Helping hands make light work of Listers

Gloucestershire Archives was delighted to be awarded £2,000 in 2014 from the Business Archives Council to fund the cataloguing of a significant Gloucestershire-based engineering archive, Listers of Dursley. The project has depended from start to finish on the help of enthusiastic volunteers.

R A Lister and Company Limited (latterly known as Lister Petter), one of the oldest firms in the county, was founded in Dursley in 1867 and remained as a family business for nearly 100 years. In its heyday it employed around 5000 people and Lister engines had become world-renowned for reliability – they were a major supplier of sheep-shearing equipment to Australia and New Zealand and their engines drove electricity generators and irrigation pumps throughout the Commonwealth. The firm also manufactured Danish inventor Mikael Pedersen’s innovative Dursley Pedersen bicycle in the early 1900s and was involved in munitions production during World War 1.

Listers workers c.1920

Listers workers c.1920

Early in 2014 the firm went into liquidation and new owners closed the Dursley premises down. Local people acted swiftly while the site was being cleared to rescue the surviving business records from destruction. Members of the Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology (GSIA) organised the salvage and negotiated with the new owners for the records to be transferred for permanent safe-keeping to Gloucestershire Archives (GA).

With the Business Archives Council grant, GA planned to employ a part-time freelance archivist to create the overall structure of the catalogue and to train up GSIA volunteers to undertake more detailed listing of specific items where their local and specialist knowledge would be invaluable.

Lister business records at factory

Records in storage at the factory, 2014

However, the records had been kept in damp and mouldy conditions at the factory and  needed to be dried and cleaned carefully before cataloguing could begin. With limited time for us to secure additional funding for this to happen, GSIA again stepped up to the mark  donating £1,500 to cover the purchase of archival quality storage boxes, other protective packaging materials and some conservation treatment. It also recruited a small but dedicated band to undertake the cleaning work. With training and support from GA’s conservator, the volunteers notched up 124 hours during September to November 2014 removing the surface grime from the records – allowing our conservator to focus on a few particularly damaged items.

Volunteers cleaning

Cleaning underway by volunteers at Gloucestershire Archives

Freelance archivist Gillian Sheldrick began sorting and cataloguing in earnest early in January, and completed the catalogue structure and basic item level descriptions for the whole collection by February. She also managed to incorporate two small earlier accessions of Listers records into the new catalogue.

GSIA volunteers attended further training workshops run by Archives staff on aspects of cataloguing and packaging. Since February the group has been visiting the Archives once a week to enhance the catalogue descriptions at item level. This activity is continuing beyond the formal end of the grant-funded project.

GSIA is also tapping into its network of engine enthusiasts to sort and identify many hundreds of loose photographs that were rescued along with the written archive. A master set of photographs, with descriptions added to the online Listers catalogue, will be preserved at GA while a selection of images will be displayed at the Dursley Heritage Centre and the Internal Fire Museum of Power in Wales.

Within the local community, the volunteers have been great advocates for our service.  Ray Wilson of GSIA, who was heavily involved in the rescue of the documents and lives near the former Lister factory, reports ‘I am extremely pleased to discover, during the last few months, that all the former employees I’ve spoken to are delighted that the archives have been saved and will be accessible to future generations’.

The vounteers clearly enjoyed their time at the Archives, commenting that they ‘liked finding out how documents are preserved … and understanding how Gloucestershire Archives’ cataloguing system worked’. One volunteer ‘wanted to try new things after retiring… and researched R Ashton Lister’s life as well as finding out about a national scheme for disabled men whose logo appeared on lots of letters in the archive’. Some particularly enjoyed the hands-on cleaning tasks and asked if they could help to do more of this in the future. Feedback from both volunteers and staff involved in Listers has helped to shape elements of our current major Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project For the Record.

The Lister Archive (collection D3310) is now described in Gloucestershire Archives’ online catalogue and will be updated regularly with the volunteers’ latest contributions:

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