Volunteers at Archives+ in Manchester have made an incredible contribution to the Made in Greater Manchester project. Sarah Hobbs, archivist at Archives+, reveals all here!

Mark and Stuart

“Business archives often consist of large, complex collections of records that lie neglected in the strong rooms, because archivists simply have not got the resources to catalogue them properly.

Archives+, incorporating Manchester Archives and the Greater Manchester County Record Office, has its own fair share of overlooked business treasures, so jumped at the chance to be part of the Made in Greater Manchester project: here was an opportunity to get these business records unlocked and their stories of Manchester’s industrial heritage brought out into the open.

Manchester Archives chose the records of Renold plc, the oldest transmission chain company in the world and still going strong from its headquarters in Wythenshawe. The historical archive was deposited over thirty years ago, complete with its own unique numbering system and impenetrable card catalogue. Totalling 235 boxes of material (or 94 linear metres), the collection was just too big for us to tackle. Now the hard work of the MIGM volunteers is revealing Renold’s heritage – board meeting minutes, workshop committee minutes, product catalogues, photograph albums, sales charts, wage books – they all combine to create a picture of industry and innovation and show how Renold was a truly global company even before the days of globalisation. Jo, MIGM volunteer and cycling enthusiast, was thrilled to discover that the chain mechanism at the heart of the modern bicycle was invented and patented by Hans Renold in 1880. Her blog, posted on the MIGM website, highlighted how, then and now, chains drive much of the mechanical world and Renold was the pioneer.

The Greater Manchester County Record Office’s contribution to the project was a series of plans from the vast archive of the Manchester Ship Canal Company. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1894, the ship canal was, at 36 miles long, the largest river navigation canal in the world: its route followed the rivers Mersey and Irwell and took sea vessels into the heart of Manchester. The plans are all rolled-up – sometimes as many as 20 plans per roll – so the volunteers never knew quite what they are going to find, but thanks to their careful and detailed cataloguing this marvel of Victorian engineering is being brought to life. There are plans of the several locks that lifted ships some 60 feet in total; plans of the docks at Manchester and Salford; plans of Liverpool Harbour at the other end; there’s a plan of the Barton Road Swing Bridge and a plan of Eastham Customs Offices. There is a late-nineteenth-century plan showing a flood plain, which volunteer Sue was cataloguing just when that same area was enduring flooding in the present time – some things never change!

queen victoria MSC opening 1894

The cataloguing has revealed the past and enabled us to make links in the here and now with the very organisations that created the records. Renold plc was already keen to explore the firm’s heritage so the Made in Greater Manchester project came along at just the right time. Now we exchange stories through Twitter – our volunteers’ blogs and their employees’ reminiscences. The Ship Canal plans may depict a waterway that is now too small for most modern ships, but they also point to the future with Peel Holdings, the company that now owns the Ship Canal, working to revitalise the canal and make it a carbon-efficient waterway.

This sense of a living archive which is not just locked away in strong rooms, but reaches out into local communities, is a real achievement of Made in Greater Manchester and for the success of the project we have the volunteers and their dedication to thank.”