About Business History Explorer


Business History Explorer Online is a database which provides details of published paper-based information about the history of English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish businesses and industries, operating largely inside but sometimes, notably in the imperial era, outside the UK.

It is a unique resource which provides historical information about c15,000 businesses as well as details of c56,000 publications which relate to these businesses and to the industries of which they form part.

It is a work in progress. Newly published material is continuosly being added, although there is an inevitable delay in doing so, and gaps in the existing constituency are continuously being filled. Currently [2024] substantial coverage is only provided to 2019 with later years lightly covered.

It was first published in 2012 but has been greatly extended since then. Originally access was available only by subscription. In 2023 it converted from a subscription to an free access resource.  

Range of interest:

Businesses touch almost every aspect of our lives and so their histories cover a very wide range of subjects which makes them of interest to an equally wide range of historians – whether these be scholars or enthusiasts pursuing professional or leisure interests.

BHE seeks to serve all these historians, so is relevant not just to specialist business historians exploring the history of enterprise itself but also to that huge range of historians whose interests relate primarily to the output of businesses, whether this be goods or services.  These include, for example: railway, road, shipping and other transport services; design services including fashion, graphic, architecture and consumer goods design; art market services such as auctioneering and dealing; television and radio broadcasting; building contruction; extraction of coal, copper, tin, iron ore, building stone, etc; production of decorative goods such as furniture, ceramics, jewellery, clocks, etc; food processing, brewing and distilling; publishing including books and newspapers; film production, distribution and exhibition; transport equipment production including motor vehicle manufacture and shipbuilding; plantation agriculture including coffee, tea, rubber and sugar production; and leisure services from the performing arts to football. In BHE there is something for everyone – business historians; design historians; family historians; genealogists; industrial archaeologists; monetary and banking historians; oral history specialists; accounting historians; historians of art and architecture; social historians; historians of work; agricultural historians; urban historians; diplomatic historians; etc. The list is seemingly endless.

Publications included:

BHE’s content embraces books, periodical articles, chapters within books, dissertations, unpublished work and – to a smaller extent – electronic publications.

These cover the history of particular businesses and industries and also general – ie not business nor industry specific – topics relating to the development of businesses and industries.

BHE also includes publications of particular use to the historian but which, when published, were not intended as histories. Good examples of these are historical publicity and marketing brochures, employee handbooks, guides to buildings and plant, and product literature such as trade catalogues, all of which provide a snapshot of a business, or of an important aspect of it, at a moment in its history. Such publications are generally included on a highly selective basis, but are especially included 1] when their value is heightened by the absence of any published history of a business, and 2] when they relate to a major asset of the business such as a hotel, or power station, or head office, or passengerr liner, etc.

BHE covers the medieval period through to the early 21st century.

Bibliographical content:

Bibliographical content per publication includes: author, title, date, publisher, number of pages, place published, periodical name, etc. It also gives a library location which is important here as many business history publications were privately published with short print runs and, consequently, are not easy to locate in library catalogues. To an extent, this situation is now being improved through the continuing extension of the online Copac resource [www: …..].

This bibliographical content has another important component. This comprises a text field giving a brief summary of the publication’s content. Very often this does not exceed two or three sentences although it can be longer if chapter titles or section headings are included. The aim here is to move beyond the publication’s title as the sole description of content in order to provide a broader description of the area the publication covers covers. The addition of this text field is being done retrospectively and is not yet available for all publications.

Business content:

A key feature of BHE is the information it provides about the business to which a publication relates. This recognises that the business name alone is of limited value to the user. So BHE also provides 1] the industrial sectors and subsectors in which the business operated; 2] the geographical locations – town or city, county, region, country - at which the business was located; 3] a brief profile of the business’s history – eg when founded, by whom, previous business names used, acquisitions, diversifications, date closed, etc - contained within a text field. However, it is important for users to note that these profiles are not authoritative but are based on freely available, often online, and sometimes contradictory information, the accuracy of which cannot be vouched for. The function of these profiles is to give the user very broad details of the business and a notion of its significance.

The business content described at 1] and 2] above is searchable across BHE. So all businesses operating in a particular industrial sector or located in a particular geographical area can be searched for. Multiple searches are also possible. Therefore, the following sorts of multiple searches are possible: goldsmiths in London; brewing in Suffolk; tin mining in South West England; linen production in Scotland.

Subject content: Further functionality enables searching by business history topic. Around 100 topics of interest to business historians have been identified and are searchable within BHE. They range from ‘Brand history & illustration’ to ‘Business biography’; from ‘Corporate governance’ to ‘Employee housing’; from ‘Family & personal capitalism’ to ‘Government procurement’; and from ‘Research & development’ to ‘Taxation’. A particularly useful topic is ‘Comparative international studies’. The scheme of subject classification is certainly neither sophisticated nor complex; it is derived from the content of BHE which reflects the sometimes uneven, sometimes esoteric, coverage of business history research.

Publication Groups: These groups - of which there are around ten - embrace publications with similar characteristics. They list, for example: winners of the Wadsworth Prize for Business History; product literature such as trade catalogue; employee literature such as staff handbooks; publications including family trees [which are of interest to genealogists]; publications containing transcriptions of historical documents; etc

How comprehensive?

BHE is an ongoing project with newly published material being added and gaps in the existing constituency being continually filled. Therefore, with the passage of time, it becomes more comprehensive but certainly gaps continue to exist.

There is an inevitable delay of two to three years in adding newly-published material. As stated above, substantial coverage in 2024 is only available to 2019 with subsequent years so far being lighjty covered.

That said, BHE does not aim to give comprehensive coverage in certain business areas because of the sheer number of publications existing and because of their often very detailed focus on products or assets. These areas include for example: railways; road passenger services; inland waterways; motor vehicle production; public houses; the book trades.

Users are directed to the 'Sources' button on the BHE home page.