The trailblazing Aerofilms Ltd, founded on 9 May 1919, combined new technology of powered flight with aerial cinematography and photography.
Starting out in a country club hotel suite with a bathroom turned darkroom, by 2006 Aerofilms had taken more than 760,000 oblique aerial photos.
The collection is unique in its historic documentation of the changing face of Britain in the 20th century. Each photo tells a story, and provides a record of rapid social, architectural and industrial change.
Here we take a look at six:
1. Is it a bird?
Even today it’s not uncommon for us to look up at the sky to see what’s flying over our heads. But in 1920, with heavier-than-air aviation still in its infancy, seeing a civilian or commercial plane must have been novel. This photo shows Ramsgate Harbour Station, with passers-by curiously looking up towards the plane.
2. Wing walkers
National Aviation Day displays were intended to popularise flying among the British public. This photo shows a daring wing-walker Martin Hearn, one of the major draws to the events. Often performing loop-the-loops with no harness to keep him in place, Hearn was described by pioneer aviator and early Aerofilms pilot Sir Alan Cobham as the ‘most intrepid’ wing-walker in his Flying Circus. Hundreds of thousands came out to watch, and you can see why.
3. Splashing around
Sandford Park Swimming Pool was constructed out of care for the physical wellbeing of the people of Cheltenham, and opened in 1935. Despite the paddling pool being bombed during the Second World War in July 1942 it remained open, recording c.90,000 admissions annually over the course of the conflict. This photo shows the pool, ever popular, busy with crowds taking advantage of the heat wave that occurred at the end of May 1947.
4. Capturing disaster
On the night of 31 January 1953, a severe North Sea storm devastated the east coast of England. It was Britain’s worst natural disaster of the 20th century. Over 300 people died, a number of whom were from Canvey Island. This photo, taken just 2 days later, captures not only the shocking extent of the floods but also the heroic effort by volunteers and servicemen to repair the sea walls, with teams of people out with their tools, working together to repair the damage.
5. Walking the Humber
In 1953 Rufus Lord Noel-Buxton waded across the Humber river from Brough to Whitton Ness. He wanted to prove that the Romans could have forded the river here.
This photo shows him being photographed during the crossing in his grey flannel trousers rolled up to the knees, checked shirt, canvas plimsolls and carrying a staff. He completed the one and a quarter mile crossing in 85 minutes, although he did have the benefit of a short boat ride across a deep shipping channel to get him started.
6. Stunt double
Released in 1952, and MGM’s biggest earner that year, this photo shows the castle set constructed for and used in the film Ivanhoe, in Borehamwood. The film included a 100ft dive by stuntman Paddy Ryan, one of the most famous stunts in 1950s film history. The set remained on the landscape for many years for use in other productions, often confusing visitors to the area.
Written by Angharad Wicks, Cataloguer and Digital Collections Officer at Historic England
For more information on the Aerofilms collection, check out our website.
Photographs from the Aerofilms Collection dating 1919-1953 are available to view via Britain from Above.