A Superb Family History Resource – Have you searched the Business Index Collection?

I like to think that at some time in the future our great-great-grandchildren will pore over our Facebook pages and Instagram photos as they track us down and create family history trees. Of course, they'll have to come into a place just like the SoG so that they can view such ancient technology. But I imagine them being very pleased that we left so much detail about our lives. In the same way that we're grateful to Booth for his London poverty maps, Pepys for his diary and Fox Talbot for his photos.

Most of us know about Booth, Pepys and Fox Talbot. But not many people know about the Business Index Collection, held at the SoG and transcribed on Findmypast. Honestly, the title really doesn't do the collection justice. They are fascinating and just waiting to be used. The Collection is a set of 17 booklets describing, in detail, life in the larger towns of Britain, published between 1893 and 1927 by Robinson, Son and Pike and the London Printing and Engraving Company. To compile the booklets, the authors visited places all over Britain. They spoke to the local government officials and to as many businesses as possible. They obviously offered them the chance to feature in a booklet telling the history of their town and covering the attractions of the area, the main trades, and the manufacturing enterprises and larger shops. You can imagine how small businesses and town councillors jumped at the chance, even though they probably had to pay a small fee for inclusion.

The one that was especially useful for me is called A Descriptive Account of Ipswich. It was published by Robinson, Son and Pike in 1893.

The first section takes you on a virtual tour of the town. It walks you down the main streets and describes all the main buildings. It includes photos and sketches of buildings and views. The detail fascinates, even when it's barely relevant. For example, in the description of the Customs House, we learn that it was built in 1884 and stands over a 'perfect wilderness of catacombs'. This is a highly commercial town so the catacombs don't hold dead bodies; they hold spirits and wines because Ipswich is one of the 'great wine emporiums of Great Britain'. It includes the town hall, the main hospital, the corn exchange and the custom house, inns, churches, the museum and the post office.

The second section holds page after page of detail and photos of local businesses. This was an era of exciting inventions and increasing mechanisation. Many of the descriptions carefully explain manufacturing processes. For example, there is the Steam Mineral Water Works, producing ginger ale, mineral water, aerated drinks and fruit syrup. The authors describe how machines wash bottles, fill them with mineral water ('60 dozen per hour'), and stamp a 'stopper' in each bottle to seal it. 

It was in this booklet on Ipswich that I found some marvellous detail on the two people I was interested in: Roderick Donald Fraser Sr and Roderick Donald Fraser Jr. Using the PCs in the Lower Library, I’d found them both in the 1891 census: Roderick Sr is a 'furnisher & cabt'; Roderick Jr, aged 21, is a 'traveller gold'. In the 1901 census: Roderick Sr is 'magistrate for Ipswich, jewellery, gold'. In the 1911 census: Roderick Sr is a 'magistrate, furniture, jewellery etc dealer'; Roderick Jr is a 'company director, house furniture'. I really wanted to know more about both of them. Well, here they are in this wonderful little booklet. The authors have described them and their business perfectly.

When the authors visited them, Roderick Jr was running the company with his younger brother, Joseph Brownsmith Fraser. They confirm that the company was founded by Roderick Sr in 1833 and that his sons took over when their father retired, so I know I’ve found the right people. The 'house' is described as 'cabinet makers, jewellers, and art furnishers'. The authors rightly point out that to have such a fine establishment in the town shows the wealth and aspiration of its people.

There is an excellent drawing of the shop, which covers most of a block and looks like the John Lewis of its time.

It holds departments selling home furnishings, clothing, pianos, china, jewellery and clocks. They also offer auctioneers, insurance and estate agents. The full description covers two pages of the booklet so I now have a wonderful picture of my ancestor and his successful business.

In case you're interested in Ipswich in particular, the booklet covers 28 other enterprises in detail including:

- Cocksedge & Co, owners of the Eagle Works, who won a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 for one of their agricultural machines

- George Abbott, a stove and range manufacturer, with a wonderful photo of their best selling Victoria Cooking Range

- Mr W. E. Croft, who is the 'only practical ostrich feather dyer in the Eastern Counties'

- Mr Thomas Alderton, who owns a family boot and shoe warehouse. He not only sells boots and shoes, he makes 2,000 pairs of bespoke boots a year.

Of course, trade directories give us valuable information about our ancestors, including where their firms or shops were located. But they are listings and give nowhere near as much details as these booklets. Apparently the full set gives us 9,757 records. Some of the entries also list other family members or clubs and charities that the owner supports. Others include when the business was bought or set up and names other people that were involved.

How to find the booklets and the information they hold

The SoG Online Catalogue, SoGCAT, lists each booklet and shows where it is held in our Library.

SoG Data Online holds transcriptions from the booklets. ‘Business Index’ is listed under the Occupations tab. You can search for individual names.

Findmypast holds transcriptions and, in some cases, images of the records from all the booklets. You can search for ‘Business Index Collection’ in the A-Z List of Records. You can search for individual names. If you find an ancestor, I really recommend that you come to the SoG and read the full booklet.

-Sherryl Abrahart

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