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Saving those old snapshots

Summary: What happens to old photos in private collections, citing an example from Langwith Junction. . . . . .

West Ealing station, London. Photo by John Minihan Evening Standard/Getty Images

I suspect that many readers of this site will be like me. We started out as teenage ‘trainspotters’ and still have our collection of numbers of locomotives seen, when and where. Our interests probably broadened out to other aspects of railways, particularly railway history. Perhaps we support preservation groups today, we are members of the Friends of the NRM, and visit from time to time.

And we have photographs, probably black and white and taken on inexpensive cameras. Not the sort of photographs we would consider good enough for publication – too blurred, badly composed or in locations we can’t even remember. But what do we do with them all now?

I have a photograph which I think I remember, though I’m not so sure. It’s black and white, taken on a winter’s day and although there’s no caption to it, I know it’s of Langwith Junction shed, taken by my friend at the time, Billy. (I have no knowledge of what became of Billy). It’s of a cold WD ‘Austerity’ 2-8-0, the top of its boiler and cab roof covered with fresh snow. There are traces of snow on the ground too, a cold day.

Behind the locomotive I can make out the ruinous state of the shed which is barely keeping the weather out. It’s the last days of steam in that part of the world, sad, cold, gloomy. Not a very interesting photograph – or is it?

Langwith Junction shed. Picture: John Swanwick

Experts like to mention that for museum objects, including photographs, there is a presence, an ‘agency’ about them. Like Langwith Junction. The photograph’s ‘agency’ is that image of decline and decay, the end of steam and certainly the end of Langwith Junction.

But how is it Langwith Junction, date unknown? There’s nothing on the back, just the brand name of the photographic paper – ‘Velox’. It’s in my head through snatches of memory. I am indulging in a pastime known to us all, piecing together photos and stories almost lost in time. As people pass, so do the memories of what photos actually are and we are left with puzzles, and that awkward question ‘Should we throw it away?’

Langwith Sidings signalbox pictured in 1904. Picture: Neil Baker

Some of my photos are like that. You might think me careless or you might think that’s pretty much what happens. Try looking back through your old photos – do they give you instant recall or a puzzle?

I am a regular reader of ‘Backtrack’ magazine and two recent editorials dwelt on the issue of photographs, though from the opposite end of the topic. The authors are posing the question of what happens to the more organised – and probably well known - archives of railway photographers when they pass on? A surprising number are silent on the matter, leaving executors to try to work out what best to do. In some cases, collections are split up and sold in parts. Odd though it may sound, maybe your collection should be made secure by specifying what happens to it in your will.

© National Railway Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

Flying Scotsman emerges from Welwyn North Tunnel in 1959. The tunnel is daubed in graffiti protesting against the introduction of the new Deltic diesel locomotives which were about to supplant Flying Scotsman and her ilk.

My picture of Langwith Junction is not part of a recognised collection, and certainly has no specified destination after its owner has passed. But the risk is that many photographs outside recognised collections will simply disappear because they ‘aren’t good enough’ or else their subject is unknown. Even recognised collections might well lose their ‘accessibility’ in future. Pondering this further as a member of the ‘less impressive personal collection of pictures club’ I suppose I ought to sit down and make sure they are all fully catalogued. But, well, maybe when the weather’s not so good, when I have more time………..

I was sharing my photographic thoughts with a friend recently who then asked the obvious question ‘Well, what have you got?’

Out came a large box. The first picture showed a black and white shot of Coalville shed in Leicestershire taken from the station overbridge that used to allow passengers to cross platforms. The bridge was wedged in behind a large signal box which controlled the busy level crossing below, and the view of the shed was over the tops of several low buildings. But there are three Johnson 0-6-0’s with one number clearly visible as 58185. No scribbled message on the back of the photo, though. The image and my memory alone, piece the story together. ‘Interesting’ we agreed, because these locomotives were old stagers when the picture was taken (1961 I think) but retained because their reduced cabs allowed them to pass through the Glenfield tunnel near Leicester, with its reduced clearances.

Coalville, 1/6/73. Picture: Nigel Tout

Several hours later, we knew what we had – a history of sorts in old photos, and something precious enough to keep, long after we are gone.


John Swanwick

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Do you have old photographs you can scan and share? Send us an email and if there are enough of us, we could start a collection……….

An archive of 12,000 pictures from one of "Britain's best railway photographers" is being digitised at The National Railway Museum.

Taken by Bishop Eric Treacy over about 40 years they are mostly in black and white and feature steam locomotives and the men who worked on them.

In Yorkshire he served as the Rector of Keighley, Archdeacon of Halifax, Bishop of Pontefract and Bishop of Wakefield: Science Museum Group
A picture taken inside the York engine shed in the early 1950s: Science Museum Group
Treacy, although born in London, enjoyed photographing the Settle to Carlisle line, as seen here: Science Museum Group
Bishop Eric Treacy often photographed engines making steam on steep gradients: Science Museum Group
Ed Bartholomew said Treacy "caught the steam railway, both in its heyday and declining years": Science Museum Group
This locomotive is at Leeds but there were rarely records of the location of Treacy's pictures: Science Museum Group
Treacy also took pictures of diesel engines but his pictures of steam sum up the era: Science Museum Group
The National Railway Museum archive in York now holds Treacy's collection of evocative photographs: Science Museum Group

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