Wednesday, November 07, 2007

A piece of research

This is a long story about a very small piece of the research I am doing into my husband's grandfather. I am posting it all at one go, as that is how I think it needs to be read.


My husband's paternal grandfather left behind him a substantial personal scrapbook. This book is presumed to have passed into the hands of his son , and then to his son's daughter, gaining further additions on its way, until it came into my husband's hands on the death of his childless cousin. At his death I took charge of it for the time being.

Tucked into the book were two letters written by Grandfather Taylor to his son in 1893 and 1897, from Glasgow. They were written on the headed notepaper of The Engine Boiler and Employers’ Liability Insurance Company Limited, and one of them bore the name M. Longridge as the Chief Engineer. I knew Longridge House in Manchester to have been the Head Office of the British Engine Insurance Company, for which both my husband and his father had worked, and I saw a possibility that his grandfather had also been working for the company, back in its very early days when it had a different name.

I set about finding out. I searched on the internet for the name of the company on the notepaper, and immediately found a notice published in 2006 by the Royal Sun Alliance Insurance Company, of which British Engine has long been a subsidiary. This confirmed that one of the early names of British Engine had indeed been the name on the letterheads.

Further on-line searches revealed the existence at the British Library of the following publication by Norman Edwards:

“100 years of British Engine: the centenary story of British Engine Insurance Limited, founded in Manchester, England, on 12 November, 1878.”

I enquired about obtaining a photocopy, but the copyright charges on top of the copying costs seemed to make it prohibitive. I could of course go to the Reading Room at St Pancras in London and see the book there, but I preferred to try all other sources first.

I set about trying to obtain possession of, or at least the loan of, a copy. I put in a request at my local lending library, realising that it would probably take a long time for them to come up with a copy, if at all. An on-line search for a second-hand copy produced no result.

I then wrote to British Engine itself at Longridge house, which was the address I had on file. Unsurprisingly my letter was returned to me by the Post Office, as Longridge House had been demolished in 1996 after the IRA bombings in Manchester - a fact which I had overlooked!

I had meanwhile found information on the National Archives website about a collection of records relating to British Engine in a private repository. The scope of the collection was described as: 1855-1985: minutes, share records, accounts, insurance records, staff records, correspondence, etc. “Staff records” looked promising. On enquiry, however, I was only directed to the registered office of the company, which was the same as that for Royal Sun Alliance.

I wrote there - no response. I went to Companies House on line and obtained the name of the Secretary of the Company (on payment of a charge of £1, I think), and wrote to him - no response.

Meanwhile the local library informed me that they had traced copies of the book at The British Library, at Manchester Metropolitan University, and at John Rylands University, but that none of them was prepared to lend their copy.

And then I struck lucky. Still casting about on the web, varying my search terms from time to time, I came across a listing for British Engine on the website of the Greater Manchester County Records Office. It turned out eventually to be the record in a ‘private repository’ which was referred to on the National Archives website - not very private, as it turned out.

I emailed them to enquire about the “100 years of British Engine” book, and about any records they might have showing whether my husband’s grandfather had worked for the company in its early days. I gave details of the names of my husband, his father and his grandfather, and approximate dates. I received an exciting email in response, saying that they had a photocopy of the book, and some staff records that might be of interest to me. Attached was an easily recognisable photograph of my husband's father, which clearly established that they had the records I was looking for.

We agreed that they should do the research on my behalf, and I sent them a cheque for £18, their charge for an hour’s work. On 30th October, within 12 days of my posting the cheque, their Information Officer had sent me a detailed report of her findings, and a considerable package of photocopied documents. These represented, I am sure, a great deal more than an hour’s work. I had begun my search around the beginning of July.

I am disappointed by the discourtesy of the registered office of British Engine / Royal Sun Alliance, from whom I would have expected at the very least a letter to say they were unable to help me. In contrast, the service provided by the Greater Manchester Records Office, and other such offices I have contacted, is not only efficient but apparently enthusiastic and generous as well, and compensates richly for the reluctance of other sources.

There is ample evidence in the papers they sent me to show that my husband, his father and his grandfather, gave between them over a hundred years' of service to the British Engine Insurance Company, grandfather having apparently been closely involved in the formation of the company from around the late 1860s, and my husband having retired in 1981.

They could not send me the book for copyright reasons, but I no longer needed it. However I may still decide to go to the St Pancras Reading Room of the British Library, to see “100 years of British Engine”, as my interest in the early days of the company has been titillated by the extracts of papers which I have been sent. It is an ironic thought, though, that the book having been published in 1978, three years before my husband retired from his management post, he may well have been sent a copy. When we finally get around to sorting his papers and books, I may find myself with a copy in my hands!


seniorwriter said...

How interesting! I just discovered your blog, and I find that we have a lot in common. I haven't done much serious genealogy, but I have discovered that my father came from a long line of John Marshalls, many of whom lived in
Northumberland, England. I've visited your country several times, but never tried to do any research there.

Anyway, check out my two blogs sometime if you haven't.

"Never too Late!" at

"Write your Life!" at

Marlys Marshall Styne (Seniorwriter)

Pam said...

What a fascinating story, Judith! You don't give up easily, do you? Thanks for giving us this opportunity to share it.


Granny J said...

Good for you, Judith!!! I'm surprised that the company didn't take advantage of a perfectly good public relations opportunity! BTW, my experience with large firms is that the higher you go, the better the response, so I always address the president & usually get a proper response!

KerrieAnne said...

hi Judith
I work as a metallurgist and quality manager at a steelworks in Australia. We actually have an original copy of the 100 years of British Engine book.

When I was a much younger metallurgist learning the ropes of investigating equipment failures, The British Engine Technical reports was where we went to as a start - so highly was it regarded by all the gurus (a few originally from the UK). If you happened to know which pages you were accessing from the 100 years book I could see if I can get a better scanned image for you

KerrieAnne Christian
Wollongong (south of Sydney) - NSW Australia

Judith said...

Thanks Kerrieanne,that is so kind of you. As things turned out, though, I now have my own copy. I wrote a piece about my research in the Royal Sun Alliance Pensioners' magazine, with a footnote about wanting to get hold of the book, and I got a number of offers of loans or gifts of the book. People are so kind.

Judith said...

Sadly British Engine no longer exists, except on paper it seems. When their offices in Manchester were bombed in 1996 they lost all their systems and records, and this coincided with the merger of Royal with Sun Alliance, who also had an engineering section, so they were the one's who took over. It is strange to think that my husband's grandfather joined the company when it was only a year old, and my husband retired only 15 years before the death of company. I feel that I need to write a monograph or something about the Taylor Family and British Engine, in tribute to both.
Perhaps I'll get around to it .....

Eddie Tyley said...

If you are still on the planet, Judith, and would be interested in an exchange with someone who spent his 45 years of working life at the ;B.E.' I would be happy to get in touch.
You will understand, I am sure, that as I am now in my 101st year,new systems do not come easily to me so that email is my only understandable means of communication on the computer.

Eddie Tyley. email:

Judith said...

Lovely to hear from you Eddie. I have written to you privately by email.

Dave Monkman said...

I also worked for British Engine, from 1966 until the merger with N.V., when I took early retirement. They were a wonderful Company to work for. Unfortunately ! was transferred to Royal H.O. in Liverpool in 1984 but manged to return 'Home' to Longridge House 10 years later. Life was much more enjoyable therethan in Royal!
Incidentally, I think I may have known your late husband. was his christian name Michael? Was he on the Management and primarily involved in Overseas business in his latter years?

Judith said...

Hullo Dave ~

Lovely to hear from another British Engine fan. It seems you did indeed know my husband Michael. He and I spent 3 years with our 4 children living in Belgium outside Brussels, while sought to open up the European Market. We didn't want to come home again! Thanks for dropping by.