FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Treasure houses of the city

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on August 24, 2016

The talk of the hidden wonders in London in my last post reminds me once again about the treasures lurking in the libraries of the city, out of everyday sight.

One such treasure house is the library at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales. The name might suggest a narrow focus, but instead this is a collection of international significance. Today, at the grand age of 145, it stands as the largest accountancy library in the world.

However, make no mistake – this is a working library, rather than a fossilised relic of a bygone age. This makes it even more of a challenge for the librarians to ensure that the right material is held from the past (for accounting historians), recent past (for forensic accountants/expert witnesses) and the present (for the accountants of today) whilst also trying to anticipate what will be required by accountants in the future! It’s a tricky balance to get right but the quality of the collection speaks for itself.

A glimpse into the Indian railways of the 1920s

The collection is an important resource for researchers seeking to understand the global development of the profession, with the roots of accountancy in many countries inevitably entangled with the last days of the British empire. It is no surprise to learn that accounting historians have travelled the world to use the collection.

Indian & Eastern Railways: Official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India]

Indian & Eastern Railways: Official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India]

Amongst the more unusual items in the collection is a short run of Indian & Eastern Railways, a monthly magazine which was the official organ of the Institute of Railway Accountants and Auditors [in India], an organisation established in September 1927.

Railways have always been strongly associated with the development of the accounting profession since the crises of the 1840s created the earliest need for professional accountants, but here we can see a journal chart the progress of the profession in finding its feet at a time of great change (the Indian Railway Accounts Service was established in the late 1920s, having been born out of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service).

The journal also highlights the early involvement and support of ICAEW members such as Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson, who was an honorary life member of the new body. A long letter from Sir Arthur was published in the November 1928 issue in which he offers advice and encouragement.

A sample page shows the East Indian Railway Priced Store Audit Section at Calcutta, an office clearly at the cutting edge of technology with 16 electric book-keeping and calculating machines.

A sample page shows the East Indian Railway Priced Store Audit Section at Calcutta, an office clearly at the cutting edge of technology with 16 electric book-keeping and calculating machines.

The nine issues in the collection (running from October 1928 to June 1929) offer a curious mixture of railway news, best practice in audit, updates on locomotive design and travel writing. The magazine mainly reports on railway practice and developments in India and Great Britain, but some international developments of interest are also covered.

In the span of a single issue (February 1929) it is possible to read about a trial use of periscopes for railway guards; new locomotives in Argentina, Brazil, Great Britain, South Africa and United States; steam breakdown cranes; audit controls; the southern gateway of India; Indian railway problems; an introduction to railway accounts and an account of the history of the Fort of Seringapatam. Quite an extraordinarily diverse mix of subjects!

One issue carries a list of the examination questions set in the subordinate railway accounts service examination for November 1928 which includes some marvelous questions, such as ‘Draw up an estimate for a private saloon for an Indian Prince to be built in a State Railway Workshop’ and ‘Allocate and state the authority competent to sanction [the expenditure for] illumination of railway stations on the occasion of [the] visit of a foreign prince at a cost of Rs. 5,000’ which I don’t imagine feature on exam papers these days!

This is but one of many treasures in the collection and a reminder of what waits to be discovered in the many other treasure houses of the city. The challenges of this library in preserving the past and providing for the future remind me of Ray Bradbury’s oft quoted line: “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past and no future.”

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