Text by Abby Matthews, Project Officer for The Past on Glass
The Past on Glass is a Heritage Lottery Funded project based at Sutton Archives which aims to clean, rehouse, catalogue, digitise and disseminate a large collection of Edwardian and wartime glass plate negatives by a local high street photographer.
The collection, of over 10,000 plates, in various sizes and conditions, was the work of photographic artist David Knights-Whittome, who owned shops in both Sutton and Epsom from around 1904 until 1918. The collection arrived in Sutton Archives in 1978 prior to the demolition of the building which originally housed Knights-Whittome’s main studio. They were removed to Cheam library and later the basement of the Civic Offices where they remained untouched for close to 40 years.
The photographs offer a unique insight into the local area during the period. They document thousands of local residents as well as local and regional schools, colleges and theatre groups, social events such as weddings and house parties, grand country houses and other institutions from across the UK and the Continent. Knights-Whittome also held a Royal Warrant and was known as ‘Photographer to the King’, capturing images of Edward VII, his son George V, and his grandson, the future Edward VIII, as well as many European Royalty of the time.
Perhaps most touchingly, the collection contains hundreds, perhaps thousands, of World War 1 soldiers in uniform, a lost generation of men and boys who either lived in the area or were stationed locally before their postings. Work to date has already uncovered images of a number of men whose names are listed on local war memorials but the collection also has national significance due to the number of soldiers Knights-Whittome photographed from the Epsom Woodcote camp who were posted and billeted nearby during their training.
Despite interest and efforts to research the material during the time it has been held by the borough, the scale of the work has meant that hitherto, the collection has remained largely untouched. In 2014, Sutton Archives was awarded £95,900 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and since December of that year work has started to clean, rehouse, digitise, catalogue and research the collection. The work is largely done by a team of dedicated volunteers who lend the project a few hours each week. Without their help, it would be impossible to make the material available.
One year in, the project has digitised over 3500 plates and researched close to 200 of the individuals pictured, but there is much work to do. Much of the collection is in urgent need of conservation and researching the subjects of the plates is often an impossible task. Images of the digitised plates are being made available to view on the Sutton Archives Flickr page and the project hopes that by making the material freely accessible online, the public may be able to help them identify some of the individuals and places pictured.
The project hopes to secure future funding to continue working on the material after 2016. In the meanwhile volunteer help is always welcome. If you would be interested in volunteering for the project please contact Project Officer Abby Matthews at [email protected] or call on 0208 770 4746.
The project makes images and research publicly available via Flickr and and a weekly blog. Please follow us online to show your support and learn about our latest discoveries.