The last few weeks have seen The Past on Glass HQ busy in a hive of activity. As we head rapidly towards summer, we also head towards the end of our two years of funding; a two years which have sped past and have seen over 4000 Glass Plates digitised, catalogued and made available online; close to another 3000 cleaned and rehoused; over 250 subjects researched and over 2000 plates earmarked for conservation.
We are incredibly proud of the work that our amazing team of volunteers has achieved. Indeed, we long ago exceeded the number of volunteer hours that we ever expected to accrue; but still the job is far from over. This is no surprise. When we were awarded HLF funds for this project in 2014, we always knew that we would fall short of completing the work required to digitise the whole collection. It has always been expected that we would need to re-apply for additional funding, and now that is exactly what we are in the process of doing.
As the last 10 x 12″ plate left the scanner last week, the rate of cleaning and rehousing half plates now steps up to meet end of project targets, and other volunteers turn their hands to research, data checking and quality control; filing away completed plates in their new custom built cabinets; painstakingly picking their way through catalogue records, ironing out discrepancies and making random checks of the image files and metadata.
As project officer, it falls to me to put the finishing touches to our next funding application and turn my hand to getting our end of project exhibition in place for its opening in Sutton Library’s Europa Gallery at the end of July.
By all accounts we have done well. So why do we need further funding?
Those readers who have followed us from the start may remember reading about the state of the collection when it first came to the Archives collection. Glass plates are by their nature fragile and vulnerable to damage and deterioration if not stored and handled correctly. For anyone interested, more can be read about the specific kind of problems faced by these types of collections in this comprehensive article. Our collection was no more problematic than many of its type, but years of neglect in a damp cellar and inadequate space in a shared, busy storage area meant that the plates were vulnerable to further damage. The little research that had been done on their contents meant that this was also a resource that was relatively unknown, and in real danger of being forgotten and lost altogether. Years of planning and campaigning to get the collection recognised finally led borough archivist Kath Shawcross, and Heritage Manager Jane Allen, to successfully persuade the borough council to back an application for Heritage Lottery funding.
This HLF funding undoubtedly has been the push that has been needed to raise awareness of the collection and highlight its importance to the borough. No-one, not even Kath or Jane could really have anticipated what an amazing collection it would turn out to be and how much it would enhance the archive collection as a whole. But the kind of damage existing among the plates, namely cracking and breakage, delamination (or peeling of the emulsion), and adhesion to the original paper envelopes is costly to address, and in some cases, plates may already be too far damaged to rescue. Over one third of our total 2014 award was allocated to the conservation of the most damaged plates and while this is underway we know it will barely touch the sides. While we can certainly prioritise the most pressing cases for conservation, it still seems likely that many plates will have to remain in a poor state of repair, and in danger of further deterioration, until more money can be found to stabilise them.
Conservation is not the only requirement of a second funding bid. While all suitable plates will be cleaned and rehoused by the end of August, about 4000 remain to be scanned and catalogued. These 4000 are mainly studio portraits, but also contain images of local businesses, schools and events. The surprise to us among the plates so far digitised is that our largest single category is of women, and this has presented us with an intriguing focus for our research.
The collection coincidentally covers the exact years from which the International Woman Suffrage Alliance was formed (in 1904) to coordinate efforts to gain voting rights for women, and the year in which the franchise was finally granted to women over the age of 30 years who held property (1918). It was a period of immense challenge, change and uncertainty for women of all social classes but it was also a period in which women came into their own in many ways, not only politically but also practically, financially, intellectually and domestically. They did so heroically, filling the shoes of the men that left to fight in every way possible. This period, more so than any other in British history forced many women to step into roles that they would never have envisaged for themselves. While many forward thinking and politically active individuals were eager to take these changes and run with them, for many ordinary girls and women these changes were imposed on them by necessity and embraced with resourcefulness. This period caught the ordinary woman by surprise, caught between the Victorian era of old and a brave new world. Forced into traditionally male roles out of necessity and forever changed by the experience, it is easy to see how the quiet fortitude with which these women bore their lot, as much as all the efforts and fanfare of the Suffrage movement, laid, in its own way foundations for the unimaginable levels of emancipation that came to those in post-war generations.
The Knights-Whittome collection captures a unique moment in history for these ordinary women. The individuals who came into Knights-Whittome’s studio were from all social classes. They came to capture an image in a locket for a sweetheart at the front, to celebrate a birth, or a birthday, or a wedding or a christening. They are photographed in uniform as nurses and nursemaids. Or they come with quiet pride, wearing the medals of their menfolk. They embrace the fashions and trends of both times past and those to come and they look out quietly, confidently, directly. Without even realising it they reflect perfectly the changing attitudes, hopes and ambitions of their times. Their lives are at once both ordinary, and extraordinary and the images captured in Knights-Whittome’s High Street studio speak volumes of the mettle, resilience, humility and aspiration of these remarkable, ordinary women.
In seeking further funding to continue the digitisation and preservation/conservation of the Knights-Whittome photographic collection, we hope to turn our focus to these remarkable women; and to research these individuals and understand the importance of ordinary women to this period of history in the local area. We seek to work with local women’s groups, schools and other partners to create a programme of outreach, which will not only disseminate the collection, but provide opportunities for learning, volunteering, community projects and give a voice to the Borough in the history of women in the era. While our first two years have given us the infrastructure, the means and the capability to save these plates from being lost forever, we want to build on that foundation, take advantage of the momentum we have built and alongside the completion of the important core task of preserving the collection, use these photographs to tell stories that are relevant to us all as people who live and work in Sutton – in the UK – today.
Please support our bid for extending the work of our project. We need funds, but we also need you. We need people to volunteer, both with us in Sutton, or remotely as researchers from home. We need advocates and supporters; we need people to follow our work and to comment, engage with and make use of these amazing photographs that have so captured all of our imaginations. We need to give voice back to these amazing individuals from one hundred years ago who walked ahead of us, and to ask them speak to us and share their stories.
Stay posted and we’ll let you know how we get along, and in the meanwhile, have you visited our Flickr pages recently……?