Delving into Dowty: opening up a new and important business collection

In the 1990s, a large business archive was offered to Gloucestershire Archives by the Dowty Group, an engineering firm based in Cheltenham but with subsidiary companies and factories not only throughout the UK but in South Africa, the USA, Canada and Australia among other far-spreading countries, employing thousands of people. Gloucestershire Archives took the collection, knowing it would require significant external funding to catalogue it. It was necessary to take the collection at the time because the Group had just been taken over and its assets were being sold off; the archive was therefore at risk of being dispersed or destroyed. More recently, the necessary external funding became available with the “For the Record” project, part of which paid for my job as the Community Cataloguing Archivist for two years to catalogue and open up the extensive archive.

Part of the extensive Dowty collection

Some of the collection in the strong room

I was employed to begin the cataloguing aspect in April 2018, and prior to this I did preliminary work with the website designer and some key volunteers, as well as beginning a survey of the archive. The intention was for the collection to be attractive to ex-employees of the Dowty companies, their families and also people who appreciated the importance of the company to the local area and those who lived and worked in it, as well as anyone else who would be interested in the history of a worldwide business. Most people I have talked to since starting employment at Gloucestershire Archives in September 2017 know someone who used to work for Dowty. It quickly became evident that this project would appeal to a huge number of people locally, nationally and even internationally.

Compressed Dowty annual report 1957

Extract from the Dowty annual report 1957

Using knowledge gained from the very popular Fielding & Platt project a few years ago, this project is seeking to not only catalogue the archive but to create a community website and collect as many oral history stories as we can, to enhance our understanding and appreciation of the company and the people who worked for it. Some oral histories have already been obtained and we hope that lots of people will be able to share stories from when they worked for the company or if it had an impact on them in some other way. The community website will be a means for people to share photographs or reminisce about the company and its staff.

We would like volunteers to be involved with as many different stages as we can, and so far we have identified four different volunteer strands that people can get involved with (and are welcome to be involved in more than one of!). There is the catalogue listing assistance, which will include indexing files, identifying photographs, listing patent and apprentice records, and generally helping to enhance the catalogue as much as possible. This is what I will be spending most of my time doing, but I would not be able to add such a level of detail into the catalogue descriptions of some of the more interesting documents were it not for volunteer help. Other volunteer tasks are to help with the oral history interviews, which would involve interviewing somebody and then transcribing it ready for it to be processed and then to go onto the website, helping with events which will be taking place throughout the next two years, and helping with the website which will be launching in the autumn. There really is something for everyone, whether you want to be involved because you used to work for Dowty or another company, whether you have family members or friends who worked for the company and want to understand it more, or whether you want to help with an extensive and very interesting 20th century archive collection.

If you want to volunteer for the project, you can email me on and I will give you some more information. There is a volunteer information event taking place on Thursday 14th June, at 2pm at the Heritage Hub in which you can see some of the archive, learn about what we want to achieve and find out how you can get involved – if you would like to come to that please email me and let me know so I know how many people to expect!

If you don’t want to volunteer, but would like to give an oral history interview about your time at Dowty, then please get in contact as well – I or one of the oral history volunteers can then arrange to interview you at a time and place that suits you. Also, if you have any photographs you can put them on the website when it’s launched in the autumn, or you may donate them to the archive if you would like – just let me know if you want to do that. And if you don’t have any photographs or stories, but are interested in Dowty’s heritage then the website and archive will be brilliant resources over the next couple of years and beyond.

The collection and its website and oral history will hopefully enable more people to discover information on such an important local company, whether they are interested in family history, social history, local history or engineering history, whether these people are local, national or international. There is a lot to be opened up and I will be writing some blogs about it as the months go on.

So watch this space!

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