Following Hilary Young’s blog post Listening for a change and author Harriet Salisbury’s look at the discoveries she made while delving into the Museum of London’s oral history collections, here Harriet talks about her work with the Museum’s picture library and putting faces to the voices her new book, The War on our Doorstep.
The Museum had agreed to let me use 50 of their images in my book and after time spent listening to the voices in the oral history collection, I was eager almost beyond belief to see what this world looked like. Of course, I started off with hugely unrealistic expectations. Having read about a particular pub or street market, I expected to be able to find a picture of it. Frequently, there wasn’t one.
And why would there be? In our own lives we tend to photograph the highlights and ignore the mundane. Family albums consist of a succession of birthdays, beaches and trips to the zoo, rather than street corners, teatimes and journeys to work. In the days before domestic photography, it was even more selective. Photographers visited the East End with a purpose in mind – to complement a newspaper article, or to illustrate a point about living conditions. So, for instance, I could find images of East End hop-pickers in Kent, but not of children skipping in the street. There were records of air-raid shelters being assembled in the docks, but not in back gardens.
Dockers campaign in an east London park in 1961. Henry Grant © Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London
In many ways, it was not dissimilar to my early forays into the oral history collection. Sets of interviews had been carried out for different purposes: to collect information on workers in the London Docks; or record the residents of some now-demolished buildings; or to find out how people felt about tower blocks in the East End. To capture all the information I wanted, I’d had to cast my net very wide. Now I needed to do the same with the images.
First World War poster issued by the Central Recruiting depot, Whitehall © Museum of London
But with much help and guidance from the picture library manager, I began to fill in the blanks. There were no photographs of Zeppelins dropping bombs in the First World War, but there was a fantastically evocative poster exhorting men to ‘Join up and face the bullets rather than stay home and face the bombs’. There was a 1940s fashion shoot that showed women sitting under old-fashioned hairdryers in a communal air-raid shelter. And a picture of a paddle steamer picking up day-trippers to Margate turned out to show one of the boats that later rescued hundreds of men from the beaches at Dunkirk.
Sometimes, I found wonderful pictures, but they were not available for publication. When the Port of London Authority had a famous visitor – say, a King or Prime Minister – they would get a press photographer to come and take pictures, and copies would be kept in their records. But nowadays, the old newspaper archives belong to picture libraries, so even if you are holding a copy of a picture in your hand, you may not be able to use it because the copyright lies elsewhere.
A view of Neath Place c.1900-1910. John Galt © Ian Galt/Museum of London
But after periods of frustration, there would be one of those wonderful moments – ‘Oh, yes – you can use this one’ – and another blank would be filled in. Certain names became very dear to me: Missionary John Galt who took beautifully composed photos of slum streets and the deserving poor in the 1890s and 1900s. John Avery who recorded the London Docks in the first quarter of the 20th century. Cyril Arapoff who produced distinctive street photos for Picture Post in the 1930s and 40s. And Henry Grant, who worked in the 1950s under the byline ‘Familiar London seen afresh through the camera eye of Henry Grant’. Not forgetting, of course, the intriguing and invaluable contributions of that prolific recorder: Unknown.
Four circus elephants being unloaded at South West India Docks after a circus tour of South Africa, in 1968. Photographer unknown © PLA Collection/Museum of London