A black and white aerial image from 1933 of the RMS Olympic docked in Southampton
Maritime Archaeology

10 Amazing Aerial Images of England’s Maritime Heritage

Author Peter Waller explores the stories behind some of his favourite maritime images from the Aerofilms Collection.

For almost a century, the photographers from the Aerofilms company recorded Britain from the air.

Alongside the photographs taken of great castles and abbeys were views of industrial and commercial activity, including the docks and ports that were an essential part of maintaining Britain’s place in the world.

Here Peter Waller, author of ‘England’s Maritime Heritage from the Air’, tells us about some of his favourite images.

1. Albert Dock, Liverpool

One of the most recent photographs in the book, taken in 1997, is this view of the Liverpool Pierhead.

Aerial image of The Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building, Liverpool, in 1997
The Royal Liver Building, Cunard Building and Port of Liverpool Building, Liverpool, 1997. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW670571.

It shows three stunning buildings that dominate the river bank at this point.

In the foreground is Albert Dock, an area that highlights one of the major problems faced by many traditional ports and harbours: what to do with these historic sites once the trade upon which they depended disappears?

In the case of the Albert Dock, a vigorous campaign led to their preservation and regeneration. In contrast, to the north of the Royal Liver Building, we see the derelict surroundings of a disused Prince’s Dock.

2. Dunston Staithes, Gateshead

Black and white aerial image of Dunston Staiths and the surrounding area on the River Tyne
Dunston Staiths, the Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd Elswick Works and environs, Dunston, from the south, 1947. This image was marked by Aerofilms Ltd for photo editing. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms collection. View image EAW010681.

The phrase ‘carrying coals to Newcastle’ is a cliché that has come to mean a pointless activity.

The quantity of coal shipped from the River Tyne and the rest of the Durham and Northumberland coalfields, until comparatively recently, was massive, and most of it went by sea. The trade required the construction of specialist staithes, a landing stage for loading or unloading cargo boats. Among the most spectacular were those built at Dunston on the south bank of the River Tyne in the late 19th century.

As traditional trades have declined, facilities such as the staithes have become redundant. Fortunately, however, despite fire damage, these staithes still survive and are now subject to a major HLF-funded restoration scheme.

Once repaired, the largest wooden structure in Europe will provide a graphic remainder of an industry that was once central to the northeastern economy.

3. Pool of London

A black and white aerial image of the Shadwell Basin in London
Shadwell Basin, London, 1963. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW110579.

As the nation’s capital and, historically, the most important port in the country, London cannot be ignored. Of the views of the various docks in London, this is in many ways the most evocative.

Taken in 1963, it emphasises how far upstream the docks extended (right up to Tower Bridge) and how relatively late traditional shipping made its way up the river.

The beauty of aerial photography is that it allows the viewer to appreciate fully how much the landscape can be influenced by human endeavour.

4. Salford, Greater Manchester

A black and white aerial image of the Salford Docks
The Salford Docks and Manchester Ship Canal, Salford, 1947. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW006236.

Just as the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was built to try and gain a competitive edge for the cotton manufacturers of the Manchester area, so the Manchester Ship Canal and the docks in Salford and Manchester were constructed to try and find a way around the perceived excessive rates charged by the port of Liverpool.

For a period, the docks were the third busiest in Britain, but the increasing size of ships rendered them obsolete.

Today, this view would be radically different, as the world of the dockyard has been replaced by the world of media, with both the BBC and ITV having studios in the Salford Quays development.

5. King’s Lynn, Norfolk

A black and white aerial image of Alexandra Dock and Bentinck Dock in Kings Lynn, around 1928
Alexandra Dock and Bentinck Dock, Kings Lynn, 1928. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EPW021482.

The fortunes of the country’s docks and ports have varied, with some declining, and others developing from small harbours into massive modern facilities.

One that has seen a decline is King’s Lynn. In the Middle Ages, King’s Lynn and ports like Boston were amongst the most important in the realm as they dealt with the trade to and from northern Germany and Scandinavia.

As this trade declined, and as the New World and the Far East grew in importance, other ports like Bristol and Liverpool became dominant as they faced the Atlantic rather than the North Sea.

The Victorian age, however, saw many of these traditional ports expand. They never regained their stature but provided an essential part of the country’s booming mercantile trade.

6. Felixstowe, Suffolk

Aerial image of Felixstowe port in 1997, with a large number of different coloured shipping containers
The Port of Felixstowe, Felixstowe, 1997. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW670704.

If a single image could explain the demise of the traditional port, this is it.

Over the past 50 years, containerisation has revolutionised the movement of goods worldwide. More and more freight is transported by sea on ever-larger container ships.

Some traditional ports attempted to incorporate container-handling equipment, but this was rarely successful. The large container ships required deep-water ports and, as a result, Tilbury replaced many of the traditional docks in London. Seaforth did the same in Liverpool.

The container trade is dominated by massive new developments, such as Felixstowe (seen here), Southampton, and the new London Gateway.

7. HMS Amethyst, Plymouth

A black and white aerial image of HMS Amethyst
HMS Amethyst (F116) moored off the Plymouth Breakwater, Plymouth, 1950. This image was marked by Aerofilms Ltd for photo editing. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW031911.

HMS Amethyst was briefly the most famous warship in the world.

Part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in the Far East, the ship was employed on the River Yangtse in China as a guard ship for the British Embassy during the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Attacked by the communist forces, the ship was seriously damaged and effectively held prisoner.

Repeated attempts by the Royal Navy to undertake a rescue failed. Eventually, undercover, the Amethyst made a successful dash for freedom. It was an exploit that was eventually to be turned into a film (‘Yangtse Incident: The Story of HMS Amethyst‘), in which the Amethyst itself appeared shortly before being sold for scrap.

8. RMS Olympic, Southampton

A black and white aerial image from 1933 of the RMS Olympic docked in Southampton
The RMS Olympic and environs, Southampton, from the west, 1933. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EPW041070.

Aerofilms’ photographers often recorded the great liners. These were the most glamorous means of transport of their day, regularly carrying stars of stage and screen across the Atlantic.

Here the photographer has caught one of the greatest liners of them all: the RMS Olympic. This was the sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic (famously lost during its maiden voyage in 1912) and to the Britannic, which was also lost at sea when in use as a hospital ship during the First World War.

By 1933, the Olympic was approaching the end of its life. But 4 years before being scrapped, the classic 4-funnel design still looks impressive in this view of the liner at Southampton.

9. St Katharine’s Dock, London

Top down aerial image of St Katherine Docks, London in 1993.
St Katherine Docks, Wapping, London, 1993. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW622105.

One of the most dramatic changes wrought to the traditional docks and ports of the country can be seen in this view of St Katharine’s Dock in London.

Gone are the freighters loading and unloading at the quays, replaced by ranks of yachts and other leisure craft at their moorings. The growth of the leisure industry, as people have gained greater wealth and taken longer holidays, has been a factor in sustaining the viability of many of England’s historic ports.

10. Fiddlers Reach, Kent

A black and white aerial image of a shipwreck on its side in shallow waters
Fiddlers Reach, M.V. Magdeburg disaster, 1964. © Historic England Archive. Aerofilms Collection. View image EAW143996.

As the countless wrecks around the country’s shores can attest, the sea can be an unforgiving environment. But it’s relatively uncommon for ships to come to grief whilst heading downstream towards the estuary.

In 1964, the East German-owned MV Magdeburg was heading into the North Sea, having loaded a batch of British-built buses for Cuba, when it collided with a Japanese vessel heading upstream. The Magdeburg sank in shallow waters.

It was ultimately salvaged and returned to service, the only casualties being the buses. But was there more to the story? Possibly. You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Further reading

4 comments on “10 Amazing Aerial Images of England’s Maritime Heritage

  1. Reblogged this on Karl Quinney.

  2. Stunning images and wonderful to see the ships in particular. Not only was Amethyst a celebrity, but all her surviving crew were feted on their return, none more so, perhaps, than the smallest crew member, who caught the public imagination. Able Seacat Simon received the Dickin Medal and a Blue Cross for his gallantry in action against rats on the Yangtse, despite being severely wounded. https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/animal-honours/the-dickin-medal

  3. Phil C

    Ref the 1933 photograph of Southampton Docks. In the foreground, the elegant four stacker passenger liner ‘Olympic’, is berthed in the ‘White Star dock’, later renamed ‘Ocean dock’.

    In the background is the majestic profile of Canadian Pacific’s largest vessel, the ‘Empress of Britain’.

    In October 1940, the Empress was sailing towards Liverpool, when she was spotted off the coast of Northern Ireland by a lone German plane. She was hit by several bombs, starting fires which left her a burnt out shell. Salvage efforts began and the liner was taken in tow. But before the liner could reach safe harbour, the Empress was attacked by a German u-boat. She was was struck by two torpedoes, causing her to capsize and sink.

    The ‘Empress of Britain’ was the largest merchant ship lost through enemy action during WW2.

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