‘Doomsday book’ of the Commonwealth.

Aerial photographs that record vast swathes of the Commonwealth from the 1940s onwards have been saved for posterity by RCAHMS and are now being readied for public access online. The treasure trove of 1.5 million photographs, maps and other materials, rescued from a defunct museum in Bristol, effectively comprise a ‘Doomsday book’ of many countries in the Commonwealth.

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.

As yet unseen and unused, the collection is particularly strong in its coverage of the Caribbean, the islands of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, South East Asia and large parts of the continent of Africa. Every country was photographed in its entirety, creating a unique and extraordinary record of Commonwealth nations. For example, Montserrat, 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 like Nairobi and Hong Kong that have gone through rapid and profound urbanisation, were 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.

The collection is believed to offer a wide range of other uses, beyond its historical interest and significance. For example, because the photographs cover 40 years of human impact on the landscape, when they are matched with modern satellite images, an unrivalled record of the impact of climate change on the planet emerges.

Apart from climate change analysis, the aerial survey record offers a myriad of other potential uses including providing proof of indigenous land rights and international boundary disputes.

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.”

To celebrate the acquisition of the Collection, RCAHMS have commissioned a short film that’s based on DOS photography of Kenya. Sightlines (16 mins) by Genevieve Bicknell, is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme and produced in partnership with the Scottish Documentary Institute.

Sightlines explores colonialism and its consequences, as they are being played out today, in a hillside village in Kenya. The villagers are battling against a vast sisal plantation, which is occupying land given away by the colonial administration, land which the villagers believe to be their own.

Genevieve said “It was a great surprise for me to discover how the aerial photographs are being used now in Kenya. We knew before we started on
the film that the photographs could show us how colonialism had shaped the land in Kenya, but what was a complete surprise was to discover they are now being used for a very different purpose, namely to reclaim the land that local communities believe was taken from them during colonial rule. This is not something that I think the British surveyors who worked with the photographs could have predicted, but it gives us a whole new perspective on their work and its legacy.”

It premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 19.06.2014 and will be screened at the Empire Cafe in Glasgow (24 July – 1 August) and at The Lighthouse in Glasgow (7 August – 14 September).


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Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.

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