30 June 2014
More than 1.5 million maps and photographs relating to the history of the Commonwealth from 1940 onwards have been rescued from a defunct museum in Bristol. ...
The material, which is now in safe storage in Edinburgh whilst being prepared for public access online, has been described by RCAHMS as an effective 'Domesday Book' of more than sixty years of Commonwealth history.
AN ARCHIVE IN DISARRAY
Discovered by a team from the National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) at RCAHMS, when the Bristol museum’s collections were being dispersed and disposed of in 2012, the photographs were originally taken for the Directorate of Overseas Surveys (DOS).
DOS was founded in post-war Britain to map the Colonial Empire, and subsequently the Commonwealth, ultimately surveying 55 countries around the world. The surveys continued until the 1990s.
DOS even achieved movie fame when it was referenced as the source of maps used to locate the lair of Scaramanga, the villain in the James Bond film and novel, The Man with the Golden Gun.
Over the course of its history more than 2,000 people worked for the organisation. Hundreds worked at the DOS Headquarters in the south-west London suburb of Tolworth, in a labyrinth of Nissen huts so vast that it boasted a corridor almost a quarter-of-a-mile long. Hundreds more, including many demobbed ex-servicemen, pilots, surveyors and other specialists, worked across the Commonwealth.
The NCAP team found the vast archive in disarray and spent six weeks camping out in the old museum building as they sorted through boxes and determined what to keep. Now safely housed in Edinburgh as part of the National Collection of Aerial Photography which is hosted by RCAHMS, the DOS photographs provide a 'record of the changing urban and rural landscape of vast swathes of the Commonwealth'.
Every country was photographed in its entirety, creating a unique and extraordinary record of Commonwealth nations. For example
Montserrat (above right), the tiny island in the West Indies known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, was frequently photographed over 40 years up-to and after the 1995 volcanic eruption which destroyed its capital city and forced two thirds of the island’s inhabitants to flee. Conurbations such as Nairobi and Hong Kong which have gone through rapid and profound urbanisation, were also regularly photographed over a 40 year period
The collection is now being painstakingly digitised and catalogued – country by country - so that in due course, it can be accessed by people worldwide via the web.
Speaking about the DOS collection and the rescue mission, Allan Williams, Curator of the National Collection of Aerial Photography at RCAHMS, said 'I am immensely proud of the NCAP team and their work which has saved this internationally significant archive and we consider ourselves very privileged to be the custodians of it.
The collection has come to RCAHMS in part due to our persistence in saving it, once we heard it had just been abandoned in a now-closed museum, and in part due to our expertise in preserving and cataloguing aerial photo archives and using technology to make these publicly accessible.
'Pre-Google Earth, these aerial images alongside the maps and ground photographs, capture an almost perfect time capsule of the history of the landscape across the Commonwealth, revealing incredible examples and evidence of the impact of mankind on the Earth.
'Without doubt, we’ll make some amazing discoveries as we work our way through the collection. We’re also very fortunate that many of the surveyors and others who worked for DOS are still alive and so can share their first-hand accounts.'
For more on the work of RCAHMS, visit the website.
(Images copyright DOS/RCAHMS)