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The Whitney Project - Final Report on the Pilot Project 2006-8

(We are grateful to Cambridgeshire Archives for permission to reproduce this report which gives the background to the important Whitney Collection and current work thereon.)

The Whitney Collection (accession 2806) in the Huntingdonshire Archives (until earlier this year known as the County Record Office) is the best visual record of Huntingdonshire in the first century of photography. It comprises over one thousand photographs, mostly glass plate negatives, from about 1860 to about 1937. It is substantially the archive of the first known commercial photographer  in Huntingdon, Arthur Maddison (1833-1887), who later took into partnership Frederick Hinde (1868-1927) and traded until Hinde’s death as Maddison and Hinde. Ernest Whitney, who had worked in the studio in the first decades of the century, evidently acquired these as stock in trade when he purchased the business from Hinde’s widow in 1927, though there are portions of the current archive before that date which reflect Whitney’s independent work as well.

The County Record Office acquired the collection in 1970-71 from Ernest Whitney. Largely through the agency of the Huntingdonshire Local History Society and in particular its Chairman, David Cozens. The plates had been kept in poor basement conditions and many were dirty and damaged, but they were sorted and placed in standard office manila envelopes and stored horizontally (i.e. piled) in archive boxes. Such storage is far from ideal. The envelopes used at this stage are now known to be unsuitable  for long term preservation of photographs, piling glass plates unavoidably places undue stress on the emulsion, particularly of plates lower down in a box and the boxes weighing around 10kg each are themselves at maximum load in serious danger of eventual collapse and irreversible loss.

Thanks in the main to the late Bob Elliott (a member of the Local History Society), the majority of the collection was listed, using Maddison and Hinde’s one surviving index book and his own local knowledge. It is however a very basic list, lacking contextual information on the archive or on photographic process, dating of individual plates (beyond dates given for some in the original index) or sources of information. Notes of this kind have been added sporadically to the list as a result of searchroom use over more than 35 years which now presents a very worn and dated appearance. Whilst the collection was received with a quantity of positive photographic prints, which have been added to as opportunity has arisen (and now account for about one third of the entire archive), the necessity to consult glass negatives of the majority presented a substantial discouragement to use, many of which, due to their cracked or broken state, have rarely been seen by the public.

In 2006 Cambridgeshire Archives and Local Studies therefore applied to the Huntingdonshire Local History Society’s Goodliff Fund for a pilot project (having an estimated cost of £2,500) towards conservation, preservation, packaging , re-cataloguing, digitisation and for mounting on the Internet the resultant images of 300 of the glass plate negatives, and received an award of £1,500. The project enabled the specific employment of Alexa Cox, an archivist with long familiarity with the collection, to research the archive and write new catalogue entries, and the diversion of the established conservation and digitisation resources of John Lambert, conservator Sue Martin, photographer and technician and Stephen Ettridge, assistant conservator, to package, conserve where necessary and create electronic images.

The first stage was to identify which series of glass plates would benefit the most from being re-catalogued, re-packaged and digitally scanned. It was decided to proceed with WH/1, the first series in the collection and of the largest 10 x 12 inch (imperial size) glass plates. The majority of these plates did not have existing prints but were of substantial historical interest, consisting of local views, local people, groups and events from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

Each of the 341 glass plates was individually inspected, noting condition and type, and cleaning where necessary. Each plate was then wrapped in photograph-friendly paper and placed in a purpose made photographic box, each of which holds ten plates vertically. They were then transferred to the Service’s FSB Scanning Bureau at Cambridge where they were scanned by Sue Martin and Stephen Ettridge. There TIFF images to NOF-digitise Technical Standards and Guidelines Version 5 (February 2003) were made, so maximising permanent preservation of the image. This data is kept on the Service’s CALM server that is daily backed up off-site with other County Council data. All images were then checked (quality assured) and meta data created in order to enable their management, indexing etc. From the TIFF images a JPEG image was then made for importing into the Service’s CALM archive management system and the images individually linked to the catalogue entries.

Several broken plates were passed to our Conservation Studio for repair before being scanned. Most of these were broken in only one or two places, but a few were broken into many pieces and needed careful and painstaking repair.

Meanwhile a new catalogue of the WH/1 glass plates was created by direct entry within the Service’s cataloguing system. Using Bob Elliott’s 1980s list as a base, further research was carried out to discover more about the subject of each plate. For example, the Registration Service’s index to local birth, marriage and death records was used to trace details of some of the wedding groups and genealogical sites on the internet (in particular www.ancestry.com ) were used to trace individuals in census returns. Trade directories, archival collections and local histories were also very useful and in each case the source of any external information is recorded. However, a number of individuals, groups, societies and views still remain unidentified, and we hope that members of the public may help in the identification of such plates now that the images are available on the internet. Such additional information significantly adds to the value of the collection.

Research has also been undertaken into the history of the photographers and the business from the mid 1850s to the late 1950s, namely Arthur Maddison (1833-19887), Frederick Hinde (his step son; 1868-1927) and Ernest Whitney (1889-1978). The fourth photographer, Percy Graham of Bedford, operated the business for three years after the death of Arthur Maddison, employing and training Frederick Hinde in the art of photography. The results of this research form the introduction to the new catalogue which is available online and so worldwide, and from which searches can be made across all archives within the Service’s holdings, or within those at Huntingdon only, or held only as images, etc. This is in addition to a catalogue in conventional printed format that will, no doubt, for many purposes prove to be a convenient searchroom reference.
Cataloguing and digitisation was completed in March 2008 and was mounted on the internet with linked images as from 4 April. We are extremely grateful to the Huntingdonshire Local History Society for providing the partial funding to enable the project to proceed. The Whitney 1 glass plates are now re-packaged to modern standards, repaired (if necessary) and catalogued in detail. Digitised images of all the glass plates (many of which have not been seen before by the public) and the catalogue are now available to view on our website at www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/archives

WH/1 is only one part of this large photographic archive. We now plan to continue this project by re-packaging, cataloguing and scanning WH/2, the second series of 292 glass plates containing views of Huntingdon, St Ives and surrounding villages from the 1860s to the 1920s.

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www.FadingImages.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, listing photographers in Cambridgeshire 1840-2000
This page was last modified: 30 March 2016, 10:25
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