If you’re keen on looking at images of Victorian life, chances are that you’ve encountered Francis Frith pictures and postcards at some point. The name is synonymous with Victorian photography. That’s down to the tireless work of Frith documenting Britain in everyday life, not just landmarks and gentry. Frith worked on his massive project from the founding of his company in 1860 until death in 1898 when his two sons and then later a grandson continued his legacy. They also sent out independent photographers to increase the content and financed it by selling copies of the images to the public. Just four years after Frith’s death in 1902 legislation surrounding postcards gave them the look we know today and Frith’s fast became the premiere postcard supplier in the UK.
The results of the project are an astonishing amount of images that laid dormant in the F Frith & Co building. When the company closed down in 1970 they were very nearly lost if it wasn’t for Bill Jay (1940-2009). He was Director of Photography at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London at the time. When he heard that the building was due for demolition and the contents destroyed, he went to take a look. What he found was about 250,000 original prints, all indexed and filed in thousands of cardboard boxes on racks of dust-covered shelves that lined the walls of several rooms from floor to ceiling.
They dated from the very start of the company to the date it closed. Along with the prints, he also found thousands of original glass negatives stored in tin boxes. Horrified by the thought that this historic record could be lost to a bonfire, Jay began a campaign backed by the Financial Times to find a buyer who could save the photographs. Time started to run out and it was at the eleventh hour that the cigarette company Rothmans came to the rescue and bought them. They were only just time too as the building was flattened just one week later.
Frith as a new company
Five years later in 1975, an executive at Rothmans – John Buck – petitioned the company to allow him to create a new company based on the Frith images. He was granted permission and in 1977 The Francis Frith Collection was founded. Mr Buck saw the potential for nostalgic imagery for people who may live or visit locations on the photographs. Realising the Frith archive documented hundreds of thousands of places that have helped create and shape our lives, with each photograph potentially representing an invaluable record of a part of someone’s life, he began to develop ideas to make the images available to the public in new and innovative ways.
At the start of the company only a small selection of images could be seen in the company catalogue. With the advancement of digital technology and the new internet, the sheer volume of images could really be appreciated. Up until 2014 there were only around a third of the total amount of images available for viewing on the website. That still totalled around 100,000 images! Then the company was in a position to be able to start digitising the entire catalogue of images. With the aim of publishing them on the website.
It turned out to be a mammoth task that took two years to complete, with five full-time and other part-time staff sorting, researching, identifying and data-entering the images on the Frith internal system, before each image was photographed on a state-of-the art high resolution digital camera. The original materials the digitisation team worked with covered the gamut: hand-written ledgers and collodion glass plates, platinum, albumen and gelatin-silver prints, smaller format film and most things in between. Even with the best technology and processes, handling so many delicate and varied materials made this a slow, laborious and complex task. The digitisation project was a huge challenge that was undertaken at enormous cost, at the company’s own expense and without any public funding, but by the winter of 2016 the images were ready for Frith’s IT team to start processing and uploading to the website.
Thanks to the internet
Thanks to the internet and the work of the Frith team, these fantastic photographs – some of them of similar locations that show how the country has changed over the years – are now more widely available than Francis Frith could ever have dreamed of. He had a steadfast belief in making photographs available to the greatest number of people. He would surely be delighted that the technology of the 21st century allows his work to be digitised and rapidly transmitted to people all over the world by way of the internet. These photographs depicting our shared past are now bringing pleasure to millions of people.