The Genealogist’s Internet

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17. Photographs

National collections

Regional and local collections

Specialist collections

Commercial photographers

Professional photographers

Film and video

Dating, preservation, restoration

Photo sharing

Among the many reasons for the success of the web is the ease with which it can be used to make images available to a wide audience. The questions of cost and commercial viability that face the printed photograph do not really apply on the web — apart from the labour involved, it costs effectively nothing to publish a photograph online. The widespread availability of inexpensive scanners and the popularity of the digital camera mean that more and more people have the equipment to create digital images. While few archives are in a position to publish a significant fraction of their photographic holdings in print, online image archives are mushrooming, and some offer very substantial collections.

Photographs are, of course, primary historical sources. But most historical photographs online are of towns, villages, buildings, and unnamed individuals, so the chances of coming across a picture of your great-great-grandmother on the web (unless she was, say, Queen Victoria) are quite small. So, for the genealogist, online photographs mainly provide historical and geographical background to a family history, rather than primary source material. But you may be lucky, and there are certainly some significant collections with photographs of named individuals, some of which are highlighted here.

The web is also a good source of information for understanding and managing your own family photographs, and there are sites devoted to dating, preservation, restoration, and scanning.

Cyndi’s List has a page with links for ‘Photographs and Memories’ at <>, covering all aspects of photography and family history. Information on using search engines to locate images online is covered in Chapter 19, p. 343. Present-day aerial photographs tend to be provided by mapping sites and are covered in Chapter 15, p. 263.

National collections

For photographs of historic buildings, there are two national sites for England. The National Monuments Record’s (NMR) Images of England site at <> is intended to be ‘an internet home for England’s listed buildings’ with good-quality photographs and descriptions of every listed building in the country. There are over 300,000 listed properties included on the site. You can do a quick search without further ado, while the free registration gives you access to more sophisticated standard and advanced searches. Search facilities include search by county or town, building type, period, or person (an architect or other individual associated with a building). Thumbnail images link to full size images with a description.


Figure 17-1: ViewFinder: Images of Hastings

ViewFinder is run by English Heritage at <>. This aims to make part of the NMR’s image archive available online. Whereas Images of England contains contemporary photographs, the ViewFinder images are older. The site has around 25,000 images in a number of collections drawn from individual photographers. The largest collection, with over 13,000 photographs, represents the work of Henry W. Taunt, an important Oxford photographer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. London is well served by these collections, with many street views and material relating to the Port of London. There is also a project relating to ‘England at Work’, with 5,000 images illustrating England’s industrial heritage (click on ‘Photo Essays’ on the home page, and then select ‘England at Work’ from the subject drop-down list). The photographs come in three sizes: a small thumbnail, a basic view of about 450 × 300 pixels, which you can save, and an enlarged view of around 700 × 480 pixels which your browser won’t let you save. Even though the images are historical, the search is based on present-day counties, not the pre-1974 counties. Another English Heritage image collection, though more of interest to historians and archaeologists, is PastScape at <>.

A similar collection for Scotland is Historic Scotland Images at <>, which, like Images of England, has contemporary photographs. These are displayed both as thumbnails and very high quality images, though unfortunately the thumbnails do not identify the location. There is a keyword search, or you can browse by category. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland’s ‘Old Scotland’ pages at <> also have modern photos of old buildings. The search facility covers all items in the catalogue, not just the photographs, so it may be easier to browse the available photographs via the thumbnail pages for each region. The National Galleries of Scotland has a small collection of nineteenth-century photographs from their collections on Flickr at <>.

The National Library of Wales’s Digital Mirror (Figure 17-2) offers seven online collections relating to Wales and Welsh photography at <> and has information about the National Collection of Welsh Photographs at <>. The Library has over 700 items from the P. B. Abery Collection available on Flickr at <>.


Figure 17-2: The National Library of Wales’s Digital Mirror

The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland has used Flickr to publish photographs from its collection. Around 1,300 photographs from the Allison Collection are available at <>. These are of particular interest to family historians because they include over 1,000 wedding photographs, taken between 1900 and 1950, with the name of the family and the date of the wedding making identification easy.

The National Library of Ireland’s Digital Photographs collection at <> comprises eight individual collections, mostly covering the period before independence. While most are of buildings and places, there are many of groups and individuals, often with the name of the family.

Regional and local collections

Record offices and libraries have substantial collections of photographic material, and this is increasingly being made available online, in many cases with lottery funding. Some of these collections are purely photographic, while others include scanned prints, drawings and even paintings. The following will give you some idea of the sort of material available.

The London Picture Archive at <> is the Guildhall Library’s image database. Its 20,000 or so images of the capital include maps, plans, engravings and photographs of places, with a large collection relating to trades and industries, including the City Livery Companies.

For suburban London, the Ideal Homes site at <> (see Figure 17-3) includes historical photographs for the six South-East London Boroughs. The images are not accessible from the home page, but from the home page for each borough there are links from the right-hand navigation bar. Thumbnails link, in turn, to larger images with a description.


Figure 17-3: Ideal Homes: Double’s Butchers, Chislehurst

Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, which houses the City Archives, offers the ‘Virtual Mitchell Collection’ at <> — note the three consecutive l’s in the URL — which is a selection from the images in the collection covering ‘street scenes and buildings, but also scenes of past working lives and of social life in the city’. Searches can be made by street name or subject.

West Sussex Record Office has an online database, West Sussex Past Pictures, at <>, with details of 31,000 photographs held in the record office, of which over 12,000 are available online. The online database provides record office references so that scans of photographs can be requested if the image is not already online.

The North of England seems to be particularly well served by online image libraries. Probably the largest is Picture the Past at <>. This is the website for the North East Midland Photographic Record, a project run by the local authorities of Derby, Derbyshire, Nottingham, and Nottinghamshire, and intended to ‘conserve and make publicly accessible the photographic heritage of the North East Midlands’. The site holds around 90,000 images, including many of individual streets and houses. There is a comprehensive search facility — you can specify a county or a place, and enter individual keywords (though the site does not indicate what keywords are used in the database). Individual images are presented on-screen at around 250 × 190 pixels, and you can order high quality prints online. A useful feature of the database is that each image has a link to a present-day map showing its approximate location. Many pictures are accompanied by historical notes (see Figure 17-4) and there is also a facility for those with local historical knowledge to contribute additional information.


Figure 17-4: A Nottingham street scene from Picture the Past at <> is an online version of Sheffield Local Studies Library’s computerized image system. Funded from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the site contains around 35,000 photographs, about two-thirds of the Library’s collection. Low resolution images (typically around 350 × 200 pixels at 72 dots per inch) can be downloaded from the site free of charge, and high-resolution photographic prints can be purchased.

Leeds Library & Information Service has a photographic archive of the city, Leodis, at <> with almost 60,000 images. The search results give only the title and description (often quite extensive) and you need to follow the link to see the image. As with Picture the Past, there is a facility to add comments, which often include information from local people about the history and inhabitants of a place.

Bury Image Bank at <> is an online database of over 18,000 images of streets and buildings from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Chester Image Bank at <>, maintained by the Cheshire & Chester Joint Archive Service has ‘several thousand photographs’.

Alongside these official sites, there is the occasional personal site, such as the Old Scottish Borders Photo Archive at <>, which has views of border towns, and Kevin Quick’s photographs of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire towns and villages at <>.

It is always worth checking a relevant record office website for photographic collections. Even if there is little or no material on the web, you can expect to find information about their holdings. For example, Greater Manchester CRO has details of its Documentary Photography Archive at <>, which is an important collection for family historians because it includes many family photographs up to the 1950s. Photographs are usually an important part of official local history sites for specific places (see p. 278).

Specialist collections

Alongside these geographically-based collections, there are countless sites devoted to photographs of particular subjects. The websites of specialist museums are an obvious place to look. For example, the London Transport Museum has an online photographic collection at <>, which includes over a hundred photographs of named London bus conductors (Figure 17-5). The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum’s Images of Empire site at <> is ‘the largest dedicated online resource of still and moving images on the British colonial period’, and includes material from nearly 150 photographic collections, which can be viewed either by searching or by browsing the collections individually. A selection of material can be viewed under 10 thematic headings (e.g. domestic life, transport).


Figure 17-5: The London Transport Museum Photographic Collection

Several of the military sites mentioned in Chapter 10 include photographs. Fred Larimore’s site devoted to Nineteenth Century British And Indian Armies And Their Soldiers at <> has a collection of photographs for the period 1840 to 1920, in some cases with information about the individual shown and commentary on uniform details. And several of the sites devoted to individual occupations (see Chapter 9) have photographs.

The International Mission Photography Archive at <> has historical photographs relating to the work of missionaries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

County Record Office sites, too, may offer specialist collections. Buckinghamshire, for example, has an online database of Victorian prisoners in Aylesbury Gaol at <>, around a quarter of which have photographs.

The website of the Roger Vaughan Picture Library at <> has around 3,000 Victorian and Edwardian studio photographs, with links to other sites with many more. Most of the subjects aren’t named, so this is more useful for help with dating and information on professional photographers.

The Scottish Highlander Photo Archive at <> is a commercial site with almost 3,000 named portraits.


Of particular interest to genealogists are pictures of the churches in which ancestors worshipped and married, and while the national and regional collections mentioned above naturally include some photographs of church buildings, there are several volunteer-run sites devoted specifically to church photographs, often accompanied by historical information:

There are, of course, many pictures of churches on photo-sharing sites such as Flickr (see p. 313), and image search engines can be used to find images of an individual building.


Many school photographs will be found online. For a simple example, see Kennethmont School’s page at <>, which offers a selection of group photos from 1912 onwards with many pupils and teachers identified by name (Figure 17-6). (Yes, the site and the school differ in spelling!) Jeff Maynard has a more extensive collection for Harrow County School with form and sports team photos going back to the 1920s at <>, with something for almost every year.


Figure 17-6: Kennethmont School photograph from 1937

A good way to find photographs for particular schools is to check the website of the school itself, if it still exists. Where a school is under local authority control, the school website will often have the format <>, e.g. <>. But many schools, and of course all independent schools, will have their own internet domain, in which case a general search on the school name in a search engine will quickly find the site. A local history site may include school photographs, too.

Friends Reunited at <>, which aims to put users in touch with old schoolfriends, has a page for every school in the country and these often have photos submitted by former pupils. You will need to register in order to see the material.

Incidentally, if you come across a site called World School Photographs, ignore it — it seems to be solely designed to collect personal information, and has no school photographs.

Commercial photographers

The commercial picture libraries have not been slow to exploit the web as a means of providing a catalogue for prospective purchasers of their material or services. These resources are also useful to non-professional users because access to the online catalogues and databases is usually free, though the image size and quality is likely to be reduced, and the scans may have some overprinting to prevent them being used commercially.

Perhaps the most important commercial site with old photographs for the UK is the Francis Frith Collection at <>. Frith was a Victorian photographer whose company photographed over 7,000 towns and villages in all parts of the British Isles, from 1860 until it closed in 1969. The entire stock was bought by a new company, which now sells prints. While the aim of the website is to act as a sales medium, it has reasonable size thumbnails (under 400 × 274 pixels) of all 120,000-odd pictures in the collection, which can be located by search or via a listing for each (present-day) county without the need to make a purchase. There are also some historic aerial photographs. The site allows you set up an ‘album’ to store the pictures you want to view again.

Frith’s photographs and many other commercial photographs of towns and villages were issued as postcards, which means that postcard sites may have material of interest. For example, there is a collection of Isle of Wight postcards at <>; Eddie Prowse has an online collection of postcards of Weymouth and Portland at <>; Postcardworld at <> is a commercial site with postcards of all parts of the UK, with 300 × 200 pixel scans on the site. Old UK Photos at <> has a growing collection of old photos of places, which are mainly taken from old postcards.

Professional photographers

In one sense, professional photographers are just another occupational group (see Chapter 9). But their role in creating a unique part of the recent historical record makes them of interest not just to their descendants. Information about their working lives can be important in dating and locating family photographs.

A useful site for information on UK photographers is the New Index of Victorian, Edwardian & Early 20th Century UK Photographers at <>. This has a database of photographers (which, however, can only be searched by county) and links to many other sites. Roger Vaughan has a list of several hundred Victorian photographers at <>, while PhotoLondon has a ‘Database of 19th Century Photographers and Allied Trades in London: 1841–1901’ at <>. Another useful site is Christine Hibbert’s Victorian Photographers of Britain 1855–1901, which lists photographers, with towns and dates. Unfortunately, the site itself closed down at the beginning of 2008, but the content is still available on the Wayback Machine with the URL <> (18 September 2008).

EdinPhoto at <> is a comprehensive site devoted to the history of photography in Edinburgh. The pages on the city’s professional photographers at <> (note the two underscores before professional) provide details of around 250 individuals and hundreds of studios, in many cases with examples of their work. There are also family trees for a few of the city’s photographic dynasties. Details of almost 150 ‘Jersey Photographers and Studios’ will be found on the Jerseyfamilyhistory site at <>. Sussex PhotoHistory at <> has details of photographers and studios active in the county between 1841 and 1910, with detailed histories and in many cases sample photographs.

The ‘Identifying Photographers’ page on Cyndi’s List at <> lists a number of other sites giving dates and places for British professional photographers, often for specific towns or counties (including Ayrshire, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, and the Isle of Man).

UK-PHOTOGRAPHERS is a mailing list for the discussion and sharing of information regarding photographic studios and the dating of photographs produced by professional photographers in England and Wales between 1850 and 1950. Information on subscribing will be found at <>, which has a link to the archive of past messages.

Film and video

Most digital video available online is of fairly recent origin. Of course your wedding video is of genealogical interest, but not to anyone outside your family. Video sharing sites like YouTube at <> nonetheless do have some older material digitized from film, but the problem is that there’s no reliable way to find this among the millions of pieces of recent home video, since the only text you can search on is the title given to each clip by the uploader. Unless you are looking for something very specific — finding clips of, say, Glasgow’s last tram or of a particular football club is simple enough — probably the best you will be able to do is find historical material of local interest by searching on a place-name and a year. However, there are a few sites with professionally catalogued clips of archive film.

The Scottish Screen Archive, part of the National Library of Scotland, is Scotland’s national moving images collection. The catalogue on its website at <> lists all items in the archive, indicating whether a clip or full-length video is available online. Each item is accompanied by a detailed description of the shots in the film (see Figure 17-7).

The British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) has an online catalogue with details of some 13 million items at <>. Most of the entries relate to TV transmissions from the last 60 years, not especially relevant for genealogists, but it has details of newsreel material, which may be useful for old items of local news. The site does not host the newsreels itself, but links to the two major film company sites for newsreel footage: British Pathé at <>, which offers 90,000 items of newsreel from 1896 to 1976, and Movietone at <> with presumably similar coverage. The Movietone site requires (free) registration.


Figure 17-7: A record from the Scottish Screen Archive

Dating, preservation, restoration

The web can be useful in connection with your own photographs, if you need to date them or if you need advice on preservation or restoration.

For help with the dating of old photographs, Andrew J. Morris’s site 19th Century Photography at <> provides a detailed account of the various types of photographic process and technique. The Roger Vaughan Picture Library has a section devoted to dating portraits at <> with examples of (approximately) dated photographs for years between 1860 and 1952.

The Open University has a unit ‘Picturing the family’ at <>, an online tutorial (designed to take 12 hours) which ‘looks at some of the ways photographs can reveal, and sometimes conceal, important information about the past’, with around a hundred photographs for analysis and interpretation.

If you are interested in preserving and restoring old photographs, Colin Robinson has information about their care and conservation at <>, while David L. Mishkin’s article on ‘Restoring Damaged Photographs’ at <> covers the various approaches to restoration.

The US National Archives website has a useful section on ‘Caring for Your Family Archives’ at <>, which covers all aspects of caring for photographic prints.

If you want to scan photographs and restore them digitally, it is worth looking at Scantips <>, which not only has extensive advice about scanning in general but also includes a page on ‘Restoration of genealogical photos’ at <>. has a series of articles by Kimberley Powell on ‘creating and editing digital photos’ at <>.

These sites offer advice not just on the obvious topic of repairing the signs of physical damage but also on correcting tonal problems with faded originals. Sites devoted to digital restoration generally assume you are using Adobe Photoshop, but the principles transfer to other graphics editing packages, though there may be some differences in terminology.

A general source of help with old photographs is the RootsWeb mailing list VINTAGE-PHOTOS, which is devoted to ‘the discussion and sharing of information regarding vintage photos including, but not restricted to, proper storage, preservation, restoration, ageing and dating, restoration software, photo types and materials used, restoration assistance, and scanning options’. Information on how to join the list will be found at <>, which also provides links to the list’s archives. The GenPhoto list at Yahoo Groups is a mailing list about photography specifically for family historians. Its coverage includes identifying old photographs, and using digital photography and scanning to share and preserve family photos. You can read archived messages and join the group at <>. The Photo Identification Discussion Group is also on Yahoo Groups, at <>, and is devoted to ‘techniques for identifying the date and subjects of old photographs’. Archived messages can be read only once you have joined the group.

Digital archiving

While modern digital photographs don’t need ‘preservation’ as such, appropriate archiving is essential if future generations are to see them. Digital photographs may not get torn or faded, but image files can easily become corrupted or destroyed, as can the physical media on which they are stored. Also, it’s a lot easier to write a name and a date on the back of a photographic print than to attach the same information securely to a file. Good starting points for exploring this issue are the following articles:

If you’re serious about digital preservation, then an important consideration is the long-term stability of the storage media. Authoritative guidance on the life of optical media (CD, DVD) is available in a report from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology at <>. The body of the article is very technical, but the conclusions are probably all you need.

Photo sharing

In the last few years we have seen increasing possibilities for collaboration on the web, and an example of this are photo sharing sites, which provide a platform for individuals to share their photos online without going to the trouble of setting up a personal website.

The best known of these is undoubtedly Flickr at <>, which allows users to maintain collections of online photos free of charge. Photos can either be entirely public or you can restrict access to selected family members and friends, making it an easy way to share new digital photos of family events or scans of historical photos. Where photos are public, they can be located via the search facility, so sites like Flickr can be used as a way of finding contemporary photos of places in addition to the official geographical collections mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. Even the smallest village is likely to be represented by a dozen or more photographs showing the major buildings and the surrounding landscape. Figure 17-8 shows some of the 600 or so images for the village of Sproughton in Suffolk. (And you can see photos of the author in his earliest youth at <>.)

You can get a list of similar sites from the Wikipedia article on ‘Photo sharing’ which also provides an overview of the various types of photo sharing site.


Figure 17-8: Flickr images for Sproughton, Suffolk

Mapping sites provide an ideal framework for organizing photographs of places and Google Maps at <> (see p. 263) includes a facility for people to attach a photo to a particular location. To see which locations have photos, you need to move the mouse over the ‘Traffic’ drop-down list at the top right of the map display and then tick the Photos option (see Figure 17-9). Geograph at <> takes a similar but more methodical approach: it invites people to submit photographs of the main geographical features for every 1km grid square of the British Isles.

Wikimedia Commons at <> also has many user-submitted photographs of places — just search on the place-name in the search box on the home page. Many of these, incidentally, are uploaded under a Creative Commons licence (see <>), which means you could use them for your own website or printed family history without seeking permission.


Figure 17-9: Google Maps: photo locations in Bristol

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