A fascinating new book for the first time reveals the changing shape of Britain’s coastline from the air, author Peter Waller explains the story behind this unique maritime record.
As an historian, industrial archaeologist and author, I’ve always been fascinated by aerial photographs.
They provide a bird’s-eye view of a landscape, offering a perspective few are ever able to see.
Over almost a century, from just after the First World War to the early years of the present century, Aerofilms was one of the country’s leading aerial photographic companies.
Over that time, it amassed more than 1m views of Britain from the air, which include some of the earliest examples of aerial photos of the country in existence.
In some instances, the images were captured by photographers literally strapped to the wings of planes.
A decade ago this priceless archive was saved for the nation when English Heritage and organisations in Scotland and Wales acquired the negatives of all their images.
Prior to the sale I had been privileged to work with Aerofilms on a range of books and was, therefore, aware of the vast amount of historic photographic material locked away in the more than 2,600 albums in which the file prints were stored.
Now, Historic England and myself have produced a visually stunning book which draws on the amazing aerial views of England’s docks and ports from the air. The most difficult part of the work was whittling down the countless superb images to make the 150 or so that the book includes.
From our final selections, Lancashire features prominently, thanks to this area possessing some of the country’s most important ports and docks. They are also a prime example of the most important facets of the changing nature of trade via the seas over the past century. The 19th century witnessed a massive increase in the scale of docks and ports as Britain’s role as ‘Workshop of the World’ required new facilities to handle the importation of food and raw materials as well as the export of the finished goods.
Without these developments, the growing urban working class would have starved as British agriculture was no longer capable of supporting the population.
Docks like Glasson and Preston have had to evolve also.
Preston was one of the pioneers of the roll-on/roll-off ferries and the port’s success hit a peak between 1960 – 1972 handling a huge range of goods from cotton and timber to china clay and agricultural products.
The port formally closed in October 1981 but, along the Irish Sea, some traditional trades still thrive.
Heysham, too, retains its importance, having developed as a main port catering for ferry traffic across the Irish Sea to Ireland and to the Isle of Man.
Heysham now provides a base for the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co, the world’s oldest continuously operating shipping company, which dates back to 1830.
Heysham’s development in the early 20th century was at the expense of Morecambe, which was previously one of the main harbours from which passengers would board steamers to the Isle of Man or Ireland.
The image here shows the town’s Central Pier before it was demolished in 1992. Constructed in 1868 to cater to holidaymakers and day trippers from Yorkshire and beyond, the image shows the pier’s original pavilion before it burned down in 1933.
England’s history as a nation has always been shaped through its relationship – both good and bad – with the sea.
From the rise and declined of maritime trade to the eventual move towards leisure resorts and marinas, the aerial photography as explored in this book allows us to view this history from a different angle and to fully consider the impact of mankind – and nature – on our dynamic coastline.
l Peter Waller is the author of England’s Maritime Heritage from the Air (Historic England, £35).
Photos extracted from England’s Maritime Heritage from the Air. Credits to Aerofilms/English Heritage.