The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

3 January 2006

The Photographic collection of the National Railway Museum
15 September 1997
Ed Bartholemew, Curator of Photographic Collection at the NRM

Colin used 160 slides taken from the collection to illustrate his talk. The collection includes contributions from about 200 named photographers. His first examples were of the erection of Saltash bridge in 1858, and extracts from two albums documenting the Midland extension to London. By 1870 Railway companies and contractors were employing their own photographers, and Ed showed one example of the extension of the Edge Hill cutting at Liverpool. This was not accidental, as some of the best photographs come from LNWR.

Shots of new engines are common, often on 16 ins by 12 ins plate. Photographs of railway works are also included, showing the industrial processes which were state-of-the-art at the time but which would now have the H.S.E. in a state of apoplexy. The wide range of the companies‘ social activities included hospitals, territorial volunteers, bands, and parks, sports specials, political meetings and, of course, their contribution to the wars.

The companies photographed their systems, but rarely with locomotives in action, although LNWR, LMS and GWR did take action shots. These early images with plates of large size and high silver content, produce very detailed enlargements. Freight movement is also represented, and Ed pointed out that our traditional fish and chips became practical because the railways reduced the cost of the raw material. They also photographed their customers‘ operations, including breweries, scap-metal merchants, leather-tanners, newspaper; even house movement. Docks feature extensively, including the buildings, operations and the company ships. Some photographs are more controversial; a photograph of the rat catchers at St Pancras drew complaints from animal-rights activists as promoting cruelty to rats!

By the late 1880s film emulsions were sufficiently advanced to capture moving images and amateur photographery started. Maurice Earley, A. P Herbert and others all feature. In these private collections there are few photographs of people. However, family photographs of railway workers are a valuable source which plugs this gap.

The collection now has between 1.2 or 1.3 million photos and is still growing, most recently through the efforts of their own photographers. The largest negative in the collection is 3ft by 2 ft, and the smallest is a microscopic slide of the Menai Bridge which is only 2mm by 1mm. The collection is being transfered to a purpose built store at York with financial help from the Friends. In addition, a group of 6 Friends are rewrapping the negatives at the rate of 1000 per day. The need is obvious when you see the reserve collection, held in decaying boxes, and even cake tins. As these are treated, details are entered onto a computer database and scanned into computers, with the long term objective is to put these onto the Internet. Specialist information is provided by experts, most recently by the Great Eastern Society. Ed recoginses the complaints about lack of access which have been leveled at the NRM photographic collection, but he, his full time assistant and volunteers from the Friends believe they are now plugging the ”black hole of the collection•.

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