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!