Business Records and the Intrepid Historian

*Guest Post from Emma Anthony, Business Archives Cataloguer, University of Glasgow Archive Services

Glasgow was built by merchants who made their fortune throughout the globe, so the records of Glasgow businesses are an excellent place to start in any exploration of Glasgow and Empire.

As the holders of the Scottish Business Archive, University of Glasgow Archive Services is a rich source of business records, dating as far back as the 18th century, and covering industries such as textiles, shipbuilding, sugar manufacture, and engineering, all of which can provide fascinating insights into Glasgow’s relationship with the empire.

Putiacherra tea pickers from the James Finlay & Co collection

Putiacherra tea pickers from the James Finlay & Co collection

However, record keeping can vary wildly from company to company, and the administrative outputs of each organisation can be vast.  This can make business records fiendishly tricky to navigate, but there are a few key record groups which are a good place to start.

Staff records

Look out particularly for correspondence between overseas employees/agents and head office, which can contain information regarding staff experience.

An excellent example of this is the managers and assistants letter books of James Finlay & Co, textile manufacturers and tea planters.

Managers and assistants letter books from the James Finlay & Co collection

These span from 1902 until the 1980s, containing summaries of the correspondence between head office in Glasgow and the Superintendents of each tea estate regarding British (and later Indian) employees overseas, tracing their career, their progress, and their character.

Their health is also frequently commented upon – particularly the stresses and strains of working in an environment so different from home, and the individual’s ability to cope and adapt.

Staff records can also include records created for or by employees, such as staff publications.  They can tell us about staff attitudes, activities, and conditions.  James Finlay & Co and Stoddard Templeton, to name a few, both have publications generated by and for employees.


Minutes can inform the reader of key decisions regarding when trading started within a particular country, what the response has been, and how successful the endeavour.  A company can have several committees each generating their own minutes – Coats PLC, for example, has minutes of directors, as well as minutes of cotton buying, manufacturing,  raw materials, and textile committees.

Generally, minutes of directors meetings are the best place to start, since it is here that the most important key decisions made by the company are recorded, but minutes of subsidiary committees can be rich in information regarding where and how companies were trading and acquiring their raw materials.

Trade mark records

These can tell us something about the company’s competition, where they were trading, and how they appealed to different audiences around the globe.  The United Turkey Red collection is particularly insightful in this respect, with labels designed for each of the different export markets.

Label from the United Turkey Red collection

Label from the United Turkey Red collection

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the labels were black and white, and designed to appeal to as many audiences as possible.  These evolved into colourful labels bearing the manufacturer’s name, serving as a brand trademark and building up a strong loyalty among customers.

Label from the United Turkey Red collection

Label from the United Turkey Red collection

By the end of the nineteenth century, Hindu themes dominated Indian tickets, as this was most attractive to the predominantly Hindu local market.


Photographs can often tell us a lot about the conditions employees worked in, the audience for the product, and how the product was sold.

Burra Bazaar, Calcutta, from the United Turkey Red collection

Burra Bazaar, Calcutta, from the United Turkey Red collection

Finding traces of the empire in business records can be difficult, but incredibly rewarding.  These are just a handful of samples from the University of Glasgow’s rich and diverse business collections – if you would like to know more, you can contact the Duty Archivist.

Emma Anthony,

Business Archives Cataloguer

University of Glasgow Archive Services


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