Trace the history of an accountancy practice
This guide is intended to provide a guide to the resources available from the ICAEW Library & Information Service that can be used to trace the history of a firm.
This checklist provides a quick run through of the steps that you can take to research a firm using the resources of the library. You can complete many of the steps yourself, using our online resources.
For the research steps requiring access to printed volumes in our collection, you are welcome to come in to conduct your own research though we would recommend that you notify us in advance so that we can make sure that any materials you require will be available for your visit. If you are not a member you can pay to access the library for a day or for a week in order to conduct your research – see who can use the library for further details of our current charges.
Alternatively, the enquiry team can conduct research on your behalf. See our section on research charges for further information.
Basic research steps
Using printed volumes in the library
- Check the Library catalogue to see if an existing history has been published. The library holds just over 100 published histories of accountancy firms.
- Check the first date that the firm’s name appears in the membership lists
- Find the names of the founding partners from the earliest entry
- Check to see if the practice was one of the 'founder firms'
Using online resources
- Check to see if there were any obituaries/biographical profiles for the founders
- Check to see if there are any portraits for the founders
- Are there any obituaries/biographical profiles for the individuals associated with the practice?
- Are there any records for individuals associated with the practice who served in the First World War?
Further research steps
- Trace changes in the address of the firm
- Trace the growth of the firm through the opening of new offices
- If the firm no longer exists, check to see whether there was a merger or acquisition
- Research any notices about the establishment of the firm, admission of new partners, opening of new offices and mergers
Part 1: The accountancy practice
The approximate date of establishment for a firm can often be revealed by tracing the individual history of the founding partners. You may find that the membership lists record the first year that a firm’s name appeared, allowing you to focus research on a narrower time period.
Similarly, the membership lists can be used to trace the different addresses used by a firm and the opening of offices in new locations. The lists can also be used to try and find out what happened to a firm if it has disappeared from view.
Tracing firm names and addresses
The library holds a set of the annual volumes of the ICAEW List of Members, from 1881 to date. The volumes include an alphabetical list of firms, showing the partners’ names and the address of the firm. There would also be an alphabetical listing by town which later became the official ICAEW Directory of Firms.
The alphabetical list of firms is a good place to start to trace different addresses used by a firm and the opening of new offices.
It is worth remembering that individuals may have been involved in more than one firm – or that the branch of a firm opened in another country may have had a subtly different name (e.g. an additional partner may have been listed in the firm name).
This would require research using the annual volumes which can be a time consuming process. You can either pay to use the library for a day or you can pay for a member of the enquiry team to conduct research on your behalf.
Tracing notices about a firm
You may be able to find notices about the opening of a new branch or a firm taking on a new partner by following up changes noted in the membership lists within periodicals such as ‘The Accountant’.
This would require research using the accounting periodicals in our collection. You can either pay to use the library for a day or you can pay for a member of the enquiry team to conduct research on your behalf.
The expression 'founder firm' is not a recognised term but one which was introduced by Harold Howitt in his ICAEW history (published in 1966). In his book Howitt used this term to describe firms which could claim continuous partnership descent from a signatory to the charter or a member of the first council. The list published in the book also included firms which could claim to have been in existence for at least 100 years. You can consult Howitt's book in the library to see if the firm is included in this list (notes of varying length are provided for each qualifying firm).
A later book, Chartered accountants in England and Wales (ed. Wendy Habgood), published in 1994, also included a listing of the founder firms in an appendix. Appendix III: Founder Firms listed 32 firms that were descended from the first council members and a further 43 firms that were over 100 years old in 1965 and not included in the first list, as well as providing a correction to the list produced by Howitt.
Tracing mergers and acquisitions
What's in a name: Firms' simplified family trees shows how firms have merged over time to form the largest firms of the twentieth century. You can use the A-Z of firm names to identify any firms included in the family trees.
Free to view
The membership lists can help us to understand what happened to accountancy practices which have subsequently disappeared from view.
The last entry for a firm in the membership lists should show the names of the partners and address details before it disappeared. We can sometimes follow through what happened to the firm by looking at the addresses of individual partners. For example, you may find that all the partners were listed in the next volume at a different firm – which might indicate that a merger or acquisition has taken place.
The accountancy press may have included notices about changes to a firm, such as a change of name or a merger. Once you have narrowed down the date of a change using the membership lists you can sometimes find a corresponding notice in the accountancy press around the same time.
Part 2: Individuals in the practice
Obituaries and biographical profiles
The Accountancy Ancestors database is an index that records obituaries and biographical profiles of accountants from 1874 to 1965. You can use this to track down obituaries for the founder of a firm and other individuals associated with the firm.
The list is available in a version arranged by the name of the firm, identifying those individuals associated with a firm. This might be the firm they were first articled to, a firm they spent some time working at, or the firm at which they ended their career.
The length of an obituary can vary considerably – from a few lines to a few pages. These are more common in the period between 1880 and the middle of the twentieth century, after which the increase in the membership numbers made writing them impractical.
Free to view the index.
The Accountancy Ancestors database includes an index of photographs – this might be a photograph of a single individual, a group or a cartoon. You can use this to try and track down any images of the founder of a firm or other individuals associated with the firm.
Free to view the index.
First World War
With the colours
The articled clerks and accountants in the firm may be listed in 'With the colours; a list of Chartered and Incorporated Accountants and their Clerks who are serving with the British Forces on land and sea, 1914-1916'. The publication includes an index by the name of the accountancy practice.
Free to view
First World War Index
The individuals in a firm may be included in the First World War index which covers entries from the accountancy press. This includes reports on accountants, their staff and close relatives who were wounded, killed in action, mentioned in despatches, awarded medals or taken prisoner.
The publication includes an index by the name of the accountancy practice which allows you to view the details all individuals associated with the firm who appear in the index.
Free to search.
Entries can be supplied for a charge.
The sources listed above can be augmented by other data sources that can be found in print publications such as pass lists of candidates and the names of the winners of examination prizes.
Where else can I find records relating to the firm?
A survey of the historical archives held by accountancy firms’ was published in 1994, with a brief paragraph about the history of the firms. The book ‘Chartered accountants in England and Wales- a guide to historical records’ by Wendy Habgood (Manchester University Press, 1994) can be consulted in the Library.
The National Register of Archives provides information about the location of historical records, including those of accountancy practices. The corporate name index allows you to search for a business or organisation.
The records of some accountancy firms have been deposited at local archives. The Access to Archives search engine allows you to search for documents in the care of local record offices and libraries, universities, museums and national and specialist institutions across England and Wales. However, in some instances you may still need to contact the appropriate local archive to find out what they hold in their collections.
The enquiry team in the ICAEW Library & Information Service can conduct research using the information held in our collection.
ICAEW Members, ACA Students and other entitled users.
Free of charge.
All research is charged at £15+VAT per 15 minutes, plus the cost of any copies supplied. Your payment details will be required before we start the research and you should advise us of any limit to the amount of research you would like to pay for.
If you already have the document references from our website you need only pay our normal document copying charges – please see our page on copying charges.
Please discuss your requirements with the enquiry team who will be able to advise you further.