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September 2017

We were very excited at the beginning of August to learn that our application for the Business Archives Cataloguing Grant for 2017 had been successful, which will be dedicated to improving access to the extensive Lucas Collection.

Sara Kinsey of the Business Archives Council presents the cheque to the BMIHT Archive team on 13 October 2017, marking the start of the Lucas cataloguing project.

For the almost 20 years now, our Lucas Archivist, Alison Roper, has undertaken the daunting task of identifying, organising, re-packaging, and boxing the comprehensive company archive which originally came into the Trust’s care back in 1990. In the course of this work she has created a detailed hand-written catalogue, informed by her in-depth knowledge of the Collection which goes back even further, since she was the original curator of the Collection when it was based at Lucas headquarters in the Great King Street factory, Birmingham, during the 1980s. The award will make it possible to convert part of this catalogue into a electronic version which will be submitted to The National Archive’s online resource ‘Discovery’ (which brings together the catalogues of archives nationwide) at the end of the project.

Along the way we will share our progress on social media and identify interesting material which can enhance our exhibitions, our education programmes and our community engagement activities. Thus a hidden treasure will be made more widely available to all those who have an interest in its preservation and use.

The Great King Street factory in Birmingham was an unusual building which at first sight would not be taken for an industrial facility. The left wing held the offices, the right wing was predominantly for manufacturing and they were linked by a corridor which resembled the bridges over the canals of Venice. The factory was often decorated for special occasions, in this case the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937.

In telling us about the award, the Business Archive Council praised the richness of the Collection and its national significance and you can find their reasons for supporting the Lucas project on the BAC website www.businessarchivescouncil.org.uk/. We can only agree with their assessment. The Lucas Collection is one of the finest examples of its type, a comprehensive archive built up by a single manufacturer over many decades. We look after archive material relating to many of the big players of the 20th century motor industry in Britain but none of them can match the consistency of Lucas in systematically preserving its history. As well as documenting the company’s products, there is a wealth of material about the family which founded it, their business practices, and what it was like to work for them. All of this adds up to a unique picture of one company’s way of doing business and its relationship with its workforce which is reflected in the affection ex-employees have for the company and their continuing interest in its historic material.

The company’s origins go back to the 1850s when Joseph Lucas, a recently reformed alcoholic, decided to go into trade to support his growing family. He began by selling paraffin oil from a basket skip which he wheeled round the streets of Hockley in Birmingham and the oldest item in the Collection is a handwritten account book from 1860 listing his transactions. He proved to have a talent for business and quickly built up a network of loyal customers. By the 1870s he was manufacturing a range of items, soon concentrating on lamps including the famous ‘Tom Bowling’ ship lamp which he patented in 1875.

Joseph Lucas

Harry Lucas

Joseph's eldest son, Harry, had been helping his father in the business since he was 17 and in 1882 they formed a partnership, trading as Joseph Lucas & Son. Together they exploited the newly developing cycle industry, designing and making a wide range of lamps, bells and accessories including a hub lamp for the ‘ordinary’ bicycle which they called ‘King of the Road’ - a name which quickly became associated with other Lucas products. As transport technology rapidly progressed around the turn of the 20th century, the company grew with it. Joseph Lucas Limited was formed in 1897, expanding its reach to Motorcycles and Motor cars.

As part of the Collection we have many of these early product catalogues, which contain beautifully drawn illustrations of all their many products. Harry Lucas was well-known for his sense of humour and lively personality and it is likely that he was behind the unique style of much of the company’s publications. The product lists were given quirky, if difficult to pronounce, names including Cyclealities, Motorcyclealities, Autocalities, Motoralities, Electricalities and Batteryalities all of which were trademarked. It would seem that Harry himself could see the joke when he produced a leaflet in 1896 with the title ‘All good VELOCIPEDESTRIANISTICALARIANS use Lucas Cyclealities’.

An ‘Electricalities’ brochure from the 1930s, which features some of the cartoon characters which are a common feature of Lucas literature throughout its history. Though its products were far from glamorous, this style of illustration makes the archive a constant source of entertainment!

As the years went by the company developed into a major supplier of lighting and electrical equipment to the motor industry and beyond. It had its headquarters at the Great King Street factory in Birmingham, a building with striking architecture for a manufacturing facility – but its branches spread across England and worldwide, with many notable subsidiaries such as CAV, Rotax and Girling among others which are also well-represented in the archive. Through this expansion the business stretched far wider than electrical equipment, embracing commercial vehicles and aeronautics. There is even a ‘Mary Ann’ vacuum cleaner in the Collection, manufactured in the 1930s and advertised as ‘neat, handsome, shock proof and economical’. During the 1990s Lucas Industries began to undergo a series of takeovers which led to the end of its existence as an independent business and the Great King Street factory was demolished in 1993, though the brand and its distinctive green logo still survive as ‘Lucas Electrical’, part of the Elta Automotive Company.

Lucas subsidiaries such as CAV, ROTAX and Girling are also well represented in the Collection, throwing a light on other aspects of the business such as commercial vehicles and the aeronautical industry.

If your appetite has been whetted to discover more about the richness of this Collection, you can see a selection of images from the Lucas Archive on our Flickr page flickr.com/photos/bmiht. This initiative was started by our Archive Trainee, Mollie, and it has been gratifying to see the response as viewings continue to grow every day. This assures us that this project is a worthy recipient of the grant and that there will be an enthusiastic response when the catalogue becomes available early in 2018.