England Business Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Business Records

Business records are useful sources for any ancestor who was an owner, director, investor, shareholder, manager, employee, customer or client, borrower, creditor or supplier of goods and services (Probert). This covers a lot of ancestors, and whether you need specific information or simply background material about an ancestor’s locality then the records of businesses and companies can provide details. Probert’s book (Company and Business Records for Family Historians, 1994) and the Watts brothers’ article (Company Records as a Source for the Family Historian. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 21 #2, page 44-54) were written specifically for family historians and have large numbers of great examples of details given in business records.

Davies, in her work as researcher for an industrial historian, has found that business history is often indivisible from family history. Her article (Business Archives as a Source of Family History. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 14 #10, page 332-341), although 40 years old, is still apposite and conveys the enthusiasm found in businesses to publish their history in order to gain prestige for their product or service. Her stories of rescuing archival material headed for the dumpster (tip) or boiler house, and the genealogical material contained therein, are well worth reading.

Armstrong and Jones (Business Documents: Their Origins, Sources and Uses in Historical Research, 1987) is a useful overview of the origins, sources and uses of business documents in historical research.

Sole Traders and Partnerships

Until well into the 19th century most businesses operated as sole traders or simple partnerships, with registered companies hardly existing before 1900. The articles of partnership set out a definite period in which the two people would carry on the business, and at the expiry of this they would either dissolve the partnership or re-form it, perhaps under a new name. The London Gazette listed dissolutions from about 1750 (usually with the new partnership name) and there is a cumulative index for 1785-1811 at Guildhall Library. Benbrook describes the website of the Gazette. To give an idea of numbers Camp (Businesses and Their Records. Family Tree Magazine Vol. 15 #3, page 21-22, 1999) states that there were over 1,800 partnerships dissolved in 1811 alone. Camp (Bills, Bonds and Mortgages. Family Tree Magazine Vol. 19 #7, page 4-6, 2003) also writes on how our ancestors went about financing a business and mortgaging property.

Companies

There is an index to all presently-existing companies, including those dissolved in the previous 20 years, at Companies House in London. Search for records of 1.8 million companies at their website. The registration number obtained there will give access to administrative records relating to owners, directors and sometimes shareholders. Other indexes of existing and dissolved companies are described by Orbell (A Guide to Tracing the History of Business, 1987), and Probert (Company and Business Records for Family Historians, 1994). A good reference library will have Who Owns Whom which enables one to track down old firms which have been taken over or merged with new ones.

As an example, FHL film 0087890 contains a list of railway shareholders for 1846 (chart shown below).

Chart: Railway Shareholders 1846
The Reference Number indicates which railway company.

NAME
DESCRIPTION
ABODE
REF #
£ total
DANCE, William
Artist
17 Park Place, Highbury
123, 279
5,000
DANDISON, William
Wine merchant
Barnsley
456
3,750
DANDO, Joseph
Hat manufacturer
Asby Down, Bristol
463
3,500
DANDO, Nathaniel
Hat maker
42 Cheapside
102
2,000
DARBYSHIRE, John jun.
Calico printer
9 St. John’s Place, Manchester
507
2,500
DARGAN, William
Contractor
Belfast, Co Antrim
243
5,000
DARLING, James Stormonth
Writer to the signet
55 Northumberland St., Edinburgh
62
6,875
DASHWOOD, Charles James Augustus
Captain in the army
3 Westbourne St., Hyde Park, London
126
3,120
DASHWOOD, Francis
Gentleman
9 Seymour Place, May Fair, London
405, 435
7,600

Histories of Businesses

The Business Archives Council holds several thousand business histories covering all types of commerce and industry in the UK. Their general website and Business Archive specific links are easily found.

TNA research guide D122 is a useful digest of archives and sources for business histories. Dawe’s classic article (London Business House Histories. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 11; Part 1 in #6 page 201-207; Part 2 in #7 page 235-241) emphasizes how to trace London merchants and his sources are still relevant, but much has been done in preservation of business archives and indexing since 1952. Goodall (A Bibliography of British Business Histories , 1987) and Zarach (Debrett’s Bibliography of Business History, 1987) have bibliographies of British histories.

A history written about a business will have plenty of names, not only of the bigwigs but also of employees and those who dealt with the firm. Some examples:

  • A History of Lewisham [Kent] Silk Mills (Macartney and West) lists 44 poor girls aged 9-14 apprenticed in 1825 to the owner, Robert Arnold, from three Westminster parishes (St. Margaret and St. John; St. George Hanover Square; and St. Martin-in-the-Fields), Lambeth; and Woolwich. There is also a list of employees 1913-1915 and a history of the Stanton family.
  • Kenricks in Hardware: A Family Business 1791-1966 by Church contains eight generations of this West Bromwich, Staffordshire family with portraits, drawings, photos and maps.
  • From an Acorn to an Oak Tree (Durtnell) is the story of a unique Kent house-building firm which has passed from father to son for 12 generations since 1591.
  • Essex and Sugar: Historic and Other Connections (Lewis) is a fascinating history, typical of hundreds of others giving the background to our ancestors’ lives.
  • Savills: A Family and a Firm, 1652-1977 (Watson) includes three major businesses—a surveyor’s firm, a brewery and the Shaw Savill and Albion Line of steamships. It includes genealogical tables and information on the related Swallow and Lydall families.

Business Registration and Licences

Licences for all kinds of businesses have been issued for hundreds of years, and although the actual licences may not survive the central register for them often does. A few examples which can be followed up mainly in local archives include:

  • Pawnbrokers had to obtain an annual licence from the Inland Revenue—see Hudson ( Pawnbroking. An Aspect of British Social History , 1982) and The Pawnbrokers Gazette.
  • Registers of early car and motorcycle licences would be in county archives, as would those for sedan chairs, hackney carriages, horse cabs and ‘flies’.
  • Theatre licences.
  • Fishing licences.
  • Petroleum (gasoline) licences during wartime.
  • And many others.

Registration of Companies started in 1844 for companies with 25 or more shareholders whose shares were freely transferable. The minimum number of shareholders was reduced to seven in 1856 and all existing companies had to re-register. Partnerships and small companies do not appear in the Register of Companies but those from 1916-1981 may appear in the Register of Business Names at TNA, if they were trading under a name other than their own. TNA research guide D40 gives details of registration of companies and businesses.

Business Records

The largest listing of business archives is the Business Index at NRA (National Register of Archives) searchable. All administrative records of dissolved public companies and some private ones are here. Richmond and Stockford (A Survey of the Records of 1000 of the Oldest Registered Companies, 1986) did a survey of one thousand of the companies registered between 1856 and 1900 (and still operating in 1980) in 1986, and a smaller directory was published by Richmond and Turton (Directory of Corporate Archives) in 1992. County archives have many business records deposited by firms of solicitors (see Watts) or with family and estate papers. There is also the Stock Exchange’s Register of Defunct Companies.

Business records contain a variety of useful items for the family historian in addition to the firm’s business activities, including:

  • Day-to-day happenings in the firm in ledgers, daybooks and registers.
  • Career information such as hiring, promotion, disciplinary actions and salary.
  • Correspondence concerning employees.
  • House journals contain biographies, obituaries and miscellaneous family and firm events.
  • Signatures.
  • Mention of family relationships, places of residence and occupations.
  • Long service awards, and continuity of service amongst members of a family group.
  • Character references.
  • Applications for employment.
  • Information on customers.
  • Parentage, date of birth and education of young people under age 18.
  • Newspaper clippings of events.

A varied selection of examples follows:

  • If your ancestor had business dealings with Parliament then they will be recorded, for example in the accounts shown below.

Chart: Parliamentary Register Accounts 1799
[Thomson Gale website]

To make good to Robert HUDSON esq as a compensation for collecting papers necessary to form an appendix to the minutes of the evidence taken on the trial of Warren HASTINGS esq by order of the House of Lords
£547..12..0
To ditto to Mr. Richard JUPP and other architects, for making a survey at Somerset House
£800..1..0
To ditto to Mr. John SOANE, architect, for defraying the expences of journies to Winchester, to examine the state of the King’s house there, and for making estimates and drawings of the necessary repairs
. £98..19..0


The Staffordshire County Record Office guide contains just about anything you ever wanted to know (and some you didn’t) about some farms:

Manor Farm, Alrewas (John Upton) - Sales book 1854-1867, Outlay books 1854-1867, receipts and expenses ledger 1867-1879, Farm diary and cash account 1874-1875, bank receipts and payments books 1874-1879, sales and purchases account 1880, vouchers to account 1851-1873, wages books 1861-1863, memoranda books 1850-1875.

Hay Hill Farm, Biddulph Account for sale of effects 1896.
Forge Farm, Abbots Bromley (William Tompson) Accounts of produce sold and disbursements 1769-1795, general accounts 1758-1851, mares covered and cows bulled 1758-1765.


  • The records ofAtherton Bros. of Preston, Lancashire on fiche 6093006(1) contain letterbooks, production records, financial records and wages books 1882-194
  • The business records for Fry’s Chocolate Manufacturers 1819-1919 are on film 1788468 and include applications for situations 1865-1882, 1902-1915; girls employed 1892-1894; men and boys employed 1903-1919; wages books, management and office 1887-1890; and wages books, factory staff 1819-1871.
  • Not to be outdone, the life of women workers at Cadbury’s is described by Horn (Women Workers in the 1920s - Cadbury’s of Bournville. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 24 #9, page 399-402).
  • Two illustrated articles depict the records of the biscuit (cookie) manufacturers Peek Freans. Wheaton (Peak Frean Records. East Surrey Family History Society Journal Vol. 18 #3, page 12-14.) describes a search in the firm’s records at Reading University Archives, and Hibbert highlights Hannah Frean (Photographic Peek at Hannah Frean. Practical Family History #44 page 35-36.).
  • A privately-held coppersmith’s list of customers 1800-01 is transcribed in Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 10 #10, page 361-363.<br<
  • Some starting points for searches for other types of businesses are shown in the chart below and an Internet search will find many more.

The sections on the FamilySearch Catalog in which to find business records are LOCALITY - GREAT BRITAIN or ENGLAND or COUNTY or TOWN and then either - BUSINESS RECORDS AND COMMERCE or -INDUSTRIES.

Chart: Some Starting Points

Business
Sources
Accounting
Habgood (Firms of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales: A Guide to Historical Records, 1994)
Banking
Pressnell and Orbell (Guide to Historical Records of British Banking, 1985)describes existing records of over 600 British banks, whether surviving or defunct. Bank archivist Ashbee’s (The Archives of Some Great Banking Houses. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol. 17 #4, page 213-217)insight and examples from famous families are excellent.
Brewing
Richmond and Turton (The Brewing Industry: A Guide to Historical Records , 1990)
Chemicals
Morris and Russell (Archives of the British Chemical Industry 1750-1914: A Handlist, 1988)
Clothing
Adburgham (Shops and Shopping, 1800-1914: Where, and in What Manner the Well-Dressed Englishwoman Bought Her Clothes, 1981)
Coal
Bevan (Guide to the South Wales Coalfield, 1974); Benson, Neville and Thompson (Bibliography of the British Coal Industry: Secondary Literature, Parliamentary and Departmental Papers, Mineral Maps and Plans, and a Guide to Sources, 1981)
Engineering
Lane (Register of Business Records of Coventry and Related Areas, 1977); Institute of Civil Engineers.
Farming
Staff Farm records
Gas
Institution of Gas Engineers
Pharmaceuticals
British Industry Pharmaceutical Records Database at Wellcome Library
Printing
Book Trade History Group at Reading University
Railways
Edwards (Railway Records: A Guide to Sources, 2001); Richards (Was Your Grandfather a Railwayman? A Directory of Railway Archive Sources for Family Historians, 2002)
Road Transport
Lowe (A Guide to Sources in the History of the Cycle and Motor Industries in Coventry 1880-1939, 1982)
Shipbuilding and Shipping
Ritchie (The Shipbuilding Industry: A Guide to Historical Records, 1992); Mathias and Pearsall (Shipping: A Survey of Historical Records, 1971)
Textiles and Leather
Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.