Posts Tagged ‘Research’

An opportunity to work on London Picture Archive research. A guest post by LH Member, David Gaylard.

The photographic archive of the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), formerly called ‘Collage’, was renamed ‘The London Picture Archive’ (LPA) on December 10th, in order to make it more easily accessible for online searches. The original name was an acronym of ‘City of London Libraries and Art Gallery Electronic’ and the site launched in 1999 with just under 30,000 images. It now has over a quarter of million images and is continually being developed and expanded.

In March, with the advent of the first lockdown, a project was put together by the LMA’s Digital Services team, when it became obvious that the archives would need to close for some time. It was primarily for staff but included volunteers.

The project involves checking, refining and expanding the information attached to the LCC photographs in the LPA. The original descriptions of the images, compiled for office purposes, and containing only addresses, are inadequate for online historical research. New expanded descriptions, which will be fully searchable online, are already making the archive much more useful for researchers.

About 40 staff members from different teams at LMA worked on it on a full-time or part-time basis during the first period of closure. Now the staff are largely back at work, the project needs volunteers to help. The work can be done from home.

I have been a regular part-time volunteer at the LMA in Farringdon for almost ten years, and was asked if I wanted to join in the collective effort. I have thoroughly enjoyed doing this and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in London and its social and architectural history. Below, I describe the process, with a few examples.

The images in the project come from Series 01 of LCC photos which have been scanned and are available on the London Picture Archive website, www.londonpicturearchive.org.uk. These focus on buildings and locations rather than people or other subjects. A much larger Series 02 covers the latter, but this is not a part of the current project. However, as the image below of the market in Electric Avenue in Brixton taken in 1970 shows, the dividing line is sometimes a little blurred.

Electric Avenue 87356_500

LPA Image number 87356. © London Metropolitan Archives.

There are about 96,000 images grouped in 695 boxes (80-200 images per box), arranged alphabetically by metropolitan borough, and alphabetically by street within each box. This works out at about one Excel spreadsheet per box.

The earliest image is of Trafalgar Square, taken in 1855 (LPA 141184). It is estimated that there are about 1,000 images dating from the 19th Century. Many photos have been taken of buildings damaged during WW2 and, more recently, when they were about to be demolished or redeveloped.

I chose to do the Borough of Barnet, covering an area from Hampstead out to Elstree. I grew up on the borders of Hadley, High and New Barnet and knew the sort of confusion that can exist within just the ‘Barnets’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one else was working on this area.

I was sent one of the digital ‘boxes’ as an Excel spreadsheet. This shows the current information associated with an image – the catalogue number, existing title and description, the date and sometimes its GPS latitude and longitude. To the left-hand side, there is a ‘Link’ column and on clicking this the relevant image and record appears in its LPA format, alongside the spreadsheet.

The detailed description of the image is usually scant, with just the address of the subject and its name, if it has one. A few of the addresses are wrong, which is where any local knowledge comes in and, in my case, some were just labelled, say, ‘Church Hill, Barnet’
(i.e. London Borough of Barnet), rather than, say, ‘Edgware’ or ‘Finchley’. There is also the confusion of the ubiquitous ‘High Street’.

I start with Google Maps (or Bing or Open Street Maps), followed by Google Street View, to see if the site is still extant. If it is, you can update more accurate GPS coordinates from Google Maps. If it isn’t and the site is old enough one can use the National Library of Scotland online georeferenced historic OS 25” series to search for it and give its coordinates.

However, many of the images record places, streets and buildings that no longer exist: buildings since destroyed, demolished or redeveloped or streets that have been renamed or which gave way to new developments or open spaces. Tracking them down can be a proper detective job, as they won’t appear on a simple Google Maps search. This is where reference to old OS maps and street atlases come in useful.

An example of this is the image below of Kensington Town Hall which, after the council had moved out in 1977, was partly demolished in 1982 on the instructions of the council leader, ‘in controversial circumstances’. The work was stopped after an outcry, but the damage done was so serious that the site was cleared in 1984.

Kensingtown Town Hall 84167_500

LPA Image number 84167 © London Metropolitan Archives.

Another good example is Burgess Park in Camberwell, one of the largest parks in London, which was created out of a densely built-up area. There are many images showing buildings which were demolished for its creation, some bomb damaged, some perfectly fine, such as the ones below in Victory Square, Camberwell, taken in 1973, a very narrow street.

Burgess Park 55721_500

LPA Image number 55721. © London Metropolitan Archives

Writing the image description itself is rewarding; we are asked to include any details such as people, animals, cars and every-day objects as well as shop names and advertising. Most of the images I have done are from the 1960s and 1970s and it is a shock to see adverts such as ‘Craven “A” will not affect your throat’ from the 1970s. There are also the then common signs for Luncheon Vouchers and Green Shield stamps in restaurant and shop windows, also long-gone typewriter and record shops, and tobacconists. Older images such as the one below of Grummitt’s Stores in Eltham, taken in 1924, provide a wealth of period advertising and detail.

Grummitt's Stores144636_500

LPA Image number 144636. © London Metropolitan Archives.

Apart from describing the image, further research is needed on the Historic England website to check if the subject is nationally listed and then any local listings for conservation areas., to see if it is locally listed. These, together with Pevsner and local history websites, can often add interesting detail to the description. A good example of this is Collage 55800 of the New Royalty Kinema on Brixton Hill and where the expanded caption now includes the following information –

‘The neo-classical New Royalty Kinema at 101-103 Brixton Hill, Brixton, features a domed facade, broken pediment detail and sculpted pinnacle. The building was converted from a shop into a cinema in 1911 by Montagu Pyke who had a number of cinemas across London following the 1909 Cinematograph Act. The cinema had various names over time including the Scala and the Clifton. The two films advertised in this photograph are: ‘The Angelus’, a crime thriller involving a runaway nun, and ‘We Live Again’, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s 1889 novel ‘Resurrection’. It finally closed as a cinema in 1957 and featured on the front of a Led Zeppelin album ‘The Song Remains the Same’.

Brixton Kinema 88500_500

LPA Image number 88500. © London Metropolitan Archives

Surprisingly, the structure is still there, in much diminished form, as well as its surrounding buildings, as can be seen on this Google Street View screenshot, taken in March 2019, below.

Screenshot 2020-12-13 at 16.46.17

© 2020 Google.

Other images within the collection still have the power to surprise, such as the one below, taken in 1969, showing coal powered Fulham Power Station at full blast amongst residential streets. It was demolished in 1978 but the houses remain.

Fulham Power Station61184_500

LPA Image number 61184. © London Metropolitan Archives.

Another example is the shocking information at the end of this, otherwise straightforward, caption for Highwood Ash in Mill Hill Village, found on the local history site –

Highwood Ash, Highwood Hill, Mill Hill. Rear elevation of Highwood Ash, the building at right angles to the main road and partly obscured by a brick wall. Grade 2 listed, entry number 1287042. It is an eighteenth-century painted brick and render building with a large bay to the rear and a lower two storey wing to the side. The timber framed core is much older and was rebuilt in the 1660’s. Celia Fiennes lived here between 1713-1737. In October 1950 a Dakota of British European Airways crashed in the garden due to engine failure. The house survived but some 27 adults and 1 child died in the fire.

Of course, many scenes include nothing of national interest and some are purely architectural, such as a flight of stairs or timbers inside a roof. In these cases, your powers of description are sorely tested, but they do increase one’s knowledge and architectural vocabulary!

By the end of November 2020, 276 boxes have been completed, out of 695 (approximately 32,315 images out of 96,000), since the work started in March – so there is still a very long way to go.

Now that most LMA staff have returned to the office, the pace has slowed down a lot. This is therefore an ideal opportunity for anyone who has an interest in London and its recent history and wants to pass on their knowledge to get involved in a fascinating project. Since I started at the beginning of July, I have researched and written up entries for almost 500 images, working at odd times around other things, to suit myself. I have found it a thoroughly engrossing, mentally stimulating and sometimes addictive piece of research and commend it to interested members.

For details of how to get involved, please contact Dorota, the archivist handling the project at LMA, – Dorota.Pomorska-Dawid@cityoflondon.gov.uk.

One thought which came to my mind in doing this is the debt we have to those anonymous individuals who captured this body of images for both the LCC and GLC, and those organisations’ foresight in commissioning the work. But, as London changes at an ever-faster rate, has anybody been doing this in the recent past, for the benefit of future researchers? With an incredible number of images easily taken digitally on phones and other devices, it seems extraordinary that our predecessors were much more aware of the value of systematically recording areas at risk than we are. And who knows how long Google will continue to support Street View?


David Gaylard, 16 December 2020.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »