Ref no35810
TitleSir George White papers
DescriptionSir George White (1854-1916) was a major figure in the development of transport in the United Kingdom. He played a leading part in promoting and operating tramway systems throughout the British Isles. He also acquired substantial interests in railway, dock and shipping companies, such as the Taff Vale Railway and the Great Western Steam-Ship Co. In the early 1900s, he was a pioneer in the manufacture and operation of motor buses and taxis, and in 1910 he established the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co. (later the Bristol Aeroplane Co.), which was to make a major contribution to the development of civil and military aviation in the United Kingdom. His interests, however, spread well beyond the world of transport. He owned a stockbroking business, had interests in brewing and coalmining, and was involved in the garden suburb movement. In later life, he became famous for his philanthropic and charitable work in Bristol and elsewhere, but was also noted for his implacable hostility to trade unionism. Inaccessible for many years, the George White Papers have now been sorted and catalogued. The collection is a major source for business and transport historians, and reveals a great deal about regional capitalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It also contains much of interest to students of labour and urban history.

The records were offered to the Bristol Record Office in 1970 by George White, Evans, Tribe & Co., a Bristol stockbroking concern founded by White in 1875. Though in a very dirty and chaotic condition, the potential value of the collection was quickly recognized. It consists of groups of letters, accounts, maps and other documents relating to various tramway companies, White's stockbroking activities, the Western Wagon & Property Co. (of which White was successively secretary, managing director and chairman), the Main Colliery Co. (a South Wales concern in which White had a substantial interest), employers' organizations and charities, White's personal dealings, and the business activities of his brother Samuel, together with a few records of the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co. The collection also includes a large number of documents relating to the tramway and railway interests of Sir James Clifton Robinson, with whom White collaborated for most of his career. These records were acquired by George White & Co. shortly after Robinson's death in November 1910. (George and Samuel White were Robinson's executors.)

Records shedding light on the history of tramways and tramway undertakings form a significant part of the collection. The Bristol Tramways Co. provided White with his first experience of the world of business. He was secretary of the company 1874-94, managing director 1894-1900, and chairman 1900-16. Papers on the Bristol tramways are few in number compared with other sections of the collection, but they nonetheless contain valuable information. There is a complete set of reports and accounts for 1876-1934, and reports, speeches and correspondence on the expansion of the system in 1878-80 and 1904 and on Bristol's adoption in the 1890s - ahead of any other major British city - of electric traction. There are also a few records dealing with labour relations and conditions of employment. White used his Bristol experience during the 1890s in acquiring tramway interests throughout the British Isles. In 1892 he became a director of Imperial Tramways, which operated lines in Dublin, Reading, Gloucester, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton. The collection includes directors' reports and accounts, lists of shareholders, correspondence, maps and plans, and agreements with suppliers (notably the British Thomson-Houston Co., one of the principal suppliers of electrical equipment for British tramway systems). In 1894, White's activities were further extended when he and his associates acquired a controlling interest in West Metropolitan Tramways, which was immediately reconstructed as London United Tramways (LUT). The LUT records form a major part of the collection. There is an incomplete set of reports and accounts, supplemented by more detailed cost accounting information, traffic returns and reports on wages and conditions. There are some useful comparisons between LUT and rival London tramway operators. Another set of records is the result of LUT's frequent applications to parliament for extensions and electrification. It contains petitions from supporters and opponents of proposals and numerous large-scale maps and plans. LUT publicity material also forms an important part of the collection. The company produced brochures and newspapers extolling the virtues of electric trams, and souvenir volumes were published to mark the opening of new lines. There are 201 10x12 inch photographs, illustrating the electrification of the system between 1899 and 1902. Favourite subjects are new cars and equipment and the construction of trackwork and overhead power lines. Finally, the LUT papers contain interesting information on labour relations and conditions of employment in the 1900s. There is a large number of newscuttings and reports about a major strike of 1909 when the company dismissed the strikers and insisted that employees sign an oath of loyalty to company and managing director.

In all his tramway ventures, George White was greatly assisted by James Clifton Robinson, and many records, especially those referring to technical and engineering matters, were amassed by Robinson rather than White. Clifton Robinson (1848-1910) rose to prominence as engineer in charge of tramway construction and operation - horse, cable, and electric - in many towns and cities, including Los Angeles, Edinburgh, and London. Robinson was responsible for the preparation of many of the maps and plans of tramway systems in the collection, which also contains his voluminous correspondence files. He prided himself on his knowledge of tramway and electric railway technology, working hard to keep abreast of new developments - hence the wealth of technical reports, papers and statistical analyses in the collection. Many of these refer to LUT, with which Robinson served as managing director and chief engineer between 1895 and 1910. It is clear from the papers, moreover, that as his reputation grew so too did demand for his services. In 1902, for instance, he joined the board of the Metropolitan District Railway, and there is a very full report of the effect of electrification on that company's finances. He was employed as consultant for leading tramway engineering concerns like British Thomson-Houston and National Conduit & Cable, and, towards the end of his life, Robinson was engaged in tramway projects as far afield as Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, and the Philippines. It is evident that the partnership between George White and Clifton Robinson was mutually rewarding. White provided the financial and organizational expertise needed to make the most of Robinson's engineering talent. Their skills were complementary; their thinking similar on most matters. This is borne out by the documents relating to their dealings with parliament, local councils and residents. The question of tramway regulation is a recurrent theme. Tramway promoters needed parliamentary authority for new routes, and tramway operations were closely supervised by the Board of Trade. Track, vehicles, and later electicity supply, had to conform to official standards. Maximum fares and the frequency of services were fixed. Beyond this, relationships with local authorities and communities were of great importance. Unlike railways, tramways needed the support of local and county councils. The George White Papers contain a large number of documents consequent upon regulation. The promotion of tramways became much easier once their benefits were widely recognized. Yet relations between operators and regulators were often difficult. In London, for example, Richmond council was notoriously hostile towards tramway extensions, whilst London County Council successfully resisted all attempts to build privately-owned tramways in its territory. Whenever possible White and his associates took a firm line in dealings with local and national authorities. The evidence shows just how skilled they became at parliamentary and legal work. Nevertheless, there was often a hard fight before a satisfactory solution was reached. From the 1890s, for instance, electrification was a much-debated (and therefore much-documented) issue. In particular, the use of overhead wires was often opposed by councils on aesthetic grounds, although it was technically superior to other methods of current collection.

Another matter on which the George White Papers throw light is technological change. White and Robinson began their careers in the era of horse trams, but the archives reveal them as enthusiastic innovators. They took a leading role in the electrification of tramways. Robinson showed a keen interest in underground railways. White actively encouraged the development of petrol-driven buses and taxis. Both men were equally concerned with the economics of technological change. As a result, the papers contain much valuable financial information that might be used to subject long-standing generalizations to more rigorous analysis. The argument that concessions made to politicians caused enduring damage to tramway companies, for instance, is an obvious candidate for examination. A related question of great interest is the effect of municipal takeover on tramway costs and profitability. The 1870 Tramways Act provided for the eventual purchase of tramway systems by local authorities, and by 1906 123 tramways in Britain were municipally owned and operated. The debate over whether tramways should be publicly or privately owned was especially protracted in Bristol where the council first began to consider the matter in 1897. The question of compulsory purchase was again under consideration in 1907 and 1913-22, but in fact the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Co. remained in private ownership until 1938. The takeover proposals generated a lot of data about operating methods, costs, prices, and profitability. Of considerable interest are a series of reports commissioned by Bristol City Council in 1913 to determine whether other local authorities had found it beneficial to acquire tramways. The consultants' brief was very broad; inter alia, they were instructed to report on the value of the tramways, the supply of electricity to the system, the probable income which the council could expect, and the relative merits of trams, trolley buses and motor buses. In addition to their detailed survey of the Bristol system, they also compared the undertaking with municipally-controlled tramways throughout the United Kingdom, and thus their report provides fascinating evidence on municipal trading.

The George White Papers, however, contain information on many matters other than tramways. In 1875, White set up as an independent stockbroker. His subsequent career was extraordinarily successful. He was president of the Bristol Stock Exchange for many years, and the collection contains many records relating to the operation of a provincial stock exchange as well as his own stockbroking activities. There are approximately 150 volumes of letter books, dating from 1876 to 1938, together with ledgers, share registers, and Stock Exchange records. They indicate the breadth of his interests, and reveal a good deal about his operating methods. From the 1880s, White played an influential role in Bristol's business community, managing his own portfolio actively, and acting on behalf of important local clients like Joseph Wethered (a leading Bristol coal owner) and Stuckey's Bank. Although he traded in a wide range of stocks and shares, his particular expertise lay in transport undertakings. His business was also strongly regional in nature. Bristol capitalists, for example, were heavily involved in mining, transport and brewery companies in South Wales, and a large part of the George White & Co. documents refers to dealings in their shares. One of the most interesting aspects of this part of the collection is White's use of his stockbroking business as a device for gathering information about his multifarious activities. There are volumes of newscuttings which cover virtually the entire period from 1870 to 1916. Many topics are covered. There are papers on technological developments in transport, on labour relations, and general surveys of financial markets. The greatest number of reports refer to companies in which George White had a substantial interest. They show that he played an active part in shareholders' meetings. His presence must often have been viewed with trepidation by directors. He represented himself not as financial operator but as substantial shareholder, very much concerned to act in the best interests of his fellow investors. He was particularly interested in the modernization and rationalization of companies in which he was involved. One of his favourite ploys was to call for the establishment of a shareholders' committee to examine the company's books and report on the performance of directors. He used this device frequently with dock and shipping companies. In the case of the Great Western Steam-Ship Co. it resulted in his election to the board. Another notable case is that of the Taff Vale Railway, in which White had invested heavily. In the 1880s Taff Vale was widely regarded as the most successful railway in Britain. In 1891, however, competition from the recently opened Barry Railway precipitated a crisis and White, as chairman of the shareholders' committee, was able to remove the entire board of directors and replace them with his own nominees. His often tempestuous relationship with Taff Vale and other railways in South Wales and the Bristol region - including his unsuccessful promotion of the Taff Vale, Cardiff and Rhymney Fusion Bills in 1909-1910 - is chronicled in illuminating detail.

White's machinations were generally to the advantage of his fellow shareholders. Yet at times he was the subject of adverse publicity. His 'watering' of railway shares was viewed with suspicion, as was his manipulation of brewery shares. The proposed Taff Vale Fusion Bill, which would have netted him a commission fee of £50,000, also led to adverse comment when it came before parliament. Nevertheless, White remained a respected and trusted figure and he was often employed to liquidate or restructure unsuccessful transport undertakings. For example, the collection includes two volumes of letters relating to the liquidation of the York Tramways Co. in 1884-6, and miscellaneous documents relating to West Metropolitan Tramways, which White and Clifton Robinson transformed into the vastly more successful LUT.

White's growing reputation led in 1888 to his appointment as secretary of the Western Wagon & Property Co. About one third of the George White collection relates to the firm and covers the period from 1881 until its voluntary liquidation in 1935. (George White & Co. served as liquidators and so retained the Western Wagon documents). The company was originally incorporated as the Western Wagon Co. in 1860, concentrating at first on the manufacture, sale, hire, and repair of railway wagons for the South Wales coal trade. Wagons were acquired from other manufacturers or built in the company's own Cardiff works. There are approximately 60 volumes or boxes of correspondence, agreements and legal documents relating to the wagon business. In 1881, the company was reconstructed as the Western Wagon and Property Co. and began to act as 'Capitalists and Financiers', advancing money against suitable securities (principally shares or freehold and leasehold property). Although the wagon business remained a steady source of income, this diversification proved very lucrative. The records of a general financing business do not seem, at first sight, to be of much interest. On closer examination, however, it becomes evident that the firm played a crucial role in financing the business activities of White and his associates. Essentially, the company acted as a private bank, and its records provide interesting insights into the relationships between White and other local capitalists. In 1894, for example. White was himself the beneficiary of loans totalling £12,000 to fund speculative and promotional ventures. Imperial Tramways also received substantial loans in the 1890s to assist its expansion and electrification programme. The minute books - there are 10 volumes covering the period 1881-1935 - detail many such transactions, and demonstrate the importance of White's contribution to this side of the business. Interestingly, the reports and accounts, which are available for the entire period, give no indication of the extent of the company's dealings with its own directors.Western Wagon was also active in property dealings. In the 1900s it became involved in the'garden suburb'movement. Filton, at the northern end of Bristol's tramway system, was developed by the company. There is a superb collection of newscuttings, publicity material and legal documents relating to the Filton Park Estate, 1904-1931. The firm's contribution to the development of Bristol should fascinate urban historians. Moreover, in view of its interest in Filton, it is hardly surprising to find that Western Wagon played a part in establishing and sustaining the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co. The factory and airfield was built on its land, and it was to Western Wagon that White turned for financial support. A register of securities shows that by May 1914 he had received loans totalling £180,000. Clearly, an examination of Western Wagon's records - despite their apparently unpropitious nature - is necessary to an understanding of Whiite's business activities and the growth of the Bristol region.

The tramways, stockbroking and Western Wagon papers make up the greater part of the George White collection. There are in addition various documents and personal papers which shed light on White's attitudes towards his workforce and his place in Bristol's social and business life. He was a staunch member of the Conservative Club, fiercely opposed to trade unionism. Any employee was liable to dismissal on joining a union. When attempts were made to unionise the Bristol tramways workforce in the early 1900s, he responded with a publicity campaign against 'interference by outside interests', and granted financial rewards to loyal workers. White accepted a measure of responsibility for the welfare of his workforce. His creation of Bristol Tramways' provident fund is well documented in the collection. White was also an increasingly influential and popular figure in Bristol, especially after 1900 when he became heavily involved in philanthropic work. He was President of the Bristol Royal Infirmary from 1906, and administered the work of the Red Cross in Bristol. These efforts are documented in two volumes of newscuttings and regular correspondence with charitable institutions. Despite his many commitments, White remained strongly attached to Bristol. He often responded generously to appeals from local charities.

The collection is not without its shortcomings. The original order of material has often been lost, especially where boxes or parcels of documents had burst, and there is disappointingly little information about the British & Colonial Aeroplane Co. (The aircraft company retained its own records at Filton, and apparently many have been lost). In addition, all but a few of the records relating to the Main Colliery Co. were transferred to the Glamorgan Record Office in Cardiff, where they remain uncatalogued. Yet, patchy as the collection might be, it is one that will yield valuable information to scholars with many and varied interests. Transport historians and those fascinated by the multifarious dealings of businessmen, in a close-knit community, are especially fortunate. Sir George White and Sir James Clifton Robinson, principal authors of this collection, were shrewd and intriguing characters whose interests ranged widely and whose significance may now, following the preparation of this catalogue, be more fully appreciated.

Overview compiled by Charles Harvey and Jon Press, January 1989, an abridged and amended version of an article published in Business Archives in Nov 1987
Extent33 shelves
Administrative historySir George White (1854-1916) was a major figure in the development of transport in the United Kingdom. See the lengthy overview in the 'Description' field for greater detail
ArrangementSee the overview in the 'Description' field for details regarding a lack of original order. The collection has therefore been split into four major sections relating to George White, Sir James Clifton Robinson, London United Transport and the Western Wagon and Property Co
Related materialHeld at Bristol Archives: Records of Bristol Corporation tramways committees, 1875-1937 (ref. M/BCC/TRAM); Records of the Bristol Tramways Co. and the Bristol Omnibus Co., 1874-1978 (ref. 39735) / Held at Glamorgan Archives: Records of the Main Colliery Co. (unlisted) / Held at The National Archives: Files re Bristol and Gloucester Tram Companies (ref. BT 31); Bristol & North Somerset Railway (ref. RAIL 77); Bristol Port Railway & Pier Co. (ref. RAIL 81); London United Tramways (ref. RAIL 1068)
Custodial historyThe records were offered to the Bristol Record Office in 1970 by George White, Evans, Tribe & Co., a Bristol stockbroking concern founded by White in 1875, and deposited in 1976. The collection appears to have fully catalogued c. 1988 thanks to a grant from the British Library Board.

Show related Persons records.

NA1474White; Sir; George (1854-1916)1854-1916
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