Historic Archive of Photos Opened Up

Historic Archive of Photos Opened Up

Imagine a large resource of historic photos that were collected at a then industrial scale, for commercial use, that lay neatly archived largely unknown about. Well, last week new startup Timepix launched just such an archive in the UK.

Ordnance Survey, the UK's national mapping agency, can trace its roots all the way back to 1791 with its name a give away as to the original military applications of maps. Their first remit was mapping Scotland in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, but that was replaced with a wider requirement to maintain detailed maps of the UK and Ireland. In fact, the first national mapping was undertaken during the 1800s at 1:10,560 (six inches) with many towns at an astonishing 1:500.

After World War II, these detailed town plans continued but given the rapid and extensive post-war construction, required regular updates. The surveyors needed a more rapid way to tie in all new measurements to the existing maps - enter the Revision Point or RP. These were simply features in the urban landscape that were unlikely to move - building corners, bridge piers, parts of churches. Pretty much anything big and immobile. However a text description such as "at corner of bridge on main road" isn't too helpful! So the surveyors took photos of them - cue a vast nationwide collection of RPs or, as they were more affectionately know, "Man with a white arrow" photos! And, yes, that's what they are - a man holding a white arrow pointing to the RP next to a chalkboard describing it.

Timepix website showing a petrol station in Manchester

Timepix website showing a petrol station in Manchester

What's remarkable about this set of photos is that they provide a window on to the streets where they were taken - new startup Timepix is making these collections available starting with Manchester as it's the single biggest independent archive. The image above is a nice example of the sort of scene - man with white arrow and chalkboard. But I love the setting of the petrol station with the pumps in the street, barely any cars and what must have been a "normal" day. See images of children playing, a man climbing a lamp post (seriously!), buggies outside houses on sidewalks, clean streets, shops, advertising hoardings, buses, railway lines, people cycling. It's a great reminder of what everyday life was really like. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are some efforts to find people that appear in the photos, such as here.

The map-based interface allows you to pan around the city to find streets that might interest using either contemporary or historic maps (useful where there's been a lot of redevelopment). You can also search by keyword. An app accompanies the website and enables the geolocation of your phone to set the search parameters. Watermarked images are free to share, with pricing as per the website. Want to get a sense of post-war urbanization in the UK? Then this is the site to visit!

Images courtesy of Timepix.

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Spy Black's picture

I agree.

Deleted Account's picture

I didn't get the same vibe from the website. Looking into the company it seems as though these images are still public but they are providing a resource to bring up images. It could be possible that anyone could still go to whatever place stores these images and get copies for themselves but the state does not have a service to organize and catalog the images digitally for public use. My hypothetical analogy for it is having a guy who you pay money to go into a public library and get your book for you. Sure you could have done it for free yourself but if he knows the library really well he's going to be faster. But there isn't anything that I saw that said they do or do not OWN the images.

Mike Smith's picture

Yes, my understanding is that these are both out of copyright and that OS dont actually have copies anymore. This set reside in a public library (something like 30000 of them) and have been subsequently digitized

Deleted Account's picture

It was in reference to your concern on control. There would be nothing stopping someone from searching for the images themselves and creating a digital copy. A private company just created a quicker way to access the images if someone is willing to pay for it, I don't see an issue.

I'd be interested in where you think they have control over the images.

Deleted Account's picture


I'm just talking about your concern over who has control. How does Timepix control the image? They're still public domain. They just offer a fast lane to finding and downloading the scans they created from the public domain.

Would it be better if the government manage the project?

Deleted Account's picture

I asked legitimate questions to clarify why you think Timepix has control over the images. You made the original comment.... Plus, why should it matter who I have a discussion with? It's a public forum and you're the most vocally against Timepix. You want others to speak for you?

Deleted Account's picture

So to get a better idea of what you meant in your post I should ask someone els....Noted....

Elaine Owen's picture

Thank you Mike for your intelligent summary of Timepix. I noticed we had sudden international interest and analytics led me to this interesting site. Mike Holst is almost right. You can now go into Manchester Central Library and ask to see the images, but before we digitized them that would lead to a cardboard box full of negatives. Now they have all 46,000 in digital form.

Not many people step into a public archive and what Timepix does is shake out all those photos across the city, so you can stand in the same spot and compare old and new, giving the archive greater reach into the community.

More information about the collections is held on www.timepix.org and revenue is shared between Timepix and the collections (on rather more generous terms than they would get from a photo library) Thanks for flagging up that we should make that clearer. We will have our own collection online soon too of Victorian carte-de-visite.

Archives request we load images with minimal enhancement so that they remain true for research use. It's not our job to reject the slightly out of focus, to crop, straighten and so on. The RF licences are deliberately all one price and for the better images represent a bit of a bargain. So creatives can take that photo of the man up a lamp post make it look properly fantastic and resell as greetings cards.

To wrap up, normally archives in GB apply to a public fund to get money to digtize and there are always more bids than money. We are trying out a model to help photo archives support themselves and get the images out to the public more quickly, plus mapping them to make it more fun for the people who live in or visit those areas.We are just launched so there are many improvements on our wish list, and feedback is welcome.

PS if you look in the news broadcast clips at www.timepix.org/news then the elderly gentleman speaking to the reporter is that man on top of Liverpool Cathedral in your article.

Jim Cutler's picture

Agreed about Getty. More bloody middlemen getting between the photographer and the client.