Out of a skip and on to Europeana? 3500 historic photos of British pubs saved

1 February 2016 Comment

A skip full of rubbish isn't an obvious place to start sifting for cultural heritage. It was here, however, that Robert Humphreys, an employee of Charrington Brewery, found a unique archive of photographs of British pubs. Dumped during an office move, the fascinating photographs were saved by Humphreys and given to a local museum for safekeeping. They are now part of a UK-wide project being run by our friends Historypin and, thanks to Europeana Food and Drink, they will soon be available on Europeana.

So what happened inbetween? We talk to Historypin's Lise Schauer to hear more about this serendipitous story.

The Antwerp Arms, Tottenham, Charrington Surveyors CC BY-SA. Image via Historypin.

How did you first hear about this unusual set of photographs?

We first heard about the photographs when we were introduced to Robert Humphreys, who is a trustee of the National Brewery Heritage Trust, through a mutual acquaintance. Intrigued, we then went up to the National Brewery Centre in Burton-on-Trent to have a look at them.

As soon as we saw them, we knew that we had to get them accessible and visible - they were just so amazing! So first, the images were digitized by our friends at Heritage Assets, and then we uploaded them to our crowdsourcing platform Historypin.org. All the photos can be viewed on www.historypin.org/pubs.

We're now in the process of publishing all of the images on Europeana as part of the Europeana Food and Drink project so they become even more widely discoverable as well as reusable (they will be available under a CC BY-SA licence). We're really excited to share them.

Tell us a bit about them. What do the photos show?

We were stunned by the quality of the photos - they are so sharp even though some of them were taken more than 100 years ago. They mostly depict the outside of pubs owned by Charrington, and focus on architectural details as the company used them as reference materials when they refurbished pubs. Some photographs have people or vehicles in them, while others show the damage done by bombs in the Second World War.

The photographs are all mounted on card, and their backs are just as interesting as their fronts. Because this was an archive used for running a business, the backs of the photos feature the amount of beer, wine and spirits sold in each pub per year, as well as the rent and the name of the licensee.

The Charrington collection is a great example of a high quality cultural heritage asset. Not only are the photos visually beautiful, they also give us a glimpse of what life was really like in the past. The annotations on their backs give us insight into social history as well. Collections like these really spark people’s imagination!

The story’s a great example of how the past, when opened up to everyone online, comes to life all over again, and the story has even been picked up by news outlets (on the BBC and ITV)! Did the attention the story attracted surprise you?

The response to the story has been absolutely amazing. We were not expecting this much media attention, so we were very happy to be able to share the collection with a wider audience. It looks like the ‘saved from a skip’ angle is very evocative.

Lise talks about the project on ITV News. Image: Europeana Food and Drink.

The photographs are part of a broader project focused on pubs that’s part of Europeana Food and Drink. How’s that going? You recently published a fascinating book, London Local Pubs: Past and Present.

Being able to work with the Charrington collection has been instrumental for us in testing the hypothesis that digital cultural heritage can act as a catalyst for creative and commercial success - the main aim of the Europeana Food and Drink project.

Historypin is leading the Work Package on Public Engagement for Europeana Food and Drink, and together with our consortium partners we are trying to show the potential of Europe’s heritage to creative and commercial organisations, in order to generate economic benefits and to sustain partnerships across the non-profit and for-profit sectors.

London Local Pubs: Past and Present, Adrian Tierney-Jones. Image: Europeana Food and Drink

The book, London Local Pubs: Past and Present, is one of the ways we are doing this. The 52 pubs featured in the book were chosen from the Charrington collection and are all still spaces for their communities to meet and mingle. To support this theme, Historypin has organised storytelling sessions in 10 of the pubs to gather photographs and memories about the unique nature of each of these places.

This book is only one of nine commercial products that have been built as part of Europeana Food and Drink using Europeana’s digital cultural heritage. From apps to educational materials, you can see all the products here.

What’s next for the project?

We are now working hard on evaluating the success of the Europeana Food & Drink project and the London Local Pubs book, so we can draw up lessons and recommendations. In the meantime, we will continue to promote the book and the other products, and we hope they give people a taste of the digital cultural heritage Europeana has to offer!