THE experiences of two pilots during the First World War led to the creation of a company which would go on to gather the largest collection of aerial photos in the UK. Now, 100 years on from the start of the war, a new book tells the story of how Aerofilms captured Oxford – and other key UK locations – from above. Andrew Ffrench reports
Aerofilms – launched in 1919 by First World War veteran Lewis Wills and daredevil aviator Claude Grahame-White – recorded a vast archive of images between 1919 and 2006.
The Radcliffe Camera pictured in 1946
Wills was a WWI Royal Navy aircraft navigator and photographer, and Grahame-White was an aviation celebrity who was the first man to receive a UK pilot’s licence.
He also made the world’s first night flight.
With £3,000 capital and borrowed planes, their company Aerofilms established itself at the London Aerodrome in Hendon, developing glass plate negatives of landscapes captured from above.
The firm went on to establish the largest collection of aerial photographs of Britain, including photos taken in the 1920s and 1930s of East Oxford.
The Cowley Centre, photographed in 1965
And English Heritage staff have now undertaken the huge task of putting thousands of the images online at the website britainfromabove.org.uk They have also published a new book Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above ,which features around 200 photographs including a number of images from across Oxfordshire.
One of the pioneers, Claude Grahame-White
Katy Whitaker, cataloguing team leader for English Heritage, is based at the organisation’s archive in Swindon, which is now managing the Aerofilms’ collection of 1.2 million images.
College barges, since replaced by purpose-built boathouses, moored along the River Thames beside Christ Church Meadow
She said the collection featured numerous photos of East Oxford taken in the 1920s and 1930s.
She said: “There are a lot of photos of East Oxford, around the Morris Motors works.
“You get a general view, and a lot of detail too, and as populations grow near the factories you can see schools, sports pitches and railway lines.
“One image shows Morris Cowley station in 1934 – any major plant needs a transport link.”
The cover of the new book
English Heritage organised a popular link-up with the Museum of Oxford last year, with children taking part and colourising blown-up versions of photos of East Oxford. Images from the Aerofilms collection are on display at the RAF Museum in Hendon until March 1, 2016.
Oxford Southern Bypass, photographed under construction in 1958