such as partnerships and sole traders were not registered until the Register of Business Names was established in 1916. The register was abolished in 1981 but a sample of registration documents for businesses registered in 1916-1917, and every ten years from 1921 until 1981-1982 has been preserved in BT 253. The series is arranged in numerical order of the registered numbers.

Notices of receiverships, liquidations and bankruptcies appear in the London Gazette, available on The Gazette website.

5. Other records

A company’s own records

Though, in the main, The National Archives does not hold company records created by companies themselves, there are exceptions to this. In total there are 1,124 companies whose own records can be found in various departments (including RAIL and MT) throughout The National Archives, mainly those of former railway or canal companies, as well as other transport undertakings and companies which have passed into public ownership. For details of how to search for railway companies see the Railways research guide.

Records of chartered companies

The only chartered company records held in The National Archives are those of the various colonial chartered companies. The series list of HO 45 contains a subject heading ‘Charters’ which includes references to the granting of charters to various societies and associations.

Records of mutual societies

Mutual societies, which include building societies, friendly societies and industrial and provident societies, were covered by separate legislation, records of which can be found within The National Archives under department code FS. You can search FS by name of the society. However exceptions include:

Records Search by
Statutory documents of friendly societies removed from the register before 1875 (FS 1) or between 1876 -1912 (FS 3) County and register number. Use indexes in FS 2 and FS 4 to identify register numbers.
Annual returns for loan societies (FS 22) Year
Certificates of Registration for Trade Unions (FS 25) Registration number. Use indexes FS 25/2, 8 and 9 to identify registration numbers.

Records cover

  • the Registry’s administrative duties
  • annual reports of the chief registrar and abstracts of returns from friendly societies and loan societies (FS 32)
  • files relating to disputes referred to the chief registrar and industrial assurance commissioner (FS 20)
  • subject and policy files (FS 23)

Administrative records

Case files relating to individual companies and firms are in BT 221 and include records of audit, deeds of arrangement and deeds of assignment. Records relating to the bankruptcy of firms dating from 1891 onwards can be found in BT 226. The Board of Trade was also responsible for regulation of assurance companies, and returns made by assurance companies to the board for the period 1912 to 1968 can be found in ACT 1/104 and ACT 1/632.

Before 1863 correspondence on companies, including chartered companies, is to be found in the early general correspondence of the Board of Trade, in record series BT 1. Though they cover a broad range of subject matters, many unrelated to specific companies and businesses, it may also be worth trying a search by keyword in various records series covering the files of various departments of the board. These include BT 11 (from 1864), BT 22 (from 1867), BT 15 (from 1901) and BT 58 (from 1904).

Court records

Proceedings leading to the liquidation and winding-up of companies may be found among the records of the Court of Bankruptcy (in B 9 and B 10) and the Bankruptcy Commissions files (in B 3). Actions for the winding-up of companies as distinct from bankruptcy action, as well as debenture actions, were heard in the Court of Chancery, the Chancery Division of the Supreme Court of Judicature from 1873 and the Companies Court from 1890. Records of these proceedings can be found in C 26 (1849-1910), J 13 (1883-1995), J 137 (1924-1981) and J 14 (1891-1989). There are Companies Court Books in J 100, Registrars Notes in J 107 and Registers of Petitions in J 119.

6. Records and finding aids in other archives

Companies House

Records of live companies are held by Companies House, which has several regional Information Centres. This is where you can find the main index to company numbers and, at the Information Centre in Cardiff, a card index to companies dissolved before 1 January 1963. Each card in this index indicates whether the file has been destroyed or transferred to The National Archives, in which case it will be marked with the BT 31 reference, as well as the company number and the date of dissolution; if the company has been taken over it may also give details of the successor company. You should also contact Companies House for company registrations made under the Limited Partnership Act, 1907 and newspapers registered under the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act, 1881.

A company’s own records

When a business becomes insolvent and ceases trading its books and papers become the property of its creditors. They are represented in the cases of registered companies by either a receiver or liquidator and in the case of unregistered partnerships or sole traders by the Official Receiver or Trustees appointed by the Court. Where a business of either type is wound up voluntarily by its shareholders or partners the company’s records still remain the property of the company. The records, as the property of either the company or its creditors, may have been destroyed, sold, retained, taken over by a successor, or else deposited in, or given to, a record repository. In many cases, company records are destroyed once a company is dissolved but there are exceptions.

Other useful organisations

You may find more useful information relating to companies and company records at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business and IP Centre at the British Library, the Insolvency Service and, for information on the registrations of mutual societies, including building societies and friendly societies, contact the Financial Conduct Authority which operates a Mutual Society Registration. If the company is based in Scotland, try the Business Archives Council of Scotland.

7. Further reading

There are two sets of publications, both available in The National Archives’ Library, which may prove useful as starting points for tracing the history of some companies, though neither gives the company number. The Stock Exchange Official Year-Book is an annual compilation of all companies quoted on the London Exchange (public companies), including statutory as well as registered companies. It gives the date of incorporation, which is an indication of the range in which its company number should appear, and usually the reason for the company’s formation and the names of its directors. Alternatively, The Register of Defunct Companies Removed from the Year-Book (two volumes up to 1960 and up to 1976-1977) gives the date of incorporation and dissolution.

For a broad introduction to company and business records see the following:

Orbell, John, A Guide to Tracing the History of a Business (Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2009)

Guide reference: Domestic Records Information 40