Cataloguing the First and Famous - first steps

We have finally started cataloguing the documents that are part of Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s pilot project: the First and Famous list. This list consists of over 100 ships that are either the first of their kind or famous worldwide – for example the Cutty Sark. Getting to the stage of cataloguing this collection, however, took us through a very labyrinthine journey of laborious research, building up lists of relevant ships classed by LR, locating documents, carrying boxes to and from the archive, retrieving objects and organising them.


The first step was to determine which ships we were aiming to find and include in the pilot project. This required months of research into famous ships before determining if they were also classed by LR.

After putting together the list of First and Famous Ships, the next challenging step was to build up another list of possible locations of the documents related to each ship. This, as you can only imagine, was another adventure. As you probably know, our collection is stored in two different locations: at the Brass Foundry, in Woolwich, and in our head office, on Fenchurch Street in London. Luckily for us, the collection held in the office is already organised by ship and each ship has her own 20th century box.


The same setup, however, does not occur at the Brass Foundry. The challenge there is manifold. Firstly, all of the documents are effectively uncatalogued apart from a tentative location and survey report number, which is found in the index books pictured below. These indexes contain the ship’s name, tonnage, year of build and the survey report number for documents held in the archive, which doubles as their location. Easy task? Not necessarily. Imagine looking up for over 100 ships through reading books which content is actually old photocopies of the original filled with tiny, and often unreadable, handwriting. To make things even more difficult the indexes record all of the documents we had at the time of their writing. Since then, there have been three culls of the archive so there is no guarantee that the document we are searching for even exists, which is time consuming and often frustrating!



These books also come in three series, which are organised by time period so there could be an entry for a ship in each index, doubling the search time.

We have a different method for searching for more recent ships that have been built since around 1915. These ship documents are logged on A5 cards in a cabinet, as well as a print out in a folder. They only have the location and broad categories of documents listed so it is always a surprise to see how much material has been kept for each!



But we, archivists, are curious creatures by nature and never give up! And the list was built accordingly.


The next phase, therefore, was going through the listed boxes in search for the listed documents. This treasure hunt took us over three weeks but it feels like it is a continuous task as we didn’t find all the documents listed at the Brass Foundry, but we have been finding some of them in the head office. After gathering all those reports and plans together we had another mission, before actually starting cataloguing: organising them by ships, then by date of document for each ship, and, finally, by ship build date. We wanted the documents to be catalogued chronologically by ship build date.

In the process of building up the First and Famous list and retrieving the documents, we decided that the reports and plans related to these ships would be part of a permanent collection called First and Famous (FAF). They are documents of ships that are likely to be requested more often by the general public. Therefore, apart from being a pilot project for our main digitisation project – Project Undaunted – these reports and plans will also be permanently and physically left together, facilitating access to them. 

The next step now is… to keep cataloguing!

Watch this space. We will be posting about our First and Famous ships and how we are working to make our collection available to you!