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Sources for Business History

Individual businesses

Information about the Modern Records Centre's archive holdings relating to British motor manufacturers is included in a separate guide to sources.

The largest single still-accruing business archive in the Centre is that of Rubery Owen Holdings Ltd. This casts light not only on the group's manufacturing activities, but also the life of its chairman and joint managing director, Sir Alfred Owen, relations with local government and the region and chart the "post-war expansion and contraction of ... a proto-multinational corporation." Like many business collections at the Centre, it holds a wealth of material from parent, subsidiary and associate companies.

Organisations concerned with business management

These include the Institute of Administrative Management and the Operational Research Society. The archive of the latter is one of a number of collections relating to the history, development and practice of operational research and to pioneers and practitioners in this field (collectively known as the Operational Research Archive).

Trade unions

The records of trade unions are an obvious source for those interested in industry, commerce, the economy, business and industrial relations. The Centre holds an extensive range of trade union archives dating from the eighteenth century to the present from national (and some local) organisations. These include the registry files of the Trades Union Congress, which date from 1920. A crucial source for furnishing an alternative perspective to that provided by governmental, ‘business’ or ‘corporate’ records, trade union records - besides alleviating a ‘top-down’ perspective - can also provide an important vantage on thematic subjects, from issues of gender or race to pieces of legislation, industrial safety or immigration. Consequently, the TUC archive "is probably the most important single primary source for British labour history."

The late Arthur Marsh talked of a "pot pourri of trade union types and objectives" and whether one believes their existence and activities "incompatible with the pursuit of modern business objectives and . . . a major obstacle to economic progress and individual freedom" or not, the number and the importance of their records and the light they cast on political, economic and social culture is indisputable.

Employers’ organisations and trade associations

Like the trade unions, these organisations are important for their role (intentional or otherwise) as intermediary between their members and government. From their rapid formation in the post-war period they have played an integral part in business-government relations, not to mention economic performance, research and development, education and training in industrial and commercial society.

Certainly their importance in the study of industries, industrial districts and individual associations has been recognised, and in collections such as those of the Confederation of British Industry and its predecessors (including the Federation of British Industries) and the Engineering Employers' Federation, there are records more specifically related to particular business sectors. That their records extend beyond government-business relations is not always appreciated but as the range of CBI directorates indicates, there again exists significant scope for comparative and thematic approaches. Nor is the nation-state the dominant focus, the CBI also having its Smaller Firms and Regional Councils Directorate, with its constituent councils, policy groups and working parties. A regional aspect is very much in evidence in the records of the EEF, through its publications and local agreements and in the records of its predecessors and regional associations, some of which form part of the archive. The papers of the Coventry and District Engineering Employers' Association constitute a particularly good example. They firstly include a large series of the proceedings of local and works conferences from 1913, a series which also demonstrates local links with unions such as the Transport and General Workers' Union and Amalgamated Engineering Union (both of whose archives are at the Centre). Files regarding the association’s links with Alfred Herbert Ltd, 1909-29, papers on wage rates in the region during the 1940’s and 1960’s, as well as material on the Coventry Toolroom Agreement of 1941 and the Coventry Toolroom dispute of 1971 also form part of these papers, which demonstrate the breadth of interaction between a variety of institutions, individuals and interests on an equally varied array of economic, social, political and institutional stages.