25 June 2012

Britain from Above

More than 15,000 images from one of the earliest and most significant collections of aerial photography of the UK have been made freely accessible online to the public for the first time.

Britain from Above, a new website launched by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and Wales, features some of the oldest and most valuable images of the Aerofilms Collection, a unique and important archive of over 1 million aerial photographs taken between 1919 and 2006.

St Paul's Cathedral, London. March 1921.

Superb witness of a changing Britain

The photographs featuring on the website date from 1919 to 1953, and have gone through a painstaking process of conservation and cataloguing. Due to their age and fragility, many of the earliest plate glass negatives were close to being lost forever. Covering the countryside, industrial and urban landscapes, iconic landmarks and villages and coastal scenes, its chronological and geographical coverage is superb and documents the face of Britain during a period of intense and unparalleled change.

Highlights from the collection include: the first boxing match at Wembley Stadium in 1924; the Thames Flood of 1947 in which over 100,000 properties were affected; crowds on the banks of the River Clyde watching the first voyage of the newly-built RMS Queen Mary in 1936; and a scene of Rhondda Fawr, one of the largest mining valleys in southern Wales.

"Mystery" locations

Britain from Above website features a high degree of interactivity and is designed for users to download images, customise their own themed photo galleries, share personal memories, and add information to enrich the understanding for each of the images. They are also invited to identity the locations of a number of "mystery" images that have left the experts stumped.

Anna Eavis, Head of Archive at English Heritage, said: "The Aerofilms Collection embodies all that is exciting about aerial photography. What is equally remarkable is the skill of the expert staff in England, Scotland and Wales who have saved and conserved these vulnerable negatives and prints and converted them into the high resolution images you see on screen today."

Aviation and air photography in the wake of WWI

The collection was created by Aerofilms Ltd, a pioneering air survey company set up by First World War veterans FL Wills and C Grahame-White just after the end of WWI in 1919. Wills brought knowledge and enthusiasm for air photography while Grahame-White was a pioneer aviator. 

With just £3000 seed capital, the company grew from strength to strength, spurred on by the rapid technological advances during WWI both in aeroplane engineering and aerial reconnaissance. At first, flying planes were borrowed from the London Aeroplane Club and glass plates were developed in a bathroom at the London Flying Hotel on the Hendon site where Aerofilms had set up office.

In addition to Aerofilms' own imagery, the firm expanded its holdings with the purchase of other collections. This huge collection was acquired for the nation in 2007. With the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Foyle Foundation, English Heritage and the Royal Commissions embarked on a programme to conserve, catalogue and digitise the collection and make it freely available online.

Foyle Foundation website

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