Review

Book review: ‘England’s Maritime Heritage From The Air’ by Peter Waller

Historic images from the Aerofilms archive give an insight into an industrial history linked inextricably with the sea.

You may not have heard of Aerofilms Ltd, but chances are you’ve seen one of the company’s photographs without realising it. The UK’s first commercial aerial photography business was founded in 1919 and eventually expanded from a small office in Hendon to become a significant international operation. As well as featuring in books relating to geography, topography and travel, it provided the bird’s eye view of east London that was used until 2009 in the opening titles for the BBC soap opera EastEnders.

Another image of the same area – the 1963 photograph of Shadwell Basin that appears at the top of this page – is among more than 150 that have been selected by Peter Waller for a new book from Historic England, ‘England’s Maritime Heritage from the Air’ (£35, ISBN 9781848022980).

The pictures featured in this glorious photographic essay on the country’s long and involved relationship with the sea are the result of almost a century spent by Aerofilms photographers recording Britain’s industrial and commercial history, as well as its rural landscape. They’re taken from an archive of more than a million photographs, many of which are held in specialist archival storage at the Historic England Archive in Swindon.

Waller’s choice provides a stark illustration of how English docks and ports have evolved since the years immediately after World War I, how traditional patterns of trade have changed, how the Royal Navy has shrunk and how the leisure industry has come to dominate.

Chatham Dockyard photographed by Aerofilms Ltd in April 1972 and in its modern incarnation as the Historic Dockyard in July 1993. (Both images copyright Historic England Archive)

Many readers will find panoramas that are interesting to them personally. For this reviewer it’s the contrasting shots above of Chatham Dockyard on the River Medway in Kent. Established in the mid-16th century, by the early 20th century it employed more than 10,000 skilled workers and covered an area of 1.6 square kilometres.

By 1972, when the top photo in which I can just about make out the house where I lived at the time was taken, it was in decline and ultimately closed in 1984. When the lower, colour photo was snapped after I’d moved away in 1994, however, it had begun its transformation into today’s ‘Historic Dockyard’ with a living museum, retail outlets and other visitor attractions.

Anyone who has lived or worked in one of the areas pictured in this fascinating book is likely to find a similar example and an excuse to get nostalgic about a legacy that isn’t so far in the past.

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