The United Africa Company [UAC] archive: October Updates
During the past month we’ve continued our exploratory work in the Unilever archive pursuing a broad scoping exercise to determine and survey what is contained within Storeroom Number 4. The archive catalogue is extensive, detailed, and provides incredibly useful descriptions of what lies within – but inevitably there are unexpected items and fine details that remain beyond the limits of the usual cataloguing descriptions.
Our sampling has examined a wide range of materials, including the large photographic albums from the late 19th and early 20thC. These carefully preserved documents reveal the early ventures in the Oil Rivers, the exploits of the Niger Company, the development of Freetown, and new buildings in Ghana. The albums have provided important details of the early trading stations that transitioned from boat hulks to riverbank factories and stores of the Niger Delta, Burutu, and beyond. The collection includes photographs of everyday street scenes, new stores, and wharf extensions, we well as major political events. The images from Freetown, Sierra Leone, by photographer Alphonso Sylvester Lisk-Carew (1887–1969) taken in 1905, reveal a systematic street-by-street catalogue of the burgeoning town, and details of new store being built for Peter Ratcliffe Ltd. Most of the various trading companies produced and retained extensive photographic records, including, for example G. B. Ollivant with its Manchester warehouses filled with calico and wax prints ready for export to the coast. Palm oil was the main export commodity being shipped from West Africa, and William Hesketh Lever’s plantations in Congo are an essential part of this story. We’ve uncovered some early photos of the plantations and worker housing at ‘Leverville’ (now Lusanga).
We’ve began to review the timber processing factories and associated settlements of Sapele and Samreboi. Trading as the African Timber and Plywood Company the archive includes an important set of material on the creation of these sawmills, processing plants, and associated staff housing and facilities. The Company was also involved in developing a series of experimental prefabricated and kit housing. We’re especially interested in the relationship the UAC had with construction and building materials companies/contractors, and we’ve reviewed the archival files connected to Taylor Woodrow. The UAC was a shareholder in this major construction company, and we’d like to examine how the two enterprises collaborated to deliver their building programmes and wider ambitions. The complex web of UAC businesses and shareholding arrangements becomes ever more complex and entangled.
A significant portion of the UAC archive is devoted to brewing and breweries. The UAC established collaborative ventures with Heineken and Guinness to produce the famous Star beer and a range of malt-flavoured beverages. We’ve found some extraordinary designs for worker welfare facilities designed by Godwin and Hopwood at the Lagos brewery, as well as factory layouts and extensive promotional material. This is another example of the UAC working with specialist producers, spreading its risk, and also creating new business for its various subsidiaries. A similar model was deployed with UAC Motors that imported various vehicles and acted as agents, spare suppliers, and repair garages for the manufacturers in Europe and US.
Retail and Wholesale business remained a core part of the UAC enterprise with the Kingsway Department stores being the most prominent and well-known retailer. Some excellent work has already been done on Kingsway, but the extensive archival material reveals a lot more to examine. Major photographic collections and architectural drawings devoted this array of shops and their lavish interior displays have been carefully preserved. The largest and most famous branches were at Accra and Lagos, but other lesser-known stores at, for example, Apapa (designed by T P Bennett, 1960) and Jos, clearly warrant further research and investigation.
Our archival trawling exercise will continue until Christmas 2021 and we’re hoping that by that time we’ll have a clearer picture of the overall collection and the areas/themes we’ll continue to investigate to much greater depths.
This is very exciting to see and to read! I look forward to learning more about your findings and the wider physical and commercial developments of the UAC.
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‘Most of the various trading companies produced and retained extensive photographic records, including, for example G. B. Ollivant with its Manchester warehouses filled with calico and wax prints ready for export to the coast.’ I am actually researching the history of wax prints in West Africa. Is it possible to see the above mentioned photo and or others?
Hi Helen, thanks for your message. The Unilever Archive reference is “UAC/1/11/9/79 G B Ollivant Photo album 1926-1984” and there are some b+w photos of the cotton and warehouses in Manchester… just a couple, but they might be of interest to you. I can send you a low res image if you email me on email@example.com ; best wishes iain