At first glance, an old, plain, leather bound book containing a list of employees from a company might not seem that exciting a treasure. But for historians, it is very often these everyday business records of a companyâs history that can prove to be the most fruitful sources when telling the story of a business and the people who helped make it a success.
A surviving Birmingham Assay Office Staff Book with entries dating from the end of the 19th century to the 1930s is a wonderful example of one of these rich sources. The information in this book can tell us so much. Peer inside its beautifully hand-written pages and you will see clues to a series of lives in front of you â a name, an age, when the person started work, what they did in the company, how long they worked here for and in some cases what happened to them in their lives whilst they were here.
A clear trend emerges from the records. Most of the staff in the book worked here for many years - a pattern which has continued today. Take, for example, Alice Edge, a kitchen maid who worked from December 1894 to August 1923 giving 29 years service and Elizabeth Hemming, who started work in March 1882 aged just 15. She retired in December 1934 aged 67 after 52 years with the company. Other people worked here for shorter periods. William Haynes, for example, arrived in December 1916 as Nightwatchman and stayed for six years.
We can also see world events and changes in society reflected in the Staff Book. Alfred Moore, who was a Storeman, worked here between August 1898 and October 1922 and fought in the Boer War in 1902. The brilliantly named Nellie Careless started work in June 1898 and a year later was promoted to be a typist, which was seen to be a clean, respectable job for a young lady at the time.
So, a picture filled with people and their contributions to the story of the Assay Office is beginning to emerge, but how can we find out more? We can link the surviving sources that we have in our archive using a little detective work. Names are one thing but it is even better when you can see what someone looked like. Photographs that have survived, especially when the photographer or whoever had commissioned them recorded the names of the people in the image, can be invaluable sources when paired with written records such as our Staff Book.
When some of the Assay Office staff enlisted for the First World War they posed for a formal photograph and all their names were recorded. Another photograph in our archive shows the Assay Office staff football team in 1922 but without any names. By looking at which men appear in both images we can match names to faces and look for details in the Staff Book.
George Goodwin fought in the First World War and was also a member of the football team when he returned. He joined the Assay Office in September 1910 aged 14 and was paid eight shillings a week. George enlisted on January 20th 1917 and returned from the war on 24th March 1918 when he received a pay rise to 15 shillings a week. He was another long-standing Assay Office employee as he is recorded in the Staff Book until February 5th 1938, giving 28 yearâs service. The book does not record his job title, but he appears on the far right hand side of the football team photograph dressed very smartly with the team.
So, from a book of names and two photographs we have started to reconstruct Georgeâs Goodwin's life. Business records are incredibly important sources, so think about the treasures you are making on a daily basis that could be invaluable for historians in the future.
We will be sharing more treasures from our archive that tell the story of The Birmingham Assay Office and its staff over the next few months.