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Uncovering the C.O. Stanley Pye Collection: A family business

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By Emily Rees

How do we discover more about the history of media in Britain? A lot of information comes from the collections and archives of individuals and companies who played a key role in developing British film, television and radio. The National Media Museum is home to several of these collections, which are used as the basis for public exhibitions. However, the journeys of these collections into the Museum’s archive are not always straightforward and, sadly, large amounts of Britain’s media history will never be archived because it has been thrown away or misplaced.


Television and radio manufacturing pioneer: C.O. Stanley (1899 – 1989)

The C.O. Stanley collection, which pertains to the history of radio, television and communications manufacturer Pye Ltd, might have met such a fate. Fortunately, in the 1990s, C.O. Stanley’s grandson Nicholas Stanley decided to piece together the history of his grandfather’s tenure as Pye’s owner and director, which ran from 1928 until 1966. In the process he saved hundreds of invaluable files from being thrown away.

I have been given the task of working with the 45 boxes of material that Nicholas Stanley uncovered, and which he bequeathed to the National Media Museum in the 2000s.

I have been uncovering the story of how these nearly-lost documents were pieced together, forming a vital collection that describes the development of media and communications technology in Britain from the 1930s to the 1960s. This is a particularly exciting time period, especially for television, which developed from an experimental service before the war into the dominant leisure activity in most British homes.

C.O. Stanley was dedicated to the expansion of television. Pye television receivers sat in homes all over the country, and many of the programmes that people watched on them were filmed using Pye studio equipment, some of which is now held in the National Media Museum’s object collection.


Pye promotional material for television sets, 1949

What’s so fascinating about working with a collection that relates to both a person and a company is the mixture of private and institutional material it contains. The collection tells the story of the rise and eventual fall of Pye (it was bought by Philips in 1966), which is also the story of the rise and fall of its central figure, C.O. Stanley. The collection reveals a man who was both a pioneer and visionary, but whose dogmatic nature increasingly prevented his visions from being realised as the years passed.

Working with this collection, I was surprised by its very human element: among finances, accounts and endless memos lies the history of the Stanley family. I came across C.O. Stanley’s Latin certificates from secondary school; letters from his only son John, asking his mum to send him more sweets at boarding school; family photographs from holidays to Greece in the 1970s; and several of C.O. Stanley’s passports dating back to the 1930s, full of stamps from across the globe. The collection covers the lives and deaths of many Stanley family members and includes birth, marriage and death certificates, alongside family trees and photographs of relatives dating back to the 1890s.

Needless to say, Pye’s personal history is closely intertwined with the history of the wider Stanley family, so it is appropriate that this archive was pieced together by a family member. But the other vital elements of this story are the employees of the Pye company—indeed, Nicholas Stanley found a large chunk of the material in the vaults of the former Pye factory in Cambridge.

Correspondence in the collection tells of how he found several dusty boxes, all of which were going to be thrown away if he had not come looking for them. The rest of the material that Nicholas Stanley found came from former colleagues and employees of his grandfather at Pye.

The collection reveals that he wrote dozens of letters to anyone who might be able to provide information about Pye and C.O. Stanley. The varied and detailed responses to his appeals serve as testimony to the enduring impact Pye and C.O. Stanley made on its employees’ lives. This part of the archive forms a kind of patchwork quilt of various people’s memories, documents and photographs, all of which now help to tell Pye and C.O. Stanley’s story.


Pye factory workers

When I first began looking through the C.O. Stanley collection I expected to find lots of dry material relating to company finances, with perhaps some odd gems such as adverts for TV and radio sets, some interesting photographs or perhaps a controversial exchange of letters. I did not expect to find the story of a grandson who had decided to uncover his own family’s history and, in the process, saved an integral part of Britain’s media history. It reminds us that the archive can be a highly personal place and that the history of companies and manufacturers is also the history of people: not just the directors, but all the employees and their families.

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