Avonmouth Docks – some uncharted territory

In this blog, second-year undergraduate History student Jacky Baker reflects on her time spent this summer working in a local archive:


“Archiving is yet another one of those fields that has, to some degree, come out of the closet to understand itself as a form of creation and production imbued with subjectivity rather than an objective bureaucratic practice.”

Marvin Taylor, the Director of Archives at Fales Library


For a week this summer, I was creative, got dirty, and had fun, whilst moving, sorting and categorising about one thousand books, pamphlets, and journals.  The end result was a library at the Bristol Port Company in which I hope existing users can relocate items, and new users can go exploring.

Aerial view of Avonmouth and Portbury Docks.  Reproduced by kind permission of The Bristol Port Company.

As I was staring at the bookshelves, working out where to start, I was reminded of a recent conversation. The conversation was with David Lane, a writing fellow of Bristol University researching for a new play, who made me think that an archive could be alive.  The objects, books and letters of the past remain a forgotten store until retrieved.  In the role of creator of the library/archive this summer, it was my responsibility to create a manual, map, or phrase book for present-day historians to explore the past and find answers, or more questions.

Part of Library in its original state.

The library did take on a life for me.  I certainly talked to some of the books, when they failed to stand up, or when a gap on the shelf was too small for a category of publications planned for it.  Tetris – an older computer game – became a reality for me, that week.

I was first introduced to the Bristol Port Company archives on a research visit, for my first year undergraduate project on the 1949 Dock Strike, as part of Dr Grace Huxford’s unit ‘Britain’s Cold War’.  The majority of records relating to the Port of Bristol before 1991, when it was purchased from Bristol City Council, lie in the city’s archives. However, I found gaps where I expected to find original source material.  With an email, and an appointment made, I was introduced to the Bristol Port Company and their reference library which certainly helped my project.  I resolved then, to seek a revisit, and try to discover more items on shelves, and / or in boxes on the floor at Avonmouth.

One could call it work experience, as I had volunteered to look at the Port’s forgotten resource.  Businesses, needing to focus on the present and the future, have little time to spare for such a task. Fortunately for me John Chaplin, the Director of External Affairs and Special Projects, very trustingly giving me free reign as I set off exploring.

Organised chaos / work in Progress

Whilst considering if Bevin’s biography belonged with ‘Trade Union and Industrial Relations’ or ‘History and Art’, I wondered how many other local companies have areas such as this:  a room of books, or a dark cupboard of dusty old ledgers forgotten by many, sometimes read by a few whilst perhaps killing a wet lunchtime.  Could a keen amateur offer their services to other companies to bring some order, or at least make the archives more accessible for other historians to use?

After five days. I had categorised the library and tried to create a framework for later completion with a more detailed book list.  Some items I listed individually, to show others the dormant source material located on their shelves.  For example, one envelope contained a velum pilotage certificate, and letters of reference for an Arthur Jackson, from the 1920s.   One book – the personal telephone directory of the Traffic Manager, from the 1950s – was an analogue ‘Facebook’ containing clippings of marriages, deaths, and promotions of those contacts in his directory.  There was an insurance ledger dating back to the 1890s, and minutes of the Dues Committee, from around the same time, that had extracts of letters protesting at the rate of charges for harbour use.  Should another undergraduate take up the study of the Canadian Seamen’s Union 1949 Dock strike, they could find the Rochdale Report, printed TGWU leaflets warning about Communist influence, and other interesting references to the Cold War period.

The finished library

The end result was something I felt proud to have created.  The library, though already in existence, had a frame of categories.  Even the Chairman, Terence Morduant, expressed an interest in spending an afternoon amongst the books, reacquainting himself with old friends, and finding some new ones.  Next year I will doing some more archive exploring, this time in the engineers’ library at The Bristol Port Company, hard hat not required (I hope).



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