Innovation in Gloucester in the mid-20th century: cataloguing the records of the Corporation of Gloucester

Since April 2022 I have been working on a project to catalogue the 20th century records of the Corporation of Gloucester, which cover a crucial period for the development of the city up to 1974. Along the way I’ve discovered all sorts of things about how new technologies such as the motor car and telephones affected the city from the 1920s onwards, how the Corporation promoted Gloucester as a suitable site for industry, and how an early aviation pioneer inspired the creation of what is now Gloucestershire Airport.

Most of the records were transferred to us when the City Council moved out of the Guildhall in the mid-1980s, but we had very little capacity at the time to list and catalogue them, so we used the existing lists which had been kept by the Corporation departments, which are not so helpful to us as they were to the people who actually created the records. The collection is a rich but under-used resource for the recent history of Gloucester as a result, especially the development of the city in the mid-20th century. The records include the Town Clerk’s correspondence files, which cover everything the Corporation dealt with, from the ambulance service to weights and measures and everything in between; the Engineer and Surveyor’s records, covering everything from the redevelopment of the city centre to the water supply and traffic control to the installation of phone boxes; contracts, agreements, conveyances and leases for all kinds of Corporation properties and projects; planning, housing, parks, cemeteries, markets, the airport, and much, much more.

I’m taking a slightly different approach to cataloguing this collection due to its unique complexity: our usual practice is to retain original file structures wherever possible, but in this case that’s not appropriate, as anyone who has ever tried to use the Town Clerk’s correspondence will know; it’s a long series containing thousands of items in no thematic order, so it’s very difficult to find everything that relates to a particular subject. Instead, I’m placing every item with the department whose work it relates to, regardless of where it came from, so that all material relating to a particular subject is together, and I’m recording original file references so that the original structures can be reconstructed if necessary. This is a bit of a radical approach, archivally speaking, but accessibility is key, and the existing lists have been proved to be very difficult to use and to add onto, so we also have large amounts of uncatalogued material which we received later. Cataloguing the files by department and subject will create a much more accessible, browsable and searchable structure for researchers to use. I’m also carrying out a long-overdue appraisal of the files – many have outlived their usefulness or have no historical significance, or contain lots of unnecessary material that obscures the useful contents, so this material is being disposed of securely, allowing us to focus on keeping and making accessible all the really good stuff. Each file is assessed, listed in the database, repackaged and labelled and then sorted by category/department.

3 photographs showing the repackaging of archival documents
Town Clerk’s files before listing, after listing and packaging, and sorted into boxes by department

I’m coming across lots of fascinating things about the introduction of new innovations to the city – for example, the rise of the motor car. Gloucester’s unique position as the crossroads of the South-West meant that traffic from all directions had to come through the city, meeting at the Cross where a long-suffering policeman had to direct the traffic – soon there were so many cars that they needed two policemen, and clearly something had to be done. In the early 1930s, “automatic traffic control” (that’s traffic lights to you and me) were introduced at the Cross – this was a relatively new invention, having only been introduced in London in the mid-1920s, and for a little while the policemen stayed to help the relatively inexperienced drivers navigate this strange new world. Don’t forget that most people had only been driving for a few years at this point! Unfortunately, the resulting traffic queues led the owner of the New Inn to write to the Town Clerk to complain that when the lights for the southbound traffic were on red, the cars ended up queuing past the entrance to his establishment, and potential customers, instead of turning right across the queuing traffic, were continuing straight on to Cheltenham. Could something please be done? The City Surveyor got onto the problem, and a ‘Keep Clear’ sign was painted onto the road surface outside the entrance to the New Inn. However (remember most people hadn’t been driving very long) lots of drivers didn’t know how ‘Keep Clear’ signs worked, and they thought they weren’t allowed to drive onto the sign at all – so they were pulling out into the opposite side of the road and driving round it, thus causing further congestion!

More cars also meant that the Corporation had to find places for them to park. This photo, taken at 12.45 on 1 March 1926, shows Clarence Street congested with parked buses, vans and cars:

Black and white photograph showing astreet lined with old style buses and cars

The Cross was in a similarly sorry state, so the Town Clerk wrote to businesses on and around the Cross to ask them to avoid receiving deliveries during peak times because having vehicles “standing outside business premises in the vicinity of the Cross” was causing congestion. Most businesses complied, but the drapers Fisher and Fisher wrote back pointing out “how important it is for the trade of the City that customers shall be allowed to drive their cars from shop to shop and make their purchases without undue attention from the police, when leaving their cars for short periods. Several cases have come to our notice where customers have ceased to motor into Gloucester on this account, and go regularly to Cheltenham.” In these days of park-and-ride and park-and-walk, that was a bit of an eye-opener!

From innovations we take for granted today to one that has become almost obsolete in the century or so since its introduction in Gloucester – the telephone box. The City Surveyor was responsible for approving the siting of telephone boxes by the Post Office, in places like the junction of Stroud Road and Tredworth Road (there’s a post box there now but no phone box), the junction of Bristol Road and Tuffley Avenue (just about in the middle of the entrance to Lidl), the corner of Kings Square (now more or less in what was the make-up department of Debenhams after the store was extended some years later), and on Brunswick Road opposite St Michael’s Square – the only site out of these four that still has a phone box today, although it’s moved slightly further down the road.

Meanwhile, one of the Town Clerk’s many tasks was promoting Gloucester as a tourist destination and as a location for industry. We have a file containing hundreds of letters from coach operators all over the country asking permission to make a stop in Gloucester on their coach tours – mostly the stops seem to have consisted of a couple of hours to whip round the city centre, see the Cathedral and have a cup of tea before getting back on the bus and heading on to the next stop.

Our historic city centre was less of a concern for business and industry – they were interested in our close proximity to the canal and river and our good rail links. The River Severn Development Association worked with the Corporation and other local authorities along the river to promote sites for industrial development on the river banks. The Town Clerk also received several enquiries from German companies wanting to establish factories in England during the 1930s – at first I thought this might be Jewish businesses trying to escape the Nazi regime, but it turned out that the exchange rates and import fees were so high that it was more financially practicable to establish branches in England than to try and import goods from Germany. None of these enquiries seem to have come to anything, but in one of the files I found an example of a successful local business, that of Roberts Brothers, who made board games and toys at the Glevum Works behind St James’ Church in Barton and Tredworth.

photograph of a letter from Roberts Brothers with game counters made by Erinoid of Stroud
Letter from Roberts Brothers with game counters made by Erinoid of Stroud, from GBR/L6/23/B1757

One of the most exciting developments in Gloucester in the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps, was the airport, a joint venture between the Corporation, Cheltenham Borough Council and the County Council. The idea came from Sir Alan Cobham, an early aviation pioneer, who toured the country promoting the idea of municipal aerodromes and air transport as the ideal transport of the future – and as good opportunities for his own aviation business. He visited Gloucester in 1926 and 1929, offering flights in his airliner for local officials and schoolchildren.

Poster advertising Sir Alan Cobham's visit to Gloucester in 1929
Poster advertising Sir Alan Cobham’s visit to Gloucester in 1929, from GBR/L6/23/B153. The “anonymous donor” was Cobham himself.

Inspired by Cobham’s visits, the local authorities decided to collaborate on a joint venture, and sites were inspected at Quedgeley, Staverton and Wingmore Farm at Bishops Cleeve. The Wingmore Farm site was deemed the most suitable by the Air Ministry, but overhead electricity cables were to be installed there, making it somewhat less suitable. The Quedgeley site, a munitions factory during World War I, eventually became RAF Quedgeley, and the Staverton site was acquired for the Joint Airport. The Westgate Motor House’s aviation division took on the running of the airport, and a grand opening was scheduled for 16 July 1936, with Viscount Swinton, the Secretary of State for Air, cutting the ribbon, and entertainments including an RAF display of flying and the Cotswold Handicap Air Race, consisting of three laps of a circuit from the airport to Painswick Beacon, Leckhampton Hill and back to the airport again. Unfortunately, in the week leading up to the big day it rained heavily, and given that the runway was grass, the opening had to be called off for safety reasons. The inaugural flight eventually left the airport on 10 May 1937, operated by Great Western Railway Air Services and carrying a party of dignitaries to Bristol Airport…although they had to get the train home as there was no return flight!

There are many more innovations to discover as I work through the files, not least the redevelopment of the city centre…but that’s a tale for another day. This time, I’ll leave you with something that you can look for yourself, if you go down to the bottom of Worcester Street: a trace of an old innovation superseded, covered over, forgotten about and now reappeared (until the City Council next resurface the street, of course!)…

Photograph of the road showing a tram rail peaking through
Tram rail under the zebra crossing at the junction of Worcester Street and Northgate Street, covered over when the tram service was replaced by buses c.1930. Thank you to Clive Andrews for pointing it out to me!

Karen Davidson, senior archivist

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