Progress, efficiency and operational management: the S. Pearson & Son photographic albums of His Majesty’s Factory, Gretna

  • Noeme Santana (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


His Majesty’s Factory, Gretna was a cordite production facility built in response to a shortage of artillery shells in 1915 by the British contracting and oil conglomerate S. Pearson & Son. The factory complex situated on the Anglo-Scottish bordering city of Gretna, was the United Kingdom’s largest cordite factory during the First World War. Pearson was appointed by the Ministry of Munitions as the contractor responsible for the construction of the factory sites and supporting infrastructure. Around 900 photographs depicting the construction and operation of the factory facilities were produced between 1914 and 1918. Pearson staff compiled the photographs in albums and sent album copies relaying visual evidence of construction progress, cordite production and management efficiency to the Ministry of Munitions’ office in London. Part of the Pearson collection at the Science Museum, the Gretna albums are a rich visual and material source, exemplifying the use of photography in the representation of progress management, but also applied as a communication tool between large scale institutional bodies such as industry and government. The aim of my paper is to understand the many roles played by photography in the visual representation of the construction and operational management of the factory. While Pearson had an onsite contracting office, its head office was in the London borough of Westminster, the United Kingdom’s political heart. Similarly, the Ministry of Munitions’ office was within walking distance of Pearson’s headquarters. In what ways did Pearson use photography to communicate internally within its own corporate structure, and in external communications with the Ministry of Munitions, a major stakeholder in the project? This paper builds upon David E. Nye’s influential “Image Worlds” – an analysis of General Electric’s use of photography in a corporate environment. Nye’s breakdown of the various uses of photography to promote internal and external images of progress through corporate iconographies and language, sets the foundation to my paper. Equally, Elspeth Brown’s “Corporate Eye” which discusses the use of photography in the rationalisation of labour is another key reference in this paper. While Brown’s focus is primarily on the use of photography within the workforce, her approach to photography as a technological asset to corporate ideology is crucial in understanding how photography was used by Pearson in its business relations with the British government. My contribution to the intellectual debate surrounding photography and industry seeks to expand the existing discussions to the relationship between photography, industry and other institutional stakeholders, such as the Ministry of Munitions who had its own governmental interests and political image in the construction of the factory. By intellectually engaging with the Gretna photographic albums in the Pearson collection, corresponding counterpart album copies and contextual correspondence between Pearson and the Ministry of Munitions in The National Archives of the United Kingdom, it is my intention to understand how photography was used by Pearson as a long distance communication technology, visually representing ideologies of progress and efficiency across institutional bodies such as industry and government.

"The Power of Print" session at the 58th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Period10 Oct 2015
Event typeOther