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A Brief History of the Historic England Archive of Aerial Photographs

This is a nationally important collection, now holding over 6 million images covering the whole of England. The collection can be used by anyone to see how any part of the country has changed over the last 70 years and more. For amateur and heritage professionals alike the collection is an important resource that helps us to understand England’s rich and complex heritage.

Infographic showing growth of Historic England's air photo collections

  • 1965 - the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England’s (RCHME) Air Photo Unit (APU) is set up by John Hampton to implement the RCHME's resolution of 1964 to “use air photography to build up rapidly a record of field monuments throughout England.” In the beginning this involved acquiring aerial photographs to build up a library of images of archaeological sites.
  • 1967 - RCHME begins taking its own oblique aerial photographs in support of its field survey work.
  • 1980s acquires a number of important collections of aerial photographs
    • Department of the Environment collection of vertical aerial - This collection includes vertical aerial photographs taken of England by the RAF since the start of WWII and is an extremely important contemporary source for historians interested in WWII. The value of this collection had been identified by archaeologists, who had observed the damage caused by post war ploughing on what had been well preserved archaeological sites.
    • Meridian Airmaps Ltd - This collection includes photographs taken for county census purposes and in advance of infrastructure projects.
  • 1983 - the index for oblique photographs is computerised and eventually merged with the vertical index in RCHME's first Geographic Information System (GIS) called Photonet.
  • 1989 - an important year for the archive and flying programme. The red box collection moves to Swindon along with part of the APU team; the rest moves to York.
  • 1989 - the main flying operation moves from Biggin Hill to Oxford airport, with an additional operation set up at Sherburn in Elmet near York to improve the coverage for the north of England.
  • 1991 - another major collection is added to the archive as the Ordnance Survey start to transfer photographs they took for map making. These date back to 1951.
  • 1994 - the oblique and vertical collections are collocated at the recently opened National Monument Record Centre in the former Great Western headquarters in Swindon. A new state of the art archive store is built to house the collection.
  • 1994 - the APU is split; the aerial archive is merged with the rest of the RCHME archive collections and called the National Monument Record (NMR). The reconnaissance and mapping teams are merged with the other RCHME archaeology and architectural survey teams.
  • 1999 – RCHME merges with English Heritage.
  • 2007 -  English Heritage, together with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales (RCAHMW) buy the Aerofilms collection. Aerofilms were a pioneering company set up in 1919 and took urban, suburban, rural, coastal and industrial views. It is the largest and most significant collection of aerial photographs taken before 1939. With help from the Heritage Lottery Fund the Aerofilm’s images taken up to 1953 were conserved and scanned and made available online.
  • 2012 the NMR becomes the English Heritage Archive.
  • 2015 along with aerial survey team the English Heritage Archive becomes part of Historic England.

50 years of flying

A selection of some of the other images collected by the archive over the past 50 years. Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Black and white aerial photo showing an arable field with the archaeology seen as darker lines against a paler background
  • Colour aerial photo showing arable fields with the archaeology seen as darker lines against a generally paler background
  • Black and white aerial photo showing arable fields with the outline of the fort seen as dark lines against a pale background
  • Colour aerial photo showing the multiple banks of a lozenge shaped earthwork cut by dry stone walls and set in moorland
  • Colour aerial photo showing a series of terraces with other hollows and banks in pasture fields with village houses beyond
  • Black and white aerial photo showing low earth banks of enclosures and fields picked out by snow arranged along a stream
  • Colour aerial photo showing a brick built fort on the sands with stone embankments heading away from it towards the sea
  • Colour aerial photo showing a flat topped hill rising from an upland moorland landscape with dry stone walls and streams
Colour

Author

Damian Grady is the Historic England Aerial Reconnaissance Manager. He joined the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1990 to map archaeology from aerial photographs and from 1998 became responsible for managing the aerial reconnaissance programme.

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