A Preview of The Sir John Pennycuick Collection for Researchers
The Historic England Archive’s Sir John Pennycuick Collection is a remarkable record of the ordinary, providing a photographic record of streets in early and mid-20th century England.
From bustling street markets to peaceful village lanes. From residential streets, with their corner pubs and local shops, to portraits of churches and the occasional modernist insertion. The Sir John Pennycuick Collection is an eclectic mix of over 60,000 views that show a wealth of detail about everyday life in English towns. The street scenes record terraces of houses, businesses, cobbled roads, transport, signs and advertisements for Woodbine cigarettes, Smarties sweets and Bisto gravy.
More about this image of Westbury
Edward Street marks a boundary of medieval Westbury and formed part of the main road from Trowbridge to Warminster. In 1939, Edward Street was rich with a variety of commercial establishments, including a fancy repository, coal merchant, draper, saddler, bakers, printer, hairdresser, boot maker, grocer and fried fish dealer.
More about this image of Sherlock Street, Birmingham
Whilst the street exists today, post-war redevelopment has altered its character dramatically, making it almost unrecognisable. In the inter-war years, the vast majority of buildings along Sherlock Road accommodated shops, manufacturers, dealerships and services, from tobacconists to pawnbrokers. The tram lines and overhead cables suggest that the photograph was taken before the Birmingham Corporation trams finished running in July 1953. Sherlock Street was named after Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London, who purchased land here in 1730. The land was developed by his successor, Sir Thomas Gooch, who inherited the estate in 1766.
Sir John Pennycuick
Sir John Pennycuick, a former High Court Judge and Wimbledon Championships competitor, was an enthusiastic amateur photographer who bequeathed his collection of photographs to the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1981.
Sir John was born in Camberley, Surrey, on 6 November 1899. He was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Following service in the Coldstream Guards, Sir John entered the legal profession and qualified as a barrister in 1925.
As well as being adept in the law court, Sir John was a talent on the tennis court. Between 1925 and 1931, he competed six times at the Wimbledon Championships in the men’s singles competition. In 1930 he also competed in the mixed doubles with his future wife, Lucy Johnstone.
Sir John’s legal career progressed after the Second World War. In 1947 he became a King’s Council and in 1954 he was elected a Bencher at the Inner Temple. Six years later, he was appointed a High Court Judge in the Chancery Division and received the customary knighthood. Despite retiring from full-time court work in 1974, Sir John continued to sit in the Court of Appeal and was appointed a Privy Councillor.
Sir John Pennycuick died on 14 January 1982 at the age of eighty-two. The following March a service of thanksgiving for his life was given at Temple Church, the ceremonial chapel of the Inner Temple and Middle Temple Inns of Court in London.
Deceptively diffident in manner, he was possessed of a wit and an insight into human nature which made him not only a fine judge but a delightful and entertaining companion. … He deserves to be remembered as the very archetype of an English Judge and gentleman.
Photography and the ‘vols’
Sir John Pennycuick was a passionate amateur photographer and collector of picture postcards. He used a German-made Rolleiflex camera, renowned for its ease of use and its durability.
Sir John travelled extensively in Britain and Continental Europe. He collected postcards of towns and buildings and took his own photographs of buildings and streets, many of which were away from main thoroughfares and town centres, and therefore unfamiliar to the everyday traveller or tourist.
More about this image of Everton
In the 18th century Everton was a select residential area, favoured for its high ground and views. The following century it became a densely populated area full of terraced streets, many of which were demolished in the 1960s. This view shows some of the 18 residential streets that once joined on to either side of Whitefield Road. Today there are 10, none of which reflect the high-density terraces of earlier times.
Both the collected postcards and his own photographs were given simple printed labels to identify the location and were inserted into albums that Sir John arranged by place.
Each of the albums, or ‘vols’ as they were known, were named and numbered and were enhanced by a hand-drawn map showing the rural and urban districts featured within the album. For example, the first Wiltshire album includes postcards and photographs of some of the county’s municipal boroughs, such as Salisbury, Malmesbury, Wilton, Devizes, Marlborough and Calne. Those boroughs that contain distinct settlements or areas are subdivided, so Salisbury, for example, has separate groupings for New Sarum, Fisherton, Bemerton, West Harnham and East Harnham.
A total of 387 albums and around 60,000 images were bequeathed to the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, a predecessor of Historic England, in 1981. These ‘vols’ comprise the English portion of the collection. The albums of places beyond England were acquired by the Courtauld Institute of Art.
What’s in the collection?
The carefully compiled albums in the collection offer an intriguing view of English streets and buildings, recorded from the viewpoint of a widely travelled and passionate amateur photographer.
The postcards in the albums date from around 1910.
More about this image of Wallingford
Situated on the east bank of the River Thames, Wallingford is a Saxon burh, founded to defend Wessex from the Danes. High Street runs westward from the bridge over the Thames and includes buildings with evidence of construction from the medieval period. The George Inn, which features prominently in the postcard, dates to the 16th century.
Sir John’s own photographs were taken in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and possibly into the early 1970s; unfortunately, the photographs are not individually dated. Regardless of the absence of specific dates, the content and breadth of coverage make for an enjoyable and useful resource for anyone interested in social history and the built environment of the early and mid-20th century.
Many of the individual buildings featured in the collection show Christian places of worship, from grand cathedrals to rural parish churches and urban chapels. There are also historic bridges, market crosses and medieval city gates. Many of these are well known and are included in the National Heritage List for England, whilst others have since been demolished.
More about this image of Stalybridge
A chapel of ease was built on Cocker Hill in 1776. It was replaced by an octagonal, stone church in 1887, under the direction of Manchester architect John Low. The church closed in 1967 and was soon demolished. The street’s cobbled road and pavement are extant in 2023.
Perhaps most interesting and nostalgic are the general views of streets, many of which appear to have been taken by Sir John standing in the middle of the road. The street scenes show major and minor roads, the buildings that lined them, the vehicles that drove along them and the people who lived, worked, shopped and walked on them.
Some views are relatively quiet, lacking people and traffic.
More about this image of Belmont Street, Stockport
Since this photograph was taken, tarmac has covered cobbles and the number of commercial premises with distinctive corner entrances has declined. Kelly’s Directory of 1924 reveals that among the commercial premises in Belmont Street were 3 confectioners, 2 dairymen, 2 fruiterers, 2 grocers, a fishmonger, a butcher, a hairdresser, a coal dealer, 2 fried fish dealers, a beer retailer, a leather factor and a draper.
Other views are busier, showing the bustling nature of local high streets and marketplaces, populated with pedestrians, vehicles, road markings, signs and advertisements.
More about this image of Rupert Street, Soho
The dome and tower of the Globe Theatre (later the Gielgud) are visible above the street. Building development began in Rupert Street – named after Prince Rupert – in 1677. Rebuilding took place in the early 18th century and it was extended in the late 19th century. This view looks south and shows buildings that were built no earlier than 1880.
A revealing collection
Viewing the photographs alongside modern, online street views is revealing. Many places have changed greatly since Sir John recorded them in the decades following the Second World War.
Many places have changed considerably
Reconstruction and redevelopment, often motivated by motor transport and housing needs, have altered their appearance, changed their character and, in some cases, fragmented them or demolished them completely.
More about this image of Watney Street, Stepney
In the 1920s there were 200 market pitches and in 1957 no less than 8 poulterers, meat salesmen and butchers occupied premises in the street. Whilst the buildings of Watney Street have changed considerably since this photograph was taken, with multi-storey blocks of flats now a feature, a street market continues to operate.
...Whilst other views have stayed much the same
However, other streets have changed relatively little since Sir John recorded them. The photographs in the collection offer insights into both subtle and comprehensive change in the urban environment.
More about this image of Acorn Road, Jesmond.
Situated to the north of the city centre, between the Jesmond Dene valley and the Town Moor, Jesmond evolved from a small township into a wealthy 19th century suburb. Acorn Road is one of the three main commercial streets in Jesmond and connects the other two at either end.
As well as reigniting memories of an earlier way of life, the street scene photographs reveal a wealth of historical information and stimulate questions about urban change and progress, including around the consequences of ‘slum’ clearance to communities and perceptions of the historic environment. They provide evidence of loss and retention, show how streets were occupied and used, and illustrate buildings styles, from the vernacular to the international.
The incidental details within the photographs are interesting and informative. Those featuring motor vehicles hint at an increase in domestic and commercial use, although the absence of road signs and road markings suggest that road traffic proliferation is still on the horizon. Domestic premises mix with industrial and commercial buildings; shop signs and billboard advertisement reveal brands, marketing techniques and consumer targets; and those photographs and postcards that feature people show the fashion trends of workers, residents, shoppers and tourists.
The streetscape photography in the collection offers a view into a recent past that currently still resides in the memory of living generations. However, it will not be too long before this changes, and Sir John’s photographs will then depict a time beyond our collective memories.
Viewing the collection
The Sir John Pennycuick Collection can be viewed by arrangement at the Historic England Archive in Swindon. Contact details are listed below. The collection has yet to be fully catalogued, and so researchers will have to enjoy looking through the albums to find places of interest. However, details of the series within the collection and a selection of digitised images can be investigated in the archives section of our website. Any requests to reproduce images will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
About the author
- Name and role
- Title and organisation
- Archive Engagement and Content Officer at Historic England
- Gary has worked for Historic England and its predecessors for over twenty years. Working in various teams and departments, Gary has worked on projects to record prisons, law courts and the seaside, and to create exhibitions based on Archive collections. Gary has recently returned to the Historic England Archive to promote its collections and create content for a variety of audiences.
Lord Scarman, 1982, ‘Sir John Pennycuick’, The Times, 22 January 1982, Issue 61138, p10
To view the Sir John Pennycuick Collection please email Archive Services:
Email: [email protected]
Telephone: 01793 414600
You can browse a selection of images from the collection via our online catalogue.
The Historic England Archive would like to thank Mr Mark McConnell for kindly sharing information about the life and career of his maternal grandfather.
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