Report of the 2017 Annual Conference (by Alex Ritchie)

The British Records Association Annual Conference 2017


Beckenham High Street and George Inn, 1930s. Bromley Historic Collections

Conference Report

The theme of last year’s BRA conference was Shops and Shopping in the Archives: a Nation of Recordkeepers? A lively and well-attended event at the Cowcross Street venue began with Jon Stobart looking at Georgian London and the emergence of shopping as a recognisable phenomenon, especially among the better-off. He also analysed the geography of shopping in central London on the basis of elite shoppers’ recorded habits.

This was followed by a discussion panel looking at London department stores. Sebastian Wormell described how, since its foundation in 1989, the Harrods archive had evolved as the corporate memory of the store. Janet Foster talked about the arrangement of the Selfridges archive after it had been brought back in-house for use as a creative asset for the business. Selfridges had become very heritage-conscious as the television series Mr Selfridge had generated wide interest in its past. Alison Kenney was able to bring a different perspective to her presentation about the Liberty collection, held and managed by Westminster City Archives.

With focus shifting to the other side of the counter, Shelley Tickell looked at shoplifting in the 18th century, offering an analysis of the practices used by thieves and the counter-measures taken by the retailers. The morning session concluded with Alan Crosby, who used the  contents of the Lancashire Archives catalogue to review the paucity and incomplete nature of such records that survive relating to retailing. He also offered tips on how other sources, such as probate records and building plans, can be used to supplement otherwise fragmentary information.

In the afternoon Laura Ugolini considered the challenges of researching men and shopping in Britain in the period c1880–1939. This presented difficulties in identifying sources, though the records of the Oxford tailors Castell & Son had provided some useful material. Phil Lyon described how the John Sainsbury Journal had offered a commentary on the rapid changes in food retailing in post-war Britain. In particular, it gave valuable insights about the transition to self-service shopping.

The final session began with retail historian Peter Scott considering the decline of the high street, the threats to retail archives and the measures taken to rescue them. Professor Scott was then joined by Richard Wiltshire and Alex Ritchie, both members of the crisis management team established under the National Strategy for Business Archives. There were short presentations and broader discussions based on the successes, failures and unresolved issues around at-risk business records.

Overall, the conference offered a stimulating and high-quality spectrum of research and archival perspectives across centuries of retail activity in Britain.

Alex Ritchie