This research guide is intended as an introduction to the key records for business and industry held at The National Archives and other archives in the UK.
2. Searching for records
Search Discovery, our catalogue, to find records from The National Archives and over 2,500 archives across the UK.
Your search results will display details from a range of archives. You can then refine your results.
Use the 'record creator' tab to find where records created by a particular business or individual are held. Alternatively use the filters to find where records are held which mention the business/individual you searched for.
For further tips on searching see our catalogue help pages.
The majority of historic business and trade records in the UK are held by local record offices. Use the Find an archive tool to find contact details of archives/repositories across the UK. This tool also includes details of some repositories abroad which hold substantial collections relating to British history.
3. Records held at The National Archives
The National Archives holds business records from several sectors of the economy which were nationalised in the mid twentieth century. The predecessor companies of British Rail (series RAIL 1 -1204) and other parts of the transport network are particularly strongly represented.
The main series to examine is that of the Board of Trade (BT) and of successor and related bodies concerning government responsibilities for trade and industry. Records relating to the central functions of the board include Companies Registration Office files of dissolved companies. These are held in series BT 31 and BT 41, although they have been weeded more extensively than their Scottish counterparts.
The records of many businesses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were submitted as exhibits in cases heard in the courts of equity and never reclaimed. Some of these records, series C 103 -C 114, are listed in Chancery Masters' Exhibits, Part One and Part Two (List and Index Society, volumes 13 and 14, 1966). Further records are in series J 90.
4. Accessions to Repositories
Each year The National Archives contacts over 250 of the major collecting institutions in the British Isles in order to discover which major and unusual accessions have been received. This information is added to Discovery, our catalogue. It is also edited and used to produce a number of thematic digests, including one relating to business, science, maritime history and transport records. The digests are made available online and distributed for publication in a number of learned journals and newsletters. Further information is available at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/accessions/.
5. Relevant repositories
The following list includes some of the repositories and institutions that hold major collections relating to business history.
British Library, Sound Archive, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
The National Sound Archive holds a growing collection of oral history records of participants in a variety of industries, most recently steel, financial services and the oil industry.
Dundee University Archives, Tower Building, Dundee DD1 4HN
Many collections relating to business in Scotland, especially engineering and textiles.
Glasgow University Archives Services, 13 Thurso Street, Glasgow G11 6PE
The principal centre for business records in Scotland, with particularly strong holdings for industry in the West of Scotland.
Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, PO Box 229, Whiteknights, Reading, RG6 6AG.
The Centre collects the records of farms, agricultural engineers and ancillary industries on a national basis.
Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Collections and Information Department, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester M3 4JP
A centre for the records of business in the North West. The engineering trades are particularly well covered.
National Records of Scotland, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh H1 3YY
The National Records of Scotland holds a wide range of business records. Also, like The National Archives, it holds a variety of business records that were produced in evidence in civil actions and not reclaimed; these are listed in Scottish Record Office Court of Session Productions c1760-1840 (List & Index Society, special series volume 23, 1987). In addition, the NRS holds the records of dissolved companies which were registered in Scotland in its class BT2.
National Maritime Museum, Manuscripts Section, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Holds the records of numerous shipping and shipbuilding companies.
PRONI holds extensive business collections. It also holds details of dissolved companies which were registered in Northern Ireland in class COM 40.
Tyne & Wear Archives, Blandford House, Blandford Square, Newcastle Upon Tyne NE1 4JA
A local authority record office particularly strong in shipbuilding and industrial records.
Victoria and Albert Museum, Archive of Art and Design, 23 Blythe Road, London W14 0QX
Holds the archives of many firms engaged in the manufacture and sale of furniture, textiles, precious metal wares and other areas in which design plays a prominent role.
Warwick University Modern Records Centre, University Library, Coventry CV4 7AL
Specialises in collections relating to the history of industrial relations. Holds the records of numerous employers' and trade associations, including the Confederation of British Industry. Motor manufacture and related industries form another primary collecting area.
6. Useful links
AIM25 is a major project to provide electronic access to collection level descriptions of the archives of over 50 higher education institutions and learned societies within the greater London area.
The Archives Network Wales (ANW) is an online index to archival collections held by record offices, universities, museums and libraries in Wales. The ANW provides information and descriptions of collections only including; corporate papers and business archives, personal papers and diaries of prominent literary, artistic, political or other figures (living and dead), estate archives, council, academic and church records. It is possible to search and browse these collections by person, place, subject, or repository - however, it does not provide access to online materials. The Archives and Records Council Wales is responsible for the ANW.
Founded in 1934, the objectives of the Council are to promote the preservation of business records of historical importance; supply advice and information on the administration and management of both archives and modern records and to encourage interest in the history of business in Britain.
BHE is an online bibliography on the history of specific businesses and industries in the UK. Accessible by subscription.
The British Library
The British Library has one of the most comprehensive collections of current and historical business information sources in the UK. It has long runs of company, trade and business directories and has actively collected published market research reports since the late 1970s (some earlier reports may also be found). The Library also has a major collection of trade literature, manufacturers' catalogues and promotional material which is particularly strong for the late 19th and early 20th centuries and for the period 1980 to 2000. A large collection of company annual reports is also held. For enquiries you can Ask the Reference Team in the first instance and your question will be forwarded to collection specialists as appropriate.
Holds information concerning live companies registered in England and Wales and brief details concerning dissolved ones. Although there are separate registers for Scotland and Northern Ireland this information is consolidated on their online database. References to assist in tracing statutory documents deposited in The National Archives are also available from Companies House. It is important to know the exact legal name of the company concerned. Indexes are arranged so that JG Kincaid & Co Ltd is alphabetised under J rather than K.
Files relating to dissolved companies have been transferred to respectively The National Archives, National Archives of Scotland and Public Record Office of Northern Ireland.
A constantly updated online resource for company information in the area of industry and manufacturing in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.
Described as the open database of the corporate world, Open Corporates offers the possibility of searching for over 50 million companies in 65 jurisdictions.
Scottish Archive Network (SCAN)
The Scottish Archive Network allows online searching of over 20,000 collections in 52 Scottish repositories.
7. Further reading
7.1 Business Reference
- John Armstrong and Stephanie Jones, Business documents, their origin, sources and uses in historical research (1987)
- Gordon Boyce and Simon Ville, The development of modern business (2002)
- Francis Goodall, Bibliography of British business histories (1987)
- DJ Jeremy (ed.), Dictionary of business biography (5 vols, 1984-86)
- John Orbell, A Guide to Tracing the History of a Business (1987)
- Eric D Probert, Company and Business Records for Family Historians (Federation of Family History Societies 1994)
- Anthony Slaven and Sydney Checkland (eds.), Dictionary of Scottish business biography 1860-1960 (2 vols., 1986-90)
- A Turton (ed.) Managing Business Archives (1991)
- Stephanie Zarach, Debrett's bibliography of business history (1987)
- The Stock Exchange Official Year-Book. Published annually since 1876 this deals with publicly quoted companies and gives an outline of their history and functions, though the details tend to be concise and formal
- Register of Defunct and Other Companies. Published annually this was a cumulative publication dealing with those companies removed from The Stock Exchange Official Year-Book. It gives only the barest details such as dates of registration and liquidation. The last year in which the company was listed is given. No separate issue of this publication has appeared since 1980 and the Register is now published as a supplement to The Stock Exchange Official Year-Book
- Macmillan's Unquoted Companies. Provides basic details and financial profiles of Britain's top 20,000 unquoted companies
- Kelly's Business Directory. The best single volume business directory with coverage of over 82,000 businesses. Published annually
- Who Owns Whom. United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. This is useful for linking subsidiaries to their parent companies, it includes many dormant companies
- The Red Book of Commerce or Who's Who in Business. No longer published, the Red Book appeared between 1906 and 1939. It differed considerably from all other such reference works in that the entries were not standardised and descriptions were often more vivid and informative than in other directories. Coverage of companies changed between issues and it is worth looking at different editions for a particular company
7.2 Guides to Archives
- Rebecca M Bailey, Scottish architects' papers. A source book (1996)
- Rosemary Boyns, Trevor Boyns and John Richard Edwards, Historical Accounting Records: A guide for archivists and researchers: London Society of Archivists
- Rita V Bryon and Terence N Bryon, Maritime Information: a guide to libraries and sources of information in the United Kingdom(3rd ed., 1993)
- Charles Ralph Clinker, Railway history sources: a handlist of the principle sources of original material with notes and guidance on its use (1976)
- HAL Cockerell and Edwin Green, The British Insurance Business: A Guide to its History and Archives (1994)
- CRH Cooper, 'The archives of the City of London Livery Companies and related organisations', in Archives 72 (1984)
- Jennifer Green, Philip Ollerenshaw and Peter Wardley, Business in Avon and Somerset: a survey of archives (1991)
- Wendy Habgood, Chartered accountants in England and Wales: a guide to historical records (1994)
- Patricia Hudson, The West Riding wool textile industry: a catalogue of business records from the sixteenth to the twentieth century (Edington, Pasold Research Fund Ltd, Pasold occasional papers vol.3, 1975)
- Patricia Hudson, The genesis of industrial capital: a study of the West Riding wool textile industry c.1750-1850 (1986)
- RM James, 'Brewing records: an inquiry and its lessons', in Archives VII (1965-66), pp.215-220
- Charles A Jones, Britain and the Dominions: a guide to business and related records in the United Kingdom concerning Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa (1978)
- S Kelly, 'Report of a survey of the archives of British commercial computer manufacturers 1950-1970' (Unpublished typescript, Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1985).
- Peter Mathias and Alan WH Pearsall, Shipping: a survey of historical records (1971)
- Peter JT Morris, Colin A Russell and John Graham Smith, Archives of the British chemical industry 1750-1914: a handlist (1988)
- The National Archives, Records of British business and industry 1760-1914: textiles and leather (HMSO, 1990)
- The National Archives, Records of British business and industry 1760-1914: engineering and metal processing (HMSO, 1994)
- John Orbell and Alison Turton, British Banking: a guide to historical records (2001)
- George Ottley, Railway history: guide to sixty-one collections in libraries and archives in Great Britain (1973)
- Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, The Ulster textile industry: a catalogue of business records in PRONI relating principally to the linen industry in Ulster (1978)
- Lesley Richmond, Juliet Stevenson and Alison Turton, The Phamaceutical Industury: a guide to historical records (2003)
- Lesley Richmond and Alison Turton, The brewing industry: a guide to historical records (1990)
- Lesley Richmond and Bridget Stockford, Company archives: a survey of the records of 1000 of the first registered companies in England and Wales (1986)
- Lesley Richmond & Alison Turton (eds.), Directory of corporate archives (Business Archives Council, 4th ed., 1996)
- LA Ritchie, The shipbuilding industry: a guide to historical records (1992)
- Peter Scott, 'Sources on communities of British manufacturing plants and their activities' in Business Archives Sources and History (2004)
- Alexis Weedon and Michael Bott, British book trade archives 1830-1939: a location register (1996)
- Chirstine Wiskin 'Women, business and credit: sources for the historian' in Business Archives Sources and History (1997)