England from Above: over 100 years of aerial photography at the Historic England Archive

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.

Four men in a gas balloon, Greater London (1882/1892) by Unknown photographerHistoric England

Photography takes to the air

The first photograph from a balloon was taken over Paris by Nadar in 1858. It was not until 1863 that the first successful aerial photographs were taken from a balloon in England. While the potential for aerial photography for survey and mapping were known, the difficulties of using cumbersome equipment and the unpredictable motion of balloon flight made it hard to make good, sharp photographs. However, by the end of the 19th century, technological developments, such as the dry plate negative and shorter exposure times, resulted in greater use by keen amateurs and the military. 

Cecil Shadbolt and William Dale posed in the basket of a gas balloon, Greater London (1882/1892) by Unknown photographerHistoric England

Cecil Victor Shadbolt

The Historic England Archive has the earliest surviving aerial images of England. These were taken by the photographer and balloonist Cecil Shadbolt between 1882-1892. This important collection of 76 Victorian glass lantern slides has now been conserved, digitised, catalogued and researched. Shadbolt, seen here sitting on the rim of the balloon basket, made his first balloon ascent over Alexandra Palace on 31 May 1882. He designed a hinged plate so that he could attach his camera to the outside of the balloon basket, allowing him to tilt the camera to any angle, including looking straight down at the ground below. 

Stamford Hill, Haringey, Greater London (1882-05-29) by Cecil Victor ShadboltHistoric England

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'.

The Crystal Palace, Sydenham, Bromley, Greater London (1882/1892) by Cecil Victor ShadboltHistoric England

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.

Wanstead Park, Redbridge, Greater London (1909-05-22) by William James Stewart LockyerHistoric England

Dr William James Stewart Lockyer

Like his father, Sir Norman Lockyer, James was an astronomer and meteorologist. He was also a skilled photographer and 'air-minded', making his first balloon ascent in 1907. During the First World War he served with the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Air Force, and continued to have life-long interest in flying. The Historic England Archive holds twenty-eight of Lockyer's glass plate negatives made during balloon flights over London and Surrey.

Trafalgar Square, Westminster, Greater London (1909-05-22) by William James Stewart LockyerHistoric England

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.

Francis Lewis Wills, Jerry Shaw and Claude Friese-Greene in a DH98 biplane (1919-07) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

Aerial photography goes commercial

Advances in aircraft and photography technology during the First World War led to the founding of Britain's first commercial aerial photography company, Aerofilms Ltd. Established in 1919 by aviation pioneer Claude Grahame-White and wartime observer Francis Wills, Aerofilms blazed the trail for a new industry. The firm's clients included manufacturing businesses, tourism and publishing industries, and local authorities and other public bodies. The Historic England Archive has acquired 1.26 million images taken by Aerofilms and associated companies between 1919 and 2006. The oldest 95,000 images, dating from 1919 to 1953 have been made available on a dedicated website: https://britainfromabove.org.uk/   

Collyhurst flats under construction, Manchester (1939-06-04) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

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.

Britain from Above

Taxal Lodge, Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire (1937-07-20) by Aerofilms LtdHistoric England

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:


Britain from Above

Little Woodbury Iron Age settlement (1929-05-16) by Pilot Officer Jonas, Royal Air ForceHistoric England

Archaeology from the air

The aeroplane and aerial photography, potent symbols of modernity, came to play an important role in revealing the seemingly lost histories of England's landscapes. A key figure in this was OGS Crawford, pioneer of aerial archaeology and the first Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey. Crawford used training photographs produced by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and then worked with interested businessman Alexander Keiller. In 1928 they published 'Wessex from the Air', which demonstrated how aerial photography could contribute to the understanding of known monuments and the identification of new sites through soil- and parch-marks. This view of Little Woodbury Iron Age settlement in Wiltshire by Pilot Officer Jonas of the RAF was published by Crawford in the journal 'Antiquity' in December 1929.

Helsbury Castle, Michaelstow, Cornwall (1959-07-30) by Harold WinghamHistoric England

Dedicated amateurs

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.

Harold Wingham Collection

Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire (1944-05-27) by United States Army Air ForceHistoric England

The Second World War and its aftermath

Aerial photography played a crucial role in the Second World War. Most Royal Air Force (RAF) wartime photography was taken over mainland Europe but the RAF and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) based in Great Britain photographed the country during the conflict, mainly for training purposes. This image reveals the impact the war made on towns and villages across England. Here, the Cotswolds town of Moreton-in-Marsh is shown skirted with a number of temporary military encampments.

A detail view of Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire (1944-05-27) by United States Army Air ForceHistoric England

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.

The city centre, Leeds (1948-03-28) by Royal Air ForceHistoric England

Comprehensive coverage

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.

St Paul's Cathedral, City of London (1948-05-19) by Royal Air ForceHistoric England

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.

'Cobra Mist' radar array, Orford Ness, Suffolk (1972-03-24) by Ordnance SurveyHistoric England

Ordnance Survey aerial photography

Since the 1950s, the Ordnance Survey (OS) has organised its own regular programmes of vertical aerial photography to inform map revision. The Historic England Archive now holds over 970,000 OS verticals dating from 1951 to 2010. Like the photographs produced by the RAF, the OS collection provides an immensely rich resource for those looking at the changing face of the country over the past century.  

Butlin's Skegness holiday camp, Ingoldmells, Lincolnshire (1988-06-12) by Ordnance SurveyHistoric England

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.

Ashdown House, Ashbury, Oxfordshire (1995-01-03) by Roger Featherstone, Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of EnglandHistoric England

Recording our past from the air

The Second World War gave increasing numbers of people the skills in flying and an interest in aerial views. Following the war a new band of aerial archaeologists followed in the footsteps of Crawford and others. In 1965 the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) established a new aerial photography section. The RCHME had initially been primarily concerned with ground-based surveys of historic buildings and places but had become an increasing user of photographs taken from the air. The work of the RCHME and its successors - English Heritage and Historic England - has resulted in hundreds of thousands of aerial photographs being added to the record of England's archaeological sites, historic monuments, buildings, towns and landscapes, helping to shape our understanding of both our present and our past.

East Matfen deserted medieval village, Northumberland (2000-01-13) by Pete Horne, English HeritageHistoric England

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.

East Lyng, Somerset (2014-01-09) by Damian Grady, English HeritageHistoric England

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.

Kingston upon Hull (2014-07-14) by Pete Horne, English HeritageHistoric England

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.

Credits: Story

Historic England is the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England's spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops.

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

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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