University of Cambridge reveals ‘changing face of UK’ in aerial photos

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University of Cambridge

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The archive includes this aerial image of Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire on 26 July 1948

A collection of aerial photographs described as the “historical Google Earth” has been made available online by the University of Cambridge.

RAF pilots were asked to capture the bomb-scarred post-war period to the emergence of motorways and new cities.

The collection dates back to 1945, with more recent images captured in 2009 for a university project.

Prof Martin Millett said the images “let you travel back in time to a Britain which no longer exists”.

Tyneside, Hebburn, Jarrow and Willington, looking east, on 20 July 1947

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University of Cambridge

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Tyneside, Hebburn, Jarrow and Willington, looking east, on 20 July 1947

Cambridge railway station on the morning of 28 March 1959

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University of Cambridge

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Cambridge railway station on the morning of 28 March 1959

The Cambridge archaeologist added: “Anyone can go to Google Earth and look at modern satellite imagery – but this is an historical Google Earth.

“No-one else in the world was doing this – it was genuinely world-leading.”

Instructed by archaeologist JK St Joseph, the university borrowed RAF planes and pilots to take photographs until 1965, when it bought its own Cessna Skymaster.

The plane, based at Cambridge Airport, travelled the length and breadth of Britain to capture high-resolution archaeological detail from the air.

Caerphilly Castle, Glamorgan, on 26 July 1948

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University of Cambridge

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Caerphilly Castle, Glamorgan, on 26 July 1948

Richmond, Yorkshire, in 1948

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University of Cambridge

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This photo of Richmond in North Yorkshire taken in 1948 shows the town’s castle

Aerial photograph of Aberdeen

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University of Cambridge

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The city of Aberdeen was photographed in 1979

Barrow in Furness shipyards in July 1949

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University of Cambridge

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Barrow in Furness shipyards in July 1949

The first 1,500 photographs from an archive numbering almost 500,000 are now available on the university’s Digital Library website.

Prof Millett said it had “cherry picked” some of the best and most beautiful photographs, including some very early colour photography.

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Oxford academic Dr Robert Bewley, a world authority on aerial archaeology, described the collection as “internationally important”.

He said St Joseph analysed RAF reconnaissance photos during the war and came to realise there was a “huge opportunity” to use similar photos in archaeology and geology.

Milton Keynes in 1987

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University of Cambridge

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New town Milton Keynes was just 20 years old when it was pictured in 1987

Panorama of Florence in Pembroke, 26 July 1948

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University of Cambridge

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The collection includes aerial images of landscapes, such as this panorama of St Florence in Pembroke from July 1948

“He chose former RAF bomber pilot Flt Lt Derek Riley – who had been an archaeologist before the war – to take him on his first trip,” he said.

“In those days you could fly where you wanted with few restrictions and that’s exactly what they did.”

The Department of Geography and Cambridge University Library are exploring potential plans to digitise the entire aerial photography archive.

Photos from the University of Cambridge.



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