Fortnum & Mason


Andrea Tanner - Company Archivist

Andrea Tanner, Fortnum & Mason's Company Archivist, speaks passionately about her multi-faceted role and the role of new technology in overcoming the difficulties surrounding rebuilding a war-damaged archive.

Andrea provides an engrossing account of Fortnum & Mason’s history, the unusual nature of the collection and tells us about some of her favourite pieces from the collection.


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Hello welcome to the Max Communications 2020 Podcast a series of podcasts where we explore various archives and collections my name is Faith Williams and I'm joined today by Andrea Tanner who is company archive for Fortnum and Mason. How did you come to work for for Fortnum and Mason. it was a complete accident it's always who you know who rather than what you know I think a friend of mine was sitting at a dinner party next to Kate Hope House who's the current chair of Fortnum's and she said that I'm getting lots of inquiries about their past and they didn't know how to answer them and they knew that they had an archive but they didn't do anything with it and did he know anybody who might be willing to take it on and he said oh I know just the person so this was over 20 years ago I became a volunteer archivist and I used to go in on a Saturday when there was no one in the offices and catalog and books and answer questions so I knew people's handwriting long before I met them at Fortnum's in the offices that's how it began so I was just on a Saturday and then gradually it was one day a week and then two days a week and then three days a week and now I'm four days a week Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday and on a waiting State I teach at the University of London where so you're the first archivist before me I had never had one before and now we have one and a half I have a deputy archivist he's much younger than me and her digital and technological skills are far superior to mine so can you describe what you do in an average data that is really an average day especially at the moment so I'm when I suppose I'm quite public-facing so I do inductions every second Monday to new members of staff and if those members of staff or Craig yeah they get an individual induction every second Thursday well after lockdown I hope I do delicious hist tours of the store for 12 people 12 members of the public and it takes between two and three hours depending on how interested they are in them I work very closely with the packaging manager so the packaging which is a very important part of Fortnum's identity is informed by what have we done in the past what might we do what colors have we used in the past what copy have we used in the past also what products have we used at the past so I worked quite closely with the buyers and they're thinking about new ranges we look to our history to see if that can be an inspiration what not to do as much as what to do what else do I do I am the queen of eBay so I buy things on eBay and auctions really to fill in the many gaps that we have in our collection members of the public get in touch and certainly during lockdown a lot of people have been clearing out their cupboards so they're finding molds stilts and jars at the back of their words so I'm in a lot of identification and dating and descriptions of what they're finding in their cupboards a lot of people want to sell these things back to us but I have rather a lot of Stilton and caviar ports so it's only in exceptional circumstances that I will do that but I do keep a close eye on auctions and on eBay because there are things there that I I don't have and that would be very useful so what type of material do you have in the collection right now you've obviously got physical objects which you hold but anything else yeah well we have the physical objects we didn't have any when I started and we've got about a thousand no and it's mostly packaging but I've also got hats and shoes and coats handbags things like that but it's mostly tins and and boxes the archive itself is quite unusual and that's really because of our history the company was owned really by one family until the end of the 19th century and the family died out and that meant that there was nobody really to inherit the records and we're a fad we're a family owns a company chances are they're not that interested in keeping the physical record of that company because they know it all it's almost in there right yeah I mean so which is a problem so we were owned by one family as I said until the end of the 19th century and then we became a limited liability company with shareholders during the Second World War we sent the archive to two places one was a house in Richmond and the other was to Siri mom studio in Paradise walk in Chelsea just off Royal Hospital Road Sarah mom was an extraordinary woman she was a designer the daughter of doctor Bernardo the first wife of Sir Henry welcome and later of the way from the writer Somerset Maugham she invented the white room in the 1920s and 30s we bought her business at the end of the 1930s and we sent the archive to her studio in Chelsea for safekeeping and unfortunately her studio got a direct hit during the Blitz a lot of what might have survived I'm sorry to say got hit and did not survive so it's a really unusual business archive I don't have customer records I don't have supplier records I don't have correspondence don't have contracts it's mostly ephemera it's mostly catalogues photographs artwork we do have directors minutes from 1914 onwards we do you have new reports from 1906 onwards but it's it's an interesting article in that it's almost entirely ephemeral in nature not at all your usual business archive so it sounds like you work really closely with the marketing department but who else accesses the collection and what reason do they have for that well our public relations company are always asking me for information we get I'm ideal quite a lot with the press so we have a lot of journalists and bloggers and so on at once information they want images and so on so I supply them I supply the buyers as I said with information I'm responsible for the artwork in the store so if anybody wants to borrow one or to use one or it needs to be photographed or valued I deal with finites Department and with restorers I seem to be partly responsible for the historic fabric of the building so I have a wide network of guilders and paper is daughter's and textile restorers and with restorers and stone restorer trips so that they're on hand if ever we need something beautified I worked with visual merchandising quite a lot occasionally they look for displays of artifacts to highlight a particular project or a particular campaign I suppose yeah HR I deal with yeah to be honest it's just about every department inside inside the building one of the things I had to do the other day was um taste something we had a complaint from a customer that one of our hero products didn't taste quite like it should and it was deemed that I was the person who would obviously know what it was supposed to look and look special delivery at home of the floor of this IATI and then I had to write a little report what was wrong with it so it's everything anything really is huge you have there especially how much deal with building no it's not but I suppose because I have because of the research that I do a lot of what I know about history of the building and the history of the company comes from outside archives and libraries know I do have a photographic record of what things used to look like who did the carving for example when it was first putting up and so on so I do I suppose I'm in the best position to know what's right and what not right and the building itself ISM is very precious to us and we want it to remain as beautiful as we possibly can yeah I suppose an important amazingness is quite unique in the fact that people do associate it with a particular building like a lot of collections yes and I mean what's quite interesting about the archive is it's not in the building anymore we outgrew our space completely so last autumn with a very heavy heart I'm sorry to say I felt as if I was you know my baby was leaving home but it you know we had grew in the archives so much it there was just no room for it anymore in the building I've managed to hang onto a tiny room and that tiny room known as the Room of Requirement has things that are on their way down to we'll each or they're coming back from village or there are things I don't want to leave the building they're very precious things works about come down temporarily and are destined to go back up that sort of thing things that are being catalogued at a specific time so I'm repairing all borders as far as that space is concerned a lot of people have got their eye on it but they're not sure they do so do you think there are any particular that you have to face with this core archive yes I suppose because it's not a normal corporate archive because it really does consist of ephemera and ephemera by its very nature you know a lot of these catalogues were never meant to last more than a month or two and I've still got them a hundred and 110 120 years later so conservation is quite difficult because everybody in the business knows that we've got these things it's a little too easy to just use the archive as a go to oh let's just copy something that we've done before and that's quite difficult it's not really my job to say no to people it's my job to say yes to people but I do have to be careful about I supposed making it too easy for people not to think about what's relevant today rather than what did we do you know it's a bit too easy to I suppose be a bit of a parasite on the past the past is there to act as an inspiration for innovation and new design and new products it's not there to keep us locked into the past yeah you don't arrest on your laurels you can't rest on our laurels you know it's there for inspiration it's there sometimes as a warning about you know what didn't work at a time and why it didn't work but that's really what it's there for so I'm I suppose I'm a little less willing to lend things out um within the business you know I'm very happy to sit down and talk to people and give them illustrations of what we've done but the artifacts themselves I don't blend out when I certainly don't let people have access to original records now - easy it's a little too easy so you're looking towards the future of the company and that effect definitely and we have in place at the moment it's a very informal system because I work so closely with the packaging manager when we we have her CAD files for all the packaging which we're trying to think about how are we going to manage these digitally because they take up a huge amount of space on the server but they're going to end up in the archives soon we have the physical evidence so we have examples of tins and packaging and labels and so on we're trying to I suppose create almost a trail where once we would have had the paper trail we're now instigating digital electronic trail of how decisions were come - with regards to packaging and product development and product design so we've got to we've got to think about you know I look at the archive and it's principally paper but most of what we produce today is not paper and capturing that and I suppose trying to instill and engender and encourage a different way of looking at how records are kept is something that's a huge challenge for us and something that we are having conversations with different aspects of the business because I don't want to lose anything on my watch I really don't it's almost happenstance that what we have surviving has survives and I really don't want to lose anything that I have but I also don't want to lose things that are being created now because you have to think about your successors and I don't want them to curse me for not we're not knowing what was happening today and we're going through a period of immense change no every business at the moment is going through immense change and capturing that change is one of the things that we're very anxious to to secure I've got um a couple of pizzas in the business who are recording their experience of lockdown for example because I've been going through 1920s depression I've been going through the records of the war and I don't have any personal testimony from the business about what it was like you know yeah the bombing and and not being able to get home at night and and having to sleep in the building and still look smart the next day and and so on and so on so it so that's what I'm we're trying to capture just a few members of staff to record their experience of really what is an unprecedented time in international experience at the moment so is that your your hope going forward for the future the archive just there you're kind of concentrated on preserving the current which will then one day we passed of course yes yes I think that to some extent that's mine that's my most important function just now but I also I'm very aware of the huge gaps that there are in our knowledge and in the archive and I'm using digitized sources to fill those gaps as best I can so one of the great advantages of so many resources being digitized and at the moment during lockdown freely available so I'm making a great use of the National Archives free download facilities at Norman's and so on that I'm trying to fill the gaps and and fill those gaps with historical context because you know the company the company has people who are interested in the history but they're not historians so context is very very important so so I have lots of subject files that I've created for example the history of tea so we have lots of information on the history of tea and that can come into play there are little stories there there are quotes there are poems about tea there tea in fiction tea manners they educate of tea so lots and lots of things that I hope will be of use in in projects in the future what type of gaps are you just dying to fellow eighteenth-century I've got so little for the 18th century I think I've got two receipts from the entry into me and the sunlit assurance insurance policies and I've got wills and so on for the for the for the Fortnum family so I I I've been going through eighteenth century newspapers and I find some quite interesting quite interesting things so that's been quite handy about the nature of the business in the 18th century so but you know there are also huge gaps in the 19th and the 20th centuries so newspapers at the moment are the resource I'm going to more and more to try and find references to the company in what we were doing so I've now got for example a database of members of staff that I didn't know about and I do little biographies of them using ancestry and find my past and and so on so that we know a little bit about some of the people on whom our reputation rests because there are generations of staff who who have created the Fortnum's that we have today and I think it's good there or not do you and do kind of actively put out requests for that kind of thing or do people come to you people tend to come to me we don't have a Fortnum's alumni or a Fortnum's Facebook page it's something we've been looking at but at the moment I think it's rather low down the the company's priority list but it is something that we were going to put forward for the future because some of the most interesting stories come from outside the business you know it's the descendants the children the grandchildren the great-grandchildren of people who shopped and worked but look at the business or supply does so we do get people tend to come to us although occasionally I go to them we had a we had a designer in the 1930s called William Hayes Marshall who was absolutely an extraordinary man and created an amazing interior decorating department that used some of the most exciting talent of the interwar periods and I didn't really know very much about him but I managed to find because he was married he was married many times mr. Heath and I wish to find a descendant of his in Australia oh wow so we've been communicating unfortunately I find him just at the time of the terrible fires an email from him saying he was just abandoning his house so I hope he's all right I haven't heard from him since but you know we had we had some very interesting correspondence and I know you know much more about him than I did before and you know he's an important part of the jigsaw he's an important element of the story so I suppose it's six of one half a dozen of the other and I find somebody who I think his I can see is interesting one of the things I'm doing this week is I'm reaching out to the great-grandchildren of one of our directors it's slightly slightly worrying cold calling people yeah I'm developing a hard dirty skin and if you explain who you are at the beginning of the call and that you're not trying to sell them double glazing it's it's usually alright it's usually always I think people probably just don't understand how interesting their their family history is that actually that information isn't just exciting to sort of your cousins or whoever if it's a wider story it does indeed it does indeed in it I mean it's one of the of the great advantages and one of the huge developments of the digitisation process that so many people can trace their ancestry so much more easily and it's not just that they can trace them but they can also reach out to members of their family they don't know they did never knew about before and these people are across the globe so you know it's been a huge hugely Democratic development over the last 20 years ancestry and find my caste and the other the other servers who've been using digitised records because you know I used to be a professional genealogist and genealogy really until the 1960s was the domain of the upper-middle classes and above because they're the people who left the written records mm-hmm and it was so difficult to access anything about working-class people and no it's not so difficult and certainly with the development of DNA your you can reach out to people you have absolutely no idea had been you know we're in the same family as you so and you know sometimes they're they're extremely happy Subaru's so I think you know in an era of more and more populism digitalization is allowing people to stretch across the globe and break down barriers and make connections and I think it's just all it's something just going to get better and better I think it's really precipitated this interest in social history as well how you as a person relate to world events like you know like department stores and things like that no no the world and yeah it's definitely not just intermitted by the internet but actually in real life too yes I think one of the areas that will probably grow certainly as far as business history is concerned and certainly as far as retail history is concerned is that I think women's history professionals are going to get more and more interested in them and I hope that means that there will be more I suppose more databases more information available on the function of women in in retail Hill I've been trying to do work on our buyers in the past think about it yeah those are the people who determine what you wear on your back have it your face and so on and so on and so nothing has really been done on them it's extraordinary and maybe it's because women are invisible I don't know I mean I'm finding it quite difficult because the only place I can find out things about the buyers at the moment in the past is through the directors minutes and they're always called miss or misses we never get a first name yeah it's hugely difficult but I think you know I think there's going to be a lot of work by women's history practitioners on the rule of women in retail and in business and with a bit of luck we will be able to find out more about them and that's where digitisation will come in quite considerably I think so you are missing basically so Fortnum Mason was founded in what was 1707 and then here on the same site for 313 years which is unusual we have an inert we haven't make Twinings I think they haven't moved either their 1706 they're in the same sport as they were you don't have really anything from that first century of no Fortnum family had been enormous and they come from a village called a quelle in North Oxfordshire in quite near Banbury and they had been huge they are the great drivers of the business the Masons are not really they just kind of slightly re beasts roomy but they're there the Fortnum's was hugely entrepreneurial and they were an enormous family slight problem is that they tended to marry within the family they had a habit of marrying their cousins and Mother Nature doesn't like that very much they they died out by the end of the 19th century and there isn't anybody you know there was nobody to inherit papers there was nobody to you know I I know the contents of one of their houses because he was an antiquarian who died at the end of the 19th century and and he was a huge collector and I know a lot about him and I know what he wind but what he didn't seem to Owen were any family papers and his own manuscripts do not seem to have you know some of them are at the Ashmolean in Oxford some of them are at the Society of Antiquaries in London but it was very little about his ancestry in that there are no you know there's a family portrait that was sold and I think it's Sotheby's about 30 years ago but who I haven't been able find out who sold it and who bought it so it's some it's a it's a jigsaw and it's a jigsaw with lots and lots of missing pieces but I'm I'm doing my best to fill in as many of them it's just the 18th century is this is a great sadness for me because I I would just love to know much more about the working of the business and about the families yeah you know being an old genealogist I got six plays and Fortnum's on a database Wow at home and I think I've managed to find it where many of them fit in but it's not it's not enough so I will be carrying on with mine with my quest so with such a Patrick archive what is in your opinion the most interesting item I got - I got - one of them is the original order from Ernest Shackleton for the endurance in 1914 I know what he took with him from Fortnum and Mason and I'm I I just love it I love the thought of where those supplies went and when did they eat them and did they help them during that dreadful time yeah during that quest so that that's I think that's my most precious art archive and that's in the building it's not it's not leaving Lily I'm not saying anywhere and if anybody wants to see it they can see a very nice digitized copy of it getting their hands on the original and the other is something that I found on eBay that I just love it's a cocktail calculator created by us in the 1920s we were very big in the world of cocktails in the twenties and this almost looks like a little slide rule and it has 50 recipes on one side and 50 on the other and you just move it backwards and forwards to see you know number 50 the wicked lady what do you do and do you you know is it a squeeze of lemon or is it lemon peel or whatever and it's great fun and I would very much like house to reproduce that with modern cocktails yeah we are we are so I just love that and I love the fact that that we produced it it was it came a the cocktail specialists hate that Fortnum's in the early 1920s and that we've got this know so I'm thrilled to have that yeah so you've mentioned Twinings and obviously there are some other big department stores in London that have a long history do you kind of share information with them or other companies yes we do we have them we're all members of the business archives Council so there are lots of events and you know websites and emails we do support each other but there's also a very informal group of retail archivists and we meet very occasionally and we have tea or sometimes we have dinner and we have meetings so we do work very closely together and we're always looking out for things for each other so the ones I know best or of course are the ones in London so I know the Harrods are lists very well the John Lewis archivists I know the Barbary archivist really well so we keep in touch but I also keep in touch with archivists in and around [Music] Mayfair in st. James's oh you'll be amazed the number of archives there are there everything from the Royal Academy to the Athenaeum so we keep in touch with each other because you never know what you're going to find that it could be useful that's amazing some camaraderie then yes I mean we're we're not a great big group archivists but we are quite friendly and you know we're in the communications industry you know they're I think the UM the traditional image of the archivist is a kind of slightly dysfunctional person in a in a huge cardigan with little patches on it to just sits with dusty tomes day after day and that's not what it's about at all it's we're information managers and designers we're storytellers and we are the people who determine what is going to be remembered yeah that extent we have a frightening amount of influence no I wouldn't say power but we have a significant influence and you know we are the storytellers of the company and sometimes those stories are you know a lot upbeat even if one is in the marketing department certain things have to be managed so you can check out some of the stories that you have collected on the Fortnum & Mason website and you're very proud of the images that you have and there's a book that you've collected some of them in entertaining Ellicott yes it's written by Payton skip with who was he managed the estate of the artist Edwin Borden and Borden worked for us for 30 years and his artwork is something of which we are immensely proud and so we've got this beautiful book and you can see some of the things that are in the archive they're fun they're fun thank you for agreeing to speak to me today it's very interesting hearing about the history of your work and Andrea I really like the stories that you told that you continue to fill the gaps that you have still and maybe get some fear the 18th century story and if anybody listening has got any information yeah we're back in harness come and see me and we can have a cup of tea and yeah Knickerbocker glory and we can talk about I was learning about yeah thank you very much thank you very nice to talk to you.