Lloyds Register Foundation Forum

Pod 1: What’s in the Lloyds Register Foundation archive?

History & Policy · What’s in the Lloyds Register Foundation archive?
The Lloyds Register Foundation's Heritage Education Centre has a rich archive covering the 260 years of Lloyd's Register history. I spoke to Dr Louise Sanger, Applied Research and Heritage Manager at HEC about what researchers on the Hindsight Perspectives project (and others) could expect to find, how the archive has changed over the years, and a couple of her personal highlights - probably relatively few archives carefully preserve an envelope of rust.
Explore the archive and search the online catalogue here. HEC has produced an excellent series of information sheets to help researchers including academics, genealogists and members of the public. The archive is currently closed (for renovation as well as Covid-19 purposes), but when it reopens will be freely accessible to all researchers.
Find out more about the project and how to take part here.
Edited transcript:

Alix Mortimer: Hello and welcome to the Hindsight Perspectives for a Safer World project. I'm Alix Mortimer, the project manager at History & Policy, King's College London, and in a series of podcasts we're going to explore what the project aims to do and talk to some of the historians and professionals taking part. We're working with the Lloyd's Register Foundation on this project whose mission is to support research and education to engineer a safer world. The famous Lloyd's Register of shipping, of course, dates to the 1760s, and it was originally a maritime classification society. The aim of the project is to introduce a series of expert academic historians to the Foundation’s fantastic archive, and produce a body of reports on historical topics, inspired by the archive and using the materials in the archive, which are going to be of use to professionals and policymakers working in the industry today, and help them with the problems that they face. So today, for the first podcast, I want to take a brief look at what materials are in the archive and get a flavour for what's there. And I'm here with Louise Sanger, who is the Applied Research and Outreach Manager at the Heritage and Education Centre within the Lloyds Register Foundation. Hi Louise! So what does your role involve in terms of the archive?

Louise Sanger: It's really a fun role, I shouldn't tell people how much fun it is! We've got a really great Heritage and Education Centre collection, it’s a library and archive that’s freely available for use by the public. It contains a whole host of material that covers from 1760 when we were founded all the way through to the present day. So lots of innovations in technology, society – all these big changes. And we’re the custodian of the archive of Lloyd's Register, so for my role I work to reach out to and engage wider audiences with the Heritage and Education Centre collections (HEC for short), to encourage people to carry out collaborative research projects, really to put the collections to work. We've got a great team that have been working to digitise much of our collection, making it accessible online which really helps what I do.

AM: Particularly helpful now, of course!

LS: Yes!

AM: So tell us how the archive started, because of course they were originally a set of records for regular use by professionals, weren’t they?

LS: That's right. So as you mentioned, we were founded in 1760. We started as the Society for the Registry of Shipping at Lloyd's coffee house where we took our name from, as did Lloyd's of London, (hence the confusion)! [see Information Sheet 3] At the time there was concern over large losses of life and property at sea. And before Lloyds Register there was no way really of knowing the quality of a ship. So the Society for the Registry of Shipping was founded so everyone with a commercial interest in the wooden sailing ships going in and out of British ports could have the best information to base their decisions on. So Lloyd's Register, to put this information together for these professionals, they inspected vessels and they rated or classed them according to their condition. So if you look at the earliest surviving register book from 1764, it's got details of 4,118 ships and almost half of those were built outside the UK, which shows you that international element of the work from really early on.

AM: They would have been used originally by seafarers, by shipping owners, by all those people and by LLoyds themselves presumably.

LS: That's right, so Lloyds Register would use them to keep a track of the class assigned [to a ship] and you can see in the earliest register book there's handwritten annotations in red pen in the final columns, so you can see how the classification changes or if there's a change in owner or ship name. They’d be used by people in the insurance industry as well to look at the standards of a vessel, and as you say by people chartering or wanting to use those vessels.

AM: Presumably the kinds of things that have gone into the archive have changed over the years - has the amount of material kept on individual vessels changed?

LS: It has, hugely so. Our earliest records are based on the Register of Ships and then when we look at the archive collection proper, say the corporate archive, the starting date for that really is about 1834 when the organisation was reconstituted, that's when we became Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping. That's when you can see a more systematic approach to how things were done. There are some handwritten letters from surveyors initially, but things became more systematic with printed forms that they had to complete for surveys, with rules for the classification of ships which were published based on extensive research. They revised the system of classification, and all sorts of different things that you see within the archive collection that are really useful today, all the things generated in course of ship classifications - so things like the quality of the ship materials used, the state of repair, whether she was surveyed when she was built, all with the aim of making things safer.

AM: Which of course is where it intersects with your mission as an organisation, doesn't it? So there are some categories of records, I think, that deal specifically with new inventions and innovation, and safety as these things were incorporated. Tell me about those because I think those are likely to be of most interest to the project.

LS: They certainly are, there's all kinds of information. You’ve got an archive covering three industrial revolutions, massive transitions in technology - the well-known transitions from sail to steam, from steam engines to motor ship propulsion, and also in the materials used, so from wooden sailing ships to iron, to steel. All of these kinds of things are covered in the collection, for example there's specific sets of collections like the Iron Vessel Survey Reports.

And what we're hoping to do is look at those earlier transitions, what's covered in the collection and see what lessons there are to learn today. So if we're looking at and dangerous transitions, for example, what can those previous earlier responses and activities tell us that might be useful to today's approach to the decarbonization challenge? Because despite all of these improvements over the years, maritime shipping is still one of the most hazardous industries. If we can look back and see if there's a way to help make it safer with earlier expertise, that's what we're hoping to do.

AM: Exactly. I think that leads me on to my next question which is where we get to the meat of what I think the historians’ interest in this will be. What kind of things do you think these records can tell us which they were perhaps were not originally created for – that's always the interesting thing about records, isn’t it, when they reveal things that were nothing to do with their original purpose.

LS: It really is! It's like detective work sometimes. I was listening to one of the team’s podcasts earlier on translating materials from the collection, because we’ve got a vast ship plan and survey report collection, we think it’s about 1.25 million items, 600,000 of which that are online already. You can tell there's going to be some interesting conversations about this for the cataloguing. “What is this? What are we looking at?” In terms of not being part of the intended purpose in recording, I guess one of the things that comes out for me is that Lloyd's Register surveyors had a really good reputation for being competent, for their integrity, for their technical expertise. But Lloyd's Register also made sure it paid its surveys properly so that they wouldn't be tempted to misrepresent the condition of ships in exchange for bribes. There's a lovely cartoon in one of our publications which shows George Bailey, who was the first de facto Principal Surveyor, and he's actually throwing a ship owner overboard because they’d tried to bribe him. So that's quite a nice thing to have!

Another favourite – a hidden gem from the ship plan survey report collection is an envelope of rust, which was sent in to demonstrate obviously some problems with the vessel! So all kinds of different things come through the collection.

AM: What’s the oldest item in the collection?

LS: The oldest thing we have is a bit random. It's actually a book by William Camden, and it's called The History of the Life and Reign of the Most Renowned Queen Elizabeth. We think it's from 1630. And it's likely to have come into the collection when it was formed – our collection of library books was formed in 1850 when Augustine Francis Bullock Creuze gave his collection of naval architecture books to us. So there's some gems within that.

AM: That’s brilliant so that's come from his collection and they’ve thought well, we’ll just shove this in the shelves!

LS: And more relevant probably to our activities there's things like a letter sent to Lloyd's Coffee House from Madeira, which was really early in our history. Then the next earliest things are probably the letters I mentioned earlier that were the early form of how surveys were reported by our surveyors, and they date from about 1834, and then of course, the earliest survey reports shortly afterwards.

AM: It's fantastic. There is an interesting history there, even apart from the actual shipping and technology side of it, about administration, isn't there. And the move to filling in forms!

LS: There really is, and that’s reflected in how the how the information is recorded in the register book as well. You asked earlier how things have changed over time – so things like the master's name only appeared until 1921. But there are things that were in there and still are today, like place of build, the ship type, the classification. Things like shipbuilder have only been recorded since about 1859. Then you get, survey dates, date of build, all kinds of things that are in there for a period of time – and then not. So we've tried to capture that in our information sheets – Information Sheet 10 – which are on our website to help researchers.

AM: Yes, so that's very important, we're going to place a link to those information sheets immediately below this recording on the History & Policy website.  Lastly, it sounds like a fantastic collection: on a practical note tell us about access to this archive because I know that right now you're going through a big digitization project. Obviously everywhere is closed but you’re also closed for that reason.

LS: Yes, we’re in the middle of a building refurbishment. We're very lucky, we have a lovely old building that was completed in 1901 in the centre of London. It's had refurbishment since then, but it's having another one throughout the rest of this year. So it's very likely that the physical archive and library collections at HEC won't be accessible until early in 2022.

In the meantime, as you say, we’re lucky we'd already started this digitization project and that's going to hopefully continue and pick up speed in the autumn again. So as well as things that are already online – world fleet statistics, our casualty report, register books, and the ship plan survey report collection – we're going to add more material. Things like our Lloyd's Register Technical Association Transactions, some of our corporate publications like 100A1 [see information sheet 35], which is really informative and ran from 1959. There's some brilliant stuff in there and we're looking forward to getting it out and getting it used.

AM: Likewise, I can't wait to get – well, it won’t be me personally sadly! – but stuck into it via the historians that I'm going to bring to the project. So thank you very much for talking to me about the archive. That's been amazing. For the next podcast in this series, I will hopefully be talking to the first historians whom we have commissioned to write the first reports. So Louise, thank you very much.

LS: You're very welcome. And I look forward to the next one also.


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