Archives and Research

National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside

J. Gordon Read, April 1991

Editor's Note: The following is the first of a planned series of articles on research in foreign archives. In future issues we hope not only to provide information on the research potential of these collections but also practical advice on access procedures and other problems in conducting research abroad.

The Archives Department of the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (NMGM) houses a unique collection of materials on the broad range of port activity and world shipping with which the city of Liverpool has long been identified. As an institution of international status in an international port of the first rank, the NMGM attracts scholars from around the world. While many have a specific interest in Liverpool's maritime history, others work in less obviously related topics—scholars of the American Civil War, for example, find our Fraser Trenholme records absolutely essential.

I know from my own research on emigration to the United States, Canada, and Australasia just how valuable the NMGM collections can be. I have found important personal emigration records that reflect the international dimension of the port's history. Although ironically the port's records take little official account of this human cargo—to the utter surprise of the majority of our inquirers—we have over 500 volumes of Dock Registers, showing the movements of every ship in and out of Liverpool since 1829. What a field for computer analysis!

The NMGM archives department consists of three main sections. First, there are the records of the Museums and Art Galleries as institutions, ranging from the expeditions of Captain Cook, to the private museum of William Bullock, opened in Liverpool in 1801. The Zoological Records go back to the private menagerie of a local nobleman, the thirteenth Earl of Derby at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, where a Safari Park is now located.

The Fine Arts records of this section, include those of the great entrepreneur, the first Lord Leverhulme, founder of the Unilever soap and food empire. It is the department's responsibility both to curate the archives and manage the current and semi-current records of what were originally three totally separate institutions, namely the museums and the two major art galleries in the present new setup, which began in 1986.

Secondly, there are those records which are closely associated with other collections in the NMGM, the Meccano and the BICC archives and artifact collection, and the archives of the Liverpool Naturalists' Field Club.

The photographic collections could almost constitute a separate section, since they include the outstanding Stewart Bale photonegative archive, one of the finest collections of shipping and architectural photographs in Europe.

And thirdly, there is the Maritime Records Center, the most public face of the archives department, offering a fascinating library and a unique series of archives covering the broad range of activity centered in Liverpool since the eighteenth century.

The Maritime Records Center includes a large maritime reference library and multimedia collections of archives. These include manuscripts, plans and drawings, photographs, ephemera, tapes, films, and videos. A selection of the library stock is available on open shelves. But, it is the "reserve stock," which includes the rare books, and all the other types of material mentioned above, which is distinctive. Indeed, in some instances, it is absolutely unique and therefore will never be on open access on principle.

The Center library contains the library of the Liverpool Nautical Research Society and the research collections, including some archives, of the Society. It also includes libraries of such benefactors as W. McQuie Mather, libraries of shipping companies like Ocean and of business associations such as the Liverpool Underwriters Association. This is supplemented by publications obtained in exchange from other institutions, acquired on study trips abroad, those by miscellaneous gifts often presentations copies, and purchases of both new and old books.

The virtually complete set of Lloyds' Registers has been compiled partly from shipping company libraries and has only recently been fully checked. The series of Lloyds' Lists dating from 1835 are the second most complete in England and came from the Liverpool Underwriters' Association library. The series is, however, suffering from age and overuse. Such series are kept up to date usually by purchase.

Books are acquired relating to general maritime history with an obvious priority towards merchant shipping and particularly that which involves the Port of Liverpool.

We plan to keep our library up to date in published works in English on supranational figures such as Drake, Nelson, and Cook as well as such world figures as Columbus.

We have acquired a considerable number of publications relating to emigration, mostly via Liverpool. Of particular importance are publications of the Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland. Some of these are reprints of earlier publications now virtually unobtainable, but others are original works of scholarship. Through scholarly contacts, we have also acquired emigration bibliographies at no cost.

Pamphlets, offprints, theses, dissertations, and microfilms are also acquired on the same basic principles as our printed bookstock. However, the policy is taking time to follow out in detail and is costly.

We also have guides to relevant record offices, a selection of books on family history, and certain basic local history works to provide background.

Research holdings are extremely important. The notes of Cochrane and Captain Beard are well known as banks of ships' data, but more needs to be known about the scope and limitations of these secondary sources. These are perhaps the two best-known elements in the Liverpool Nautical Research Society's resources. Curators' research files can also be important, but these can only be made available gradually.

Of those unique archives in traditional, i.e. written format, without doubt the most important are the Registers of Merchant Ships. These start in 1739 as the Wool Act Register, and continue for the mid- and latter eighteenth century as the Plantation Registers, which were published in microform by E.P. Publishing while still in the custody of H.M. Customs. In 1786 a new series began which is regarded as one of the finest of its kind in the whole of Europe. The first register and part of the second have been published in the Chetham Society series, vol. (1967). These registers, often huge volumes, are enrolled documents of title ships. They tell us nothing about voyages, cargoes, crews, or passengers, but they do tell us who were the owners.

A national program for the partial computerization of these records was launched about ten years ago but did not come to full fruition. Such a program, to document owners as well as masters and builders, will be a vital step in early worldwide merchant shipping studies.

Valerie Burton, the Maritime Museum's Mather Research Fellow, published an excellent article in Business Archives, No. 54 (1987), on the holdings of the Maritime Records Center at that time. Although now slightly out of date, the article provides an excellent description of the records of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company and its antecedents. Since the article's publication, the Pilotage records from 1766 have been acquired. The cataloguing of these two archives alone is a vast, long-term task complicated by the fact that each was unique in its organization.

Most Liverpool shipping companies of any size are represented and it is our policy to hold comprehensive archives in the whole area of the activities of the port of Liverpool. But some archives just do not survive in any quantity. Examples are the White Star archive—only a few files exist; and those of Guyon, National, and Dominion Line are totally lost and as for the many tramp/single-ship companies, fragments survive in such miscellaneous collections as Bryson and also as subsidiary archives in the Ellerman Line archives, also acquired since Dr. Burton's article. The situation regarding shipbuilding records is even worse. Hardly any records survive of the North bank of the Mersey yards, such firms as Roydens, Graysons, etc. and one specification book only from Jones, Quiggin, builders of the Banshee. As for records of the brokers, forwarding agents, stevedoring companies etc., a few examples have been located and rescued but often one finds that the same story is repeated, namely that no one has set any value on the preservation of the archives. A survey should have been made in the 1920s.

We attach great importance to records of shipping associations. It is probably in this area that our success has been most significant. We hold records of the Liverpool Shipowners' Association (sailing ships). Unfortunately the earliest records have not yet come to light. The Liverpool Steam Ship Owners' Association, on the other hand provides virtually complete coverage from its foundation in 1858. Last year the Employers' Association of the Port of Liverpool was wound up after seventy-five years of operation. We had already received two installments of the archives and we were able to take the final batch as well. This archive extends from 1911 through the two world wars and includes the various joint committees which were intended to smooth relations between employers and employees. Records of the Employers' Labour Association date from 1890, the year following the National Dock Strike. We are very keen to acquire a copy of the book James Sexton-Agitator, the autobiography of the great nineteenth-century dockers' leader. It rarely turns up in catalogues!

Linking with these records are those of the commodity trading (sugar, grain, and provisions) associations. These are kept in our reserve store but may be made available through the Maritime Records Center. Warehousing company records are also held in the reserve store and it would be good if there was more representation of the timber trade. Dr. Burton refers extensively to our marine insurance records and notes the Danson archives, also in reserve.

The records of maritime charities give a human dimension to the somewhat triumphalist story of continuous progress through the nineteenth century. The Royal Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution is very comprehensive and dates from 1869. It reveals in a unique way the hazards and traumas of the family life of a seafaring man. We expect to receive the archives of the training ship Conway soon and we already hold some records of Indefatigable, as well as the records of the Sailors' Home and the Lancanshire Sea Training Homes at Wallasey. Much could be made of these records by the social historian and they are of more than regional interest.

Our photographic collections are well-known. The McRoberts ship photographic collection is ever popular, but is a pity that it contains only prints and not negatives. The purchase of the famous Stewart Bale archive places our photographic holdings into the international class. However, the need for restoration of this archive and for a photographic conservation program makes access virtually impossible at the present time. The Bale Collection covers much more than shipping. The work done for the area's outstanding architectural practices is of the first rank.

There has long been a slowly growing collection of oral history tapes. The South Docks Survey, which includes not only research, but a large photographic archive, also included many such tapes. Two more "survey" collections are expected this year, one being from the Social Studies Department of the University. This will illuminate the human side of port history in a unique way.

We have acquired a more comprehensive range of shipping records than probably any other repository in the world, but there is much more that we need. We would like to acquire more microfilms from the Public Record Office in London, and microfilms of Lloyds' Lists, and the Maritime Press generally, including Customs Bills of Entry. Microfilms of the Cope Line records in Philadelphia would also be of great interest.

Indeed we would welcome opportunities to collaborate with museums and archives in the United States, since so many shipping archives relevant to Liverpool are in those repositories. American cities were never bombed as British cities were in 1941, so presumably more survives. And of course, the indexing of this vast and varied material is an enormous task. We ask for the patient understanding of all our visitors through its progress. We look forward to increasing contacts with American scholars and archives as we advance through the 1990s.

J. Gordon Read is curator of archives at the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside in Liverpool.