The importance of volunteers

Cataloguing the Willans Works archive material at Warwickshire County Record Office for the Boaters And Bright Sparks project is revealing some interesting facts, and this work is being greatly enhanced because of the efforts of volunteers who are helping with the collection. Their work on the records of the Rugby-based engineering firm Willans & Robinson and its successor companies is helping to show the importance of its pioneering role in the manufacture of steam engines and turbines for electricity generation.

The volunteers are also helping to tell the stories of some of the people who worked at the site and this aspect of the project will be looked at in the next blog. The collection covers the period from the 1870s to the early 2000s and takes in the subsequent takeovers by English Electric, GEC and Alstom. One of the main features is the series of negatives from the company’s photographic department. Volunteers have already made great progress in identifying these by using the log books for jobs carried out by the department.

Logbooks from the Willans Works photo department

Logbooks from the Willans Works photo department
© Warwickshire County Record Office

Details from the log books are being entered into a spreadsheet so that the information from them can help identify prints made from the negatives. The images range from engines, turbines, parts and tools to office and works departments and from engines and turbines installed on site in power stations to company social events such as dinner dances, children’s Christmas parties and sports and gala days.

The photographic department kept negatives up until the 1990s when the work flow was digitised. Other volunteers are helping to re-box the negatives, especially the glass plate ones. There are thousands of these and under the supervision of the Conservation team at the Record Office the volunteers are checking the physical condition of the negatives, cleaning them and then repackaging in archival acid-free boxes that also support the negatives in a much better way than the original packaging does.

Glass plate negatives re-packaged by volunteers

Glass plate negatives re-packaged by volunteers
© Warwickshire County Record Office

Volunteers have also started work on some of the apprentice records that begin in 1893. The initial focus is on the material covering the First World War period and some preliminary research has led to information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on one of the apprentices that left to join the armed forces and was subsequently killed. A register of workmen covering the period 1898-1902 is another record being studied by a volunteer and it shows the previous employers and trades of men joining the company. It indicates how men were being transferred from the firm’s original site at Thames Ditton site as machinery was moved from there to Rugby. This information will be extremely useful for researchers looking at the social and economic impact of the company on the town.

Technical drawings also feature heavily in the collection and some of these are being identified by volunteers – especially items that require conservation work. An unpublished manuscript of a Willans & Robinson history and its associated research files has also been donated and a volunteer is checking these to weed out photocopies made from records already in the collection. The manuscript is being typed and it is hoped that the history can be published as it will provide a detailed look at the history of the company before it was first taken over in 1917. Volunteers are also helping to extract information from sales contracts with local councils and companies for supplying engines and turbines to generate electricity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – an important part of Willans & Robinsons’ initial success. These contracts also show how the company got work overseas including in India, Australia, China, Belgium and elsewhere.