In around 1978 a vast collection of around 11,000 glass plate negatives was discovered in the basement of 18 High Street, Sutton. The local studies librarian in Sutton at the time, with the assistance of Frank Burgess, a local historian with photographic experience, investigated the find and negotiated the removal and deposit to the Borough Archives.
The plates were made by local photographer David Knights-Whittome (1876-1943) who had owned shops in both Sutton and Epsom but whose clientele extended far beyond the local population and area. He became known as “Photographer to the King” after he photographed the then Edward the VII, Queen Alexandra and Edward, Prince of Wales, thus acquiring a Royal Warrant.
A report by the local studies librarian from the time recalls: “A reader mentioned to me that there were thousands of glass plate negatives in the basement of Linwood Strong’s shop (Optician) in Sutton High Street and that he had sorted through some of them, and there were pictures of this area amongst them. I rang the shop and got permission to go and look. By chance I met Frank Burgess on my way out of the library, so he came too. We were staggered. There were literally thousands of plates of various sizes, some were very large. Some were on shelves, many were on the floor, and all were filthy, having been there since the 1900s-1910s, presumably. Many were broken, and many were irrevocably stuck to the envelopes in which they were stored. I gathered that a number of individuals had already seen, and possibly removed some of the plates. Frank and I begged that the Borough should have the plates, and were given permission to remove them. Urgent arrangements were made to do so, lest other people were allowed to sort them out before we got there. We took a library van, a supply of laundry boxes and a team of 5-6, and packed them, carried them upstairs, and took them to Cheam Library where they were taken upstairs to a gallery outside the reference library.”
“There, for as often as possible over the next months, Frank and I dusted, hoovered and sorted the plates. They included a good many local pictures, and many more taken all over the country, mostly of stately homes or at least sizeable properties, and some royal photographs, and a collection of smaller plates of portraits, identified only by a number and surname.”
The plates have since been moved to Sutton Archives, based at Central Library, but have remained untouched for decades. This year (2014), the Archives were successful in obtaining a Heritage Lottery Fund award of £95,900 to finally undertake work to digitally preserve this fascinating body of material. The project will see around 11,000 Edwardian images cleaned, digitised, researched, catalogued and made available to the public over an initial two year period. Work has already begun to prioritise material for digitisation and set in place the necessary infrastructure but the project will be relying largely on volunteer help to rehouse, scan and research the plates. The collection comprises a large number of studio portraits, including a number of WW1 soldiers and nurses, as well as images of weddings, house parties, local places of interest, large houses across the country and royal portraits and events. Seen together, the images offer a fascinating insight into Edwardian life in Britain. If you are interested in volunteering for the project at Sutton Archives, please get in touch with Project Officer, Abby Matthews via email at firstname.lastname@example.org