May 2017

May 2017

I am the BMIHT Archivist, Gillian Bardsley, and one of the things I love about our Archive Collections is their diversity. Alongside the business documents, the sales brochures and the technical material generated by the mainstream manufacturers, we hold more personal items which belonged to the some of the people who shaped the industry. This includes the Herbert Austin Papers, a series of boxes containing fascinating items from the office of the engineer, entrepreneur and industrialist who founded the Longbridge factory in 1905. This is where my document of the month can be found, an early example of a British passport.

Why This Document?

There has been much in the news recently about the design of the British passport. Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, but it was not until 1988 that burgundy-coloured passport we are now familiar with was adopted. In that year member states all agreed to use a common format which for the first time would be machine-readable. The EEC became the European Union in 1997.

The British passport may be about to change again as a result of the referendum vote to leave, but it has a longer history than you may think. In England, it is generally believed that the first 'passports' were issued in the reign of Henry V to make it easier for British subjects to travel abroad. In 1794, issuing British passports became the responsibility of the Office of the Secretary of State. During the Nineteenth Century such documents became more common. Rail and road connections were being developed so fast that many more people could travel internationally, both for business and for pleasure. At the same time, international borders were becoming better defined.

This passport was issued to Herbert Austin, proprietor of the Austin Motor Company, in May 1910. It differs from the modern passport in that it consists of a single sheet of paper. Although it is valid for five years, it does not allow travel to multiple destinations but instead covers a single trip to Russia. The document carries the royal insignia, and grandly proclaims that it has been issued by Sir Edward Grey:

'a Baronet in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a Member of His Britannic Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, a Member of Parliament, etc, etc, etc, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs'.

It has been signed by both Sir Edward Grey and Herbert Austin, describing Austin's profession as 'Director' and giving his age as 43.

Despite the differences, if you check the first page of your modern passport you will find it still includes one particular paragraph:

'We request and require, in the name of His Majesty, all those whom it may concern to allow Mr Herbert Austin, British Subject, travelling to Russia, to pass freely without let or hindrance and afford him any assistance and protection of which he may stand in need'.

The Russian stamps show that the business trip went ahead and Herbert Austin duly travelled to St Petersburg. It appears that he was successful in his negotiations. In 1914 the Austin Motor Company won a Russian government contract for armoured cars, tanks, lorries and ambulances worth £500,000 according to Grace's Guide.

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