Monday, 29 March 2010

Money, money, money

Over the past couple of weeks I have started to focus on the financial records of Chances. These records are never viewed with much excitement by archivists as they are considered to be quite dry and boring. This viewpoint comes from a lack of understanding or even a fear of accounting records and I have to confess, I have experienced this fear myself. The sheer range of financial records and opening an over sized book with grids of figures and reference numbers can be quite daunting, especially when these books are not labelled with a helpful title to give you clues as to what the transactions contained represent. And in true Chance style, the range of financial records is overwhelming. The collection contains general, private, specialised and miscellaneous ledgers; journals; cash books; cheque payment books; balance sheets and profit and loss accounts; and tax and excise records to name but a few.

Range of Chance account books

It can really be a headache to figure out what each type of record does but after doing some research, I can give you a brief idea. It is vital to have a good understanding of the financial recordkeeping and reporting processes. Financial recordkeeping starts with an economic event, for example, the receipt of goods from a supplier, and a primary document is produced as soon as possible to record the movement of goods/services/cash to and from the company. These documents are then forwarded to the accounts department where they are summarised and analysed and recorded in the account books, for example, ledgers, journals, etc. Journals provide a daily record of transactions and act as a book of original entry whilst ledgers are books of final entry where the transactions recorded in the journals are listed in seperate accounts. Both types of book traditionally follow the rules of double entry bookkeeping where both the debits and credits of each transaction are recorded beside each other to ensure accuracy. If both totals balance you can be confident that there are no mistakes in your calculations.

Double bookkeeping in a private ledger

This is where the reporting part of the process comes in. Periodically, the balances are extracted from the account books and assembled into a trial balance which is then used as the basis for preparing accounting statements, usually a profit and loss account and a balance sheet. These financial statements are then made available to managers and external users to help reach important decisions on the direction and future of the company. I appreciate that this is a very basic illustration of the way that accounting works and I apologise to all the accountants reading but I hope this goes someway to de-mystifying the scary nature of financial records.

It is now my duty to encourage any interested researcher to actually dive in to these records, rather than tentatively considering them from the safety of the paddling pool. Financial records provide the main evidence and measure of how successful a business has been. And let's face it, the main aim of business is to make a profit. But the records can tell you so much more than just the income and outgoings of a company. The interesting bits are contained in the finer details, for example, the journals and ledgers could possibly tell you how much an individual spent on their boiled egg at breakfast on a business trip, enlightening you to their eating habits or a ridiculously cheap payment for a new piece of machinery might provide an insight into the cosy relationship the company has with its suppliers. The possibilities are endless and if you are brave enough to read between the lines of the grids containing those scary figures, you may just discover something completely unexpected.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

You can always depend on the kindness of Chance employees and experts

Although I am cataloguing the Chance archives, I am by no means an expert on the history of the company and I have had to rely on the expertise of academics and ex-employees to find out further information that puts the records in to context. I have built up a contact list of various people who have a much more in-depth knowledge about Chances and the processes involved in glassmaking. This list is availible here at the archive and it enables us to pass enquirers on to experts who can answer their more specific and complex enquiries that the records themselves can not provide the answers to. I am extremely grateful to these people for offering their time and knowledge to help me, CHAS and Chance enquirers.

One such person is Alan Taylor. He worked in the Drawing Office of the Lighthouse Department and he trained at Chances' Technical College as an Engineering Technician. He has a website that provides more information and Alan's contact details at the following URL:

I have been reliably informed that Alan is happy to recieve any enquiries you might have about Chance lighthouses and his time working at Chances so please do get in touch with him.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Hell hath no fury like an employee scorned

Beware employers everywhere! I have found a fascinating file of correspondence about a draughtsman in the Chance Lighthouse department who was dismissed from the company in 1867....but before I divulge any of the juicy details I will give you an overview of my progress. I finally finished cataloguing the Chance lighthouse records this week and I expect to have a draft catalogue finished very soon. I can then start addressing our backlog of enquiries, so if you have sent us an enquiry about Chances' lighthouse work I will be getting in touch very soon.

In my last week of working through these records I had two very interesting finds. The first was a large bundle of correspondence labelled 'Stevenson'. I am sure that this has already rung some bells with the lighthouse experts amongst you but as a novice, it was really interesting to find out that this bundle contained many letters written by a very famous family of Scottish lighthouse designers - the Stevenson brothers. The letters included are written by Thomas, David and Alan who were all sons of the esteemed civil engineer and lighthouse builder Robert Stevenson. It also turns out that Thomas Stevenson's son, who happens to be the author Robert Louis Stevenson, caused great disappointment by not following in his family's engineering footsteps and instead decided to write such masterpieces as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. So CHAS now has a link (however tenuous) to the great Robert Louis Stevenson.

The second find came in the file of correspondence I introduced at the start of this post. The draughtsman was dismissed by Chances following a heated argument that broke out between him and one of James Timmins Chance's assistants in the Lighthouse Works. The argument was caused by the draughtsman's earlier retort to a letter written by the assistant that he deemed insulting. The retort came in the form of the following unflattering notice posted through the gatehouse door:

Transcription: NOTICE/FOUND DROWNED in the Liverpool Docks, on the Evening of the 28th inst., a man apparently not highly respectable, height about 5ft 8 1/2 in, weight about 13 Stone, being badly marked with the Small Pox, having a bad set of teeth, with little hair on the top of his head, and seeming to have been recently suffering from the effects of past indiscretions. From letters found in his pocket (but nearly illegible) it is supposed that he is from Great Arthur Street SMETHWICK

The correspondence does not, however, stop at this incident. Over the next seven years it becomes apparent that the draughtsman attempted to sell Chances' trade secrets and lied about his involvement in the construction of Chance lighthouse apparatus in a paper he delivered to the Institute of Civil Engineers. So, if you are having problems with your employees, watch out for a notice posted on your office door...