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The Architecture of the United Africa Company

Following a six month delay due the COVID-19 Pandemic, our latest project to research the Architecture of the United Africa Company has finally started. With generous funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the project will run for two years and result in a series of papers, exhibition, and a monograph.

The Principal Investigator is Iain Jackson (Liverpool School of Architecture), with Co-Investigator Claire Tunstall (Global Head of Art, Archives and Records Management, Unilever Archives and Records Management). This close collaboration will allow the project to have full access to the 1000 linear metre UAC archive held at Port Sunlight, Wirral. 

The three research associates for the project are Ewan Harrison, Michele Tenzon, and Rixt Woudstra.

F&A Swanzy Store, Axim, 1903, Unilever Archive

Background

The history of West African cities has often focused on government projects, health, segregation and so on, with far less attention given to the one of the largest contributors to the built environment – the mercantile traders and their endeavours.

This project will investigate the impact of the mercantile developments across former ‘British West Africa’ starting with the late 19thC and ending with the early years of political independence of each nation.  The shops, trading centres, high streets, and factories offer an alternative view of these cities, and whilst some of these buildings are ‘everyday’ functional structures, when viewed collectively they form a large and significant assembly across the West African region. Through these buildings and wider town plans that accommodated them, the imperial mission is clearly revealed, as are changing tastes, designs, technologies, and economic positions. The architecture, interior spaces, and streetscape serves as a gauge for wider political development, as well as mapping social shifts as the quest for independence came to fruition.

J. Walkden’s Store, Accra,1920, Unilever Archive

One of the largest of these firms operating in West Africa was the United Africa Company (UAC). Whilst formally established in 1929 its constituent firms trace back to the late 18thC and include the Royal Niger Company (operating from the territory that is now Nigeria) and the African and Eastern Trading Company, as well as a whole range of other enterprises. These businesses were effectively operating in a quasi-government capacity and held immense power and influence over what became the colonial occupation of the region. Their contribution to the built environment shaped transport infrastructure, housing, town planning, as well as industrial development of docklands, warehouses, and factories. They also developed more glamorous projects including high-end department stores incorporating the latest design and retail environments; and shaped the fashions and cultural agenda of the towns through facilities such as cinema halls and community centres.

Kingsway Store, Accra, 1950s, Unilever Archive

How did the UAC contribute to the development of the built environment in West Africa, and in what way did it shape the streets, districts, and cities within this region? 

Beyond the pragmatic requirements of the business, what type of architecture and planning was it pursuing, and how did this inform the streetscape and experience of the West African city?

Objectives

To develop a new historical study of West African town and cities through the buildings, plans, and infrastructure projects of one of the largest trading conglomerates in the region, the United Africa Company. 

Archives

The primary data for this project is held in the UAC Archive, now part of the Unilever Archives, located in Port Sunlight, Wirral. This is a substantial collection and an unapparelled set of material relating to British and post-colonial West Africa. It is a largely ‘untapped’ archive, recently catalogued, and forms a unique set of documents relating to the various businesses ran and acquired by the UAC. In addition to the written sources, the collection includes an exceptional set of photographic records, company films, and recordings of interviews with UAC employees. We’ll also consult various other repositories including the UK National Archives; The Public Records and Archives Department(PRAAD) in Accra, and the National Archives in Sierra Leone (held at Fourah Bay College, Freetown); National Archives of Nigeria (Ibadan Branch). 

Article by Prof Stephanie Decker, Professor at Aston Business School specializing in organizational history and international strategy. Originally published here: https://orghist.com/2019/06/21/unlocking-archives-unilever-historical-archives/

On 20th June 2019 Unilever kindly hosted (with additional support from the University of Liverpool) a workshop showcasing the amazing material that can be found within business archives. It was a really great day to learn more about how different researchers are using the collections and the great work by archivist who make all of this accessible to the public.

Keynote by Valerie Johnson, Director of Research, The National Archives

Business archives – a bit of a passion killer?

Valerie Johnson opened her keynote by highlighting that business archives are often seen as dull and uninteresting – to the point she was once told by a conference organizers that he had not expected her research talk about business archives to be so interesting. Nothing could not be further from the truth. For almost any subject of interest to researchers, business archives have materials, as companies were often spearheading new developments (e.g. technology), were embedded in social and cultural trends of the day (e.g. the culture of imperialism), design history (e.g. in the Board of Trade archives) to name but a few.

In a whistle stop tour through a wide range of archives, Johnson illustrated the history of women at work through an architectural map in the ING Barings Archive, and the representations of empire in the textiles archive of John Lewis, and the United Africa Company trademarks at Unilever Historical Archives.

To get a better sense of what Unilever Historical Archives do, see their
Instagram site: https://www.instagram.com/unileverarchives/

Johnson closed by reiterating that business records offer magnificent materials and insights into society, technology and attitudes of the past, not just the records of business operations in the narrow sense. So she closed with highlighting the importance of:

Putting the passion back into business archives!

Snippets from archival research

The day continued with wide-ranging research presentations. The morning opened with Jeanette Strickland introducing the audience to William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers (one half of the original Unilever), a formidable businessmen and somewhat of a micro-manager.

This was followed by Frank Thorpe, University of Liverpool, talking about advertising and beyond. His presentation is based on his doctoral thesis that investigates the changing attitudes towards personal hygiene, or “BO”, and how
products like deodorant were gendered and stigmatized at times. At Unilever, he
has researched uncatalogued material, but also used a range of online newspaper
archives to understand the context within which these adverts appeared.

Ronnie Hughes offered a different view on Port Sunlight, the location of the Unilever factory and archives, where the workshop took place, by asking a key question:

What must it have been like to live in someone else’s utopia 100 years after they died?

Walking through Port Sunlight village in the morning before the workshop, this is not unlike the question we asked ourselves – would we actually like to live here,
as beautiful as it is? As a heritage site, it has a very distinct and unique
feel, which is unlike other neighbourhoods. Hughes highlights that he has asked
communities questions about what their perfect place would look like before
starting this research project. He blogs at A Sense of Place.

Prof Matt Reed finished the morning session by outlining his search for the ‘origin story’ of the collaboration between Unilever and the University of Liverpool, which dates back to 1906, which was “multi-faceted and sporadic.”
Lever donated money to a number of departments, including Civic Design and town planning. The Department of Industrial Chemistry was particularly well aligned with Lever’s business interests. Reed finished with a reflection of the value
of searching archives versus the self-taught googling that passes for research
outside of archives.

A fascinating tour of the archives at lunchtime that featured highlights such as Marmite pants.

The afternoon sessions kicked off with Dr Rory Miller’s exploration of why David Fieldhouse’s Unilever Overseas is missing a chapter on Latin America – apparently he fell out with his research assistant. 25 years ago, Miller first visited the Unilever archives to find out what was actually available on Unilever’s business in Argentina and beyond. Perusing the directors’ visiting reports, he outlined how Argentinians rarely bought Lifebuoy soap other than to wash their dogs.

In her talk about the design process, Dr Lee Wright highlighted the potential importance of archives for the design practice and the sourcing of design ideas. In her teaching, students reference the past through images they source from Pinterest, highlighting the significance of social media sites in mediating our visual understanding of the past.

The day closed with two fascinating talks, the first by Prof Iain Jackson about the development of urban architecture in Accra, Ghana in the mid-twentieth century. While the National Archives had more material on the European settlements of Accra, within other archives, such as the United Africa Company collection at Unilever, mercantile areas such as Jamestown are much better documented. Some of his collected images are available in an online book available via issuu.com (search “Accra”) here.

The workshop closed with Claire Tunstall describing their mission and how the archives has to serve many different stakeholders: internal divisions, brands and communications, outreach with schools, partnership with museums and universities and, of course, the Port Sunlight Village Trust, as well as researchers.

Hopefully, more such events, at Unilever or other major archives, will take place in the future. The workshop did not just have great presentations but also offered great opportunities to meet a wide variety of people interested in using and promoting archives.

Conference programme

10 am Registration Tea & coffee
10.20 Welcome, introductory remarks and housekeeping
– Claire Tunstall and Jeannette Strickland
10.30 Keynote Dr Valerie Johnson, Director of Research & Collections, The National Archives “What’s the use? Your research and business archives”
10.50 Q&A
11.00 Refreshments
11.15-12.30 Session 1 Chair: Prof Stephanie Decker, Aston University
11.15 Jeannette Strickland, Department of History, University of Liverpool, “Finding William Lever, the man behind the myth”
11.30 Frank Thorpe, Department of History, University of Liverpool, “Beyond the ad: filling gaps and finding new gaps”
11.45 Ronnie Hughes, Department of Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology, University of Liverpool, “Looking for Utopia”
12.00 Dr Matt Reed, Strategy Director, Materials Innovation Factory, University of Liverpool, “Turn every page”
12.15 Q&A
12.30-2.00 Lunch
Tours of Unilever Archives available at 12.45 and 1.10
2.00-3.00 Session 2 – Chair: Dr Valerie Johnson, The National Archives
2.10 Dr Rory Miller, formerly Reader in the Management School, University of Liverpool, “The Missing Chapter in David Fieldhouse’s Unilever Overseas: Unilever’s Expansion in Latin America in the Mid-Twentieth Century”
2.30 Dr Lee Wright, Senior Lecturer in the History and Theory of Design, Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpool John Moores University, “The value of archives and their potential to impact current design practice”
2.50 Q&A
3.05 Refreshments
3.20-4.20 Session 3 – Chair: Jeannette Strickland, University of Liverpool
3.20 Prof Iain Jackson, School of Architecture, University of Liverpool, “Traders, speculators, taste makers: the United Africa Company in Ghana”
3.40 Claire Tunstall, Head of Art, Archives & Records Management, Unilever plc, “The research potential of Unilever Archives”
4.00 Q&A
4.20 Summing up and closing remarks
4.30 Optional post-workshop drink at the Bridge Inn in Port Sunlight