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Home: Business History Links: Business Archives: The BP Archive

Michael Gasson, Former Group Archivist, BP Archive

"It is an essential...that we should retain our own individuality" - Lord Greenway, Chairman 1914 - 1927

BP plc was incorporated in 1909 as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company Ltd (renamed in 1935 the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Ltd) to exploit the discovery of oil in Iran in 1908 by the Concessions Syndicate Ltd, which had been largely owned by The Burmah Oil Company Ltd (BOC). Anglo-Persian was also largely owned by BOC, but because it was floated on the stock exchange, BOC soon lost majority control, and BOC was, under its new name of Burmah Castrol plc, itself taken over by BP in 2000. Anglo-Persian was the first company to produce oil in commercial quantities in the Middle East. In 1914 the British Government invested £2 million in the Company, as part of a deal to secure a source of fuel for the Royal Navy, but the Company was never nationalised. The government relinquished its majority shareholding in 1967, and sold almost all its remaining shareholding in 1987.

From the time of its incorporation the Company rapidly developed into all areas of the oil business, and expanded its exploration, refining and marketing activities worldwide. From 1947 it also entered the petrochemicals business. In addition it soon came to hold interests in several major joint venture companies, including the Iraq Petroleum Company Ltd (IPC), which discovered an immense oil field in Iraq in 1927 (although Anglo-Persian had already made the first oil discovery in Iraq, in 1923), and Kuwait Oil Company Ltd (KOC), which discovered oil in Kuwait in 1938. In 1951 the Company's assets in Iran were nationalised and so, in 1954, having had to rethink itself out of Iran into a more multi-national frame of mind, the Company was renamed The British Petroleum Company Ltd (plc from 1982). In 1917 Anglo-Persian bought from the Public Trustee a company called the British Petroleum Company Ltd (a German registered marketing company incorporated in 1906) and, following the repeal of advertising restrictions after the War, used the BP letters for its marketing image. This was almost too successful, because people did not always associate the wholly-owned subsidiary, BP, with Anglo-Persian. This might explain the choice of the new name for the parent in 1954, thereby correcting this anomaly.

BP was the first successful oil company in the British sector of the North Sea, finding gas at West Sole in 1965, and then the large Forties oil field in 1970. It also pioneered extensive exploration and production in Alaska from 1969 onwards. At the same time it merged its US interests with the Standard Oil Company (incorporated in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1870), of which it acquired full ownership in 1987. On 31 December 1998 BP merged with Amoco Corporation (incorporated in 1889 as the Standard Oil Company (Indiana)), in a 60/40 merger, on which date BP was renamed BP Amoco plc. On 1 May 2001 the Company was yet again renamed, this time simply BP plc.

"A little something some others haven't got" - BP Plus advert, 1932

It is often suggested that "the twentieth century...has been completely transformed by the advent of petroleum" (Daniel Yergin, The Prize, p13 (Simon & Schuster Ltd, 1991)). If that is the case, then the holdings at BP Archive constitute a major part of the record of that process, and certainly the major part that is accessible to the public.

BP Archive is BP plc's main Archive centre, owned and managed by BP at the University of Warwick in premises that are also occupied by the University's Modern Records Centre (which was described in the October 2000 issue of Business History News). The Archive was officially opened to the public in 1993.

At BP Archive are held in six major Archive groups: the BP plc Archive itself; that part of the Burmah Castrol plc Archive which relates to BOC; and the Archive groups of four major jointly-owned oil companies - KOC, IPC, Shell-Mex and BP Ltd (SMBP), and Iranian Oil Participants Ltd (IOP).

The Archive of BP plc is currently open to the public for the period to the end of 1954. The records mainly date from the 1880s onwards and the Archive is ongoing. KOC Archive dates from 1934 to the early 1970s and is also currently open to the end of 1954. The Archive of IPC, which dates from 1901 and is ongoing, is open in accordance with a 30 year rule. The PR material and artwork of the SMBP collection are open, but the file material is closed at the request of Shell. SMBP was a joint UK marketing operation which lasted from 1932 to the early 1970s. IOP, which dates from 1954 and was wound up in the late 80s, is closed to the public. The BOC Archive, which mainly dates from the early 1900s onwards, has just been received and will be reviewed, and where necessary re-listed, before opening to the public in line with the access period for the BP plc Archive. The acquisition of the BOC Archive makes the BP Archive the principal centre of record for the history of the wholly British managed oil industry.

The BP plc Archive is ongoing. Up to 100,000 records a year are reviewed, with an accession rate of 1 - 2%. The IPC Archive is also ongoing, although IPC no longer operates in Iraq.

"The Best Possible Subject" - BP Motor Spirit advert, c 1928

It appears that an Anglo-Persian Oil Company Archive may have been in existence by 1921. There are now at the BP Archive nearly 4,000 linear metres of records, mainly dating from the turn of the 20th century up to the present day. The records of BP plc and of KOC are catalogued on an electronic database accessible in the public search-room. Printed lists are available for the IPC Archive and SMBP Archive. The usual core business records (board minutes, accounts schedules, etc) are kept, with more detail of the company's operations being found in the bulk of reports, agreements, correspondence and working papers that make up roughly half the collection. Company magazines, annual reports and accounts, photographs and public relations material can also prove interesting, and these are all open for the lives of the companies.

Because of the role of oil, the BP Archive is a major source for many of the histories which form significant parts of twentieth century history as a whole: company history, particularly of course that of the Parent Company and of the major jointly-owned subsidiaries; industrial history, particularly that of hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, and to a lesser degree minerals and nutrition; national industrial histories (including labour relations), particularly the Iranian oil industry from its beginning in 1901 until the Revolution in 1979, the oil industry of Kuwait from its beginning in 1938 until nationalisation in 1975, the oil industry of Iraq from its beginning in 1923 until nationalisation in 1972, the British oil industry from 1917 onwards, and the US oil industry from 1930 onwards; other aspects of the national and local histories of these and many other countries, but particularly those of the Middle East, covering a range of large topics including political, social, cultural, tribal and topographical; the history of advertising; the history of transport and communications; the history of technologies; and the history of warfare - civil war and international conflict. BP Archive also contains records which touch in a smaller way upon a number of many other large topics such as architectural history and the history of consultancy. The Archive has also proved useful to genealogists, particularly those who are interested in people who served on the Company's oil tankers during the Second World War. In the future the Archive may become an important source for the study of the history of HSE.

The Archive is particularly strong on national and international political history. As Sir Peter Walters, Chairman 1981 - 1990, stated, "To be in the oil industry is to be involved in politics at the highest level" (Cadman Lecture, 31 October 1989 (BP 109206)). The Archive is possibly also the primary single source of record in the world for the transformation of the Middle Eastern countries following the rise of oil economies. But BP has operated in most other parts of the world, and this is reflected in the Archive.

"Just Try It" - Power Ethyl advert, c 1935

With regard to possible research areas, the above description of the wide range of subject areas shows how difficult it is to narrow this down - petroleum has touched nearly every aspect of life, in nearly every area of the world. A selection of the topics studied at the Archive resulting in dissertations, theses, prospective publications and publications includes: British Propaganda During the Iranian Oil Crisis, 1951 to 1953; Abadan - Planning and Architecture Under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; Road Tankers; Industrial Change in South Wales, 1900 to 1939 - A Study of the Social and Economic Development of Llandarcy Refinery; Doing Business with the Nazis - Britain's Economic and Financial Relations with Germany 1931 to 1939; Creating Corporate Loyalty in Large Scale Businesses; Multinational Cross-Investment between Britain and Switzerland 1914 to 1945; The British Tanker Company and the Marine Diesel Engine, 1929; Road Transport Buildings Post-1939; States, Firms, and Oil - British Policy 1939 to 1954; Safawi: A Study in Oleaginous International Relations; Dylan Thomas; and Oil Interests and the Works of Western Travellers. But no material covering subject areas which researchers have already looked into at the Archive can be said to have been fully exploited. We can only say, come and browse the catalogue. Most visitors have been excited by the range and depth of material available. In addition, the possibility of opening the BP and KOC Archive groups to the 30 year rule is currently being looked into.

Access: Use of the Archive is by prior appointment. Please contact Peter Housego Global Archives Manager , BPArchive@bp.com  tel: 024 76524522 ) .

Publications: The History of BP plc is published in three volumes for the period up to 1975: Volume 1: The Developing Years 1901 - 1932, by R W Ferrier (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Volume 2: The Anglo - Iranian Years 1928 - 1954, by James Bamberg (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Volume 3: British Petroleum and Global Oil, 1950 - 1975: The Challenge of Nationalism, by James Bamberg (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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