The Historic England Archive holds over 4 million aerial photographs. The collections cover the whole of England and date from the late 19th century century to the present day. This exhibit showcases our amazing collections, revealing how photographers have recorded England from the air, and the changes in our urban and rural landscapes over a period of more than a century of aerial photography.
A world first
This view showing Stamford Hill in London was taken by Cecil Shadbolt on 29 May 1882. It is widely regarded as the world's first truly successful vertical aerial photograph.
Shadbolt described it as ‘An instantaneous map-photograph’. It was taken with a vertically-mounted camera at 2000ft (610m) from the balloon ‘Reliance’ which ascended from Alexandra Palace at 4pm, decending at 5.30pm at Ilford. Upon landing in a field, Shadbolt 'experienced very rough treatment at the hands of the crowd'.
Shadbolt's last flight
Cecil Shadbolt's last flight was on 29 June 1892. Flying over Crystal Palace in a balloon belonging to his friend and experienced balloonist 'Captain' William Dale, the gas-filled envelope tore apart and the balloon quickly crashed to the ground. Dale was killed instantly, while Shadbolt died from his injuries several days later.
The heart of a city
Taken from the balloon 'Corona' at a height of 2,000ft (310m), this excellent photograph by Lockyer records one of London's most famous landmarks in 1909.
Just to the right of Nelson's Column and Trafalgar Square is Admiralty Arch, seen here still under construction. Work had begun in 1906 and it would not be complete until 1911.
Renewal for the masses
Photographed by Aerofilms in the summer of 1939, the Collyhurst flats was a Manchester Corporation scheme to clear terraced housing and build new homes in blocks of four-storey flats. Traces of the old street pattern can be seen in the cleared area.
An unwelcome visitor
Going by this photograph, Aerofilms' activities were not always welcome. Someone at Taxal Lodge, the home of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Ramsden-Jodrell, has spelled out a message on the lawn:
WHO IS IT?
A small band of dedicated amateurs drove aerial archaeology forward in the years in post-Second World War England.
Harold Wingham was one of them. Having served in the Royal Air Force, Wingham was encouraged by OGS Crawford to undertake aerial reconnaissance for archaeology purposes. He started flying in 1951 and for over ten years recorded sites in the South West of England, including this view of Helsbury Castle in Cornwall.
Preparing for invasion
This detail from the previous USAAF photograph shows Moreton-in-Marsh's High Street lined with military vehicles and equipment.
Parked in rows are Sherman tanks and other vehicles belonging to the United States Army's 6th Armoured Division. Two months later they would be in Normandy, battling to break out from the D-Day beachheads.
Shortly before the end of the war the Secretary of State for Air announced that the RAF would in future undertake all aerial photography required by government departments.
The result was a comprehensive coverage of the British Isles by overlapping vertical photography at a variety of scales, which was designed to assist the Ordnance Survey with its programme of mapping.
These photographs are a centrepiece of the holdings of the Historic England Archive, and constitute a benchmark survey of England in the middle of the 20th century.
Devastation from above
The RAF's comprehensive post-war aerial photography survey covered the whole country at a scale of approximately 1:10000 and built up areas at larger scales.
This view at a scale of 1:2500 shows in graphic detail the extent of the damage inflicted on the City of London by the wartime Blitz. It also demonstrates the economic stringency of the post-war years, with much of the area around St Paul's Cathedral still consisting of cleared bombsites three years after the end of the war.
The impact of leisure
This remarkable Ordnace Survey vertical aerial photograph shows how holidaymaking has impacted on the Lincolnshire coast.
The bottom half of the photograph shows the rows of accommodation blocks and and entertainment buildings belonging to the Butlin's Skegness holiday camp, which opened in 1936. Adjacent is the camp's 1948 airfield.
The top half shows how fields near the coast have since been populated with ranks of static caravans.
Revealing lost places
Shadows cast by a low winter sun reveal the remaining earthworks of the village of East Matfen.
In the centre of the photograph building platforms cluster around the village green, and sinuous ridge and furrow markings to the left reveal the location of one of the village's common fields.
During the 17th century the village was part of an estate acquired by John Douglas of Newcastle. He cleared the village to create a landscape park.
Responding to events
At the end of the 9th century AD King Alfred the Great established a burgh, or fortified settlement, at the eastern end of the Lyng ridge. The town was linked to the nearby stronghold and monastery at Athelney and all were surrounded by the marshes of the Somerset Levels.
This image, taken at the height of the flooding in the winter of 2013/14, shows the logic behind the location of the settlement, now called East Lyng.
Recording urban change
The city of Hull suffered greatly during the 20th century from the bombs of the Luftwaffe, post-war redevelopment and economic decline.
From the air, the dense medieval street pattern in the centre of this view still marks the historic core of the city.
Around this circle is the great Georgian and Victorian docks, which were at the heart of Hull's later prosperity. Humber Dock, nearest the river, is now a marina. To its left, Princes Quay shopping centre was built over Prince's Dock, and the green space of Queen's Gardens (centre left) occupies the site of the Queen's Dock.
Explore Your Archive
Explore Your Archive is a campaign that showcases the best of archives and archive services in the UK and Ireland.
As part of Explore Your Archive 2017, the Historic England Archive is hosting a number of events celebrating aerial photography.
For more details visit Historic England's Explore Your Archive page on our website.
Bookings to visit the Historic England Archive and to attend our Explore Your Archive special events can be made through Eventbrite.
There are many ways to explore more about the Historic England Archive and its amazing collections:
Discover the Historic England Archive
Discover more about aerial photographs at Historic England
More amazing Aerofilms photographs can be viewed at Britain from Above
Choose from Historic England's aerial selection of exclusive prints