How records survive

The Project Archivist is able to work on the records held at Warwickshire County Record Office relating to the Willans Works engineering site at Rugby because someone made the effort to ensure that they survived.  Luckily there is correspondence about the records and their fate in the Willans collections and it gives an insight into what people did to rescue items.

The material covers the period from the 1870s to 2000 and charts the progress of the Willans & Robinson company that was founded in Thames Ditton in Surrey before moving to Rugby in 1897 and subsequently becoming part of English Electric, GEC and then Alstom. Things are about to go full circle again as some parts of Alstom are being taken over by the General Electric Company, so the collection shows the consolidations, mergers, takeovers and sell offs that have been a feature of the power generation industry in the 20th century.

One employee at Rugby took on the role of ‘Honorary Archivist’ in the 1980s and it is thanks to him that a lot of the records have survived. Some of the material he saved was in files marked as being rescued from the floor of the former accounts department. There were also frequent pleas in staff newsletters from the site’s library (which also managed the archives) asking employees to keep an eye out for records. The Honorary Archivist also wrote regular articles for the newsletters about the history of the works and answered historical enquiries. It is also thanks to a particular manager that the material was donated to the Record Office and now sits in its strongrooms.

John Williams (left), former Honorary Archivist of the Willans Works site

John Williams (left), former Honorary Archivist of the Willans Works site (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)


The Honorary Archivist corresponded with many people about the history of the Willans Works and also gathered useful information about the history of the company and material held elsewhere. For example he took part in a 1989 meeting held by archivists and historians about the GEC archives then held at the GEC Marconi site near Chelmsford. The Boaters & Bright Sparks Project Archivist is doing similar work so that details of related archives held elsewhere are known about. Such as the Marconi collection at The Bodleian Library at Oxford (transferred from Chelmsford) that includes records relating to Willans, English Electric and GEC and again highlights the complex histories of many of the companies in the power generation industry.

Chart showing the complex roots of GEC

Chart showing the complex roots of GEC (reproduced by kind permission of Alstom Ltd)


Items from the Trafford Park site at Manchester of Metropolitan-Vickers and British Westinghouse held at the Museum of Science & Industry in Manchester (MOSI) are also on the radar as these companies were once part of the GEC group along with the Willans Works. In fact items from the Willans Works collection that only relate to Trafford Park have just been transferred to MOSI.

A project similar to Boaters & Bright Sparks has also just started at Lincolnshire Archives, which holds the records of engineering firm Ruston & Hornsby that was once a sister company of the Willans Works when it was taken over by English Electric in 1966. It is now part of the Siemens group and is yet another example of a company that has moved around in the power generation industry. More details on the project can be found on the Lincs To The Past website.

Other items relating to the Willans Works are also held at Rugby Art Gallery & Museum and Rugby Library and the Record Office is transferring duplicate material to both these organisations so that people in Rugby have local access to some material.

The work by someone writing a company history of Willans & Robinson also led to correspondence with many people about tracking down records and the author’s unpublished manuscript and research files have been added to the Willans Works collection. This work of gathering information and records continues as one of the volunteers helping with the project has only recently retired from the Willans Works and still has links with the company that are proving to be beneficial.

So thank you to all those who have played a part in ensuring that the archive material has survived and is giving us the chance to fully appreciate the Willans Works’ history.