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THE VIEW FROM ABOVE: One hundred years of aerial photographs of Wales

This year’s theme for the Council of British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology is ‘Exploring Local Places’.

On Thursday 22 July at 5pm, Medwyn Parry, an expert on our aerial photography archive, will demonstrate the incredible variety of detailed aerial views of Wales held by the Royal Commission and show how you can use them to explore your locality.

In this blog, Medwyn gives a brief introduction to the aerial photography collections and his talk: The View from Above: One hundred years of aerial photographs of Wales.

RAF vertical photograph of Aberystwyth, taken 2 March 1946

How it all started

The first aerial photographs were taken in the 1850s, pre-dating powered flight by some fifty years. The ingenious techniques of getting a camera aloft included the use of kites, balloons, and even birds to achieve the required viewpoint.

The French military were pioneers in the development and use of aerial photography. During an encounter with the enemy, a small number of troops may have been dispatched to a nearby hill as a suitable vantage

point to report back on troop movements or whether artillery fire was falling short or long. The outcome would often depend on the quality of the reports.

Post-WWI RAF view of HMS Conway at her mooring in the Menai Strait, with the Anglesey shore in the background

War and post-war aerial photography

During WWI and WWII, rapid advances were made in the development of equipment and photographic techniques. The RAF established dedicated aerial photography squadrons, with specialised aircraft adapted for the role.

Following the end of the conflict they were tasked with photographing the whole of Britain for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to help with post-war reconstruction.

Eventually, this responsibility was passed over to the Ordnance Survey – who still carry out aerial surveys of the landscape today.

USAF oblique view, looking east from above Carmarthen, taken from a P38 Lightning in 1944
RCAHMW 2007 oblique aerial photograph, looking south-west from Rhyl towards Kinmel Bay

Our aerial photography archive

The photographic negatives and prints of Wales that were produced by the RAF, the Ordnance Survey – as well as a wide variety of other sources – have been added to the National Monuments Record and are available for consultation.

The Aerofilms Collection, a vast commercial archive of aerial views dating from 1919 to the present day, is an invaluable resource for a wide range of interpretive research by academics and the general public.

My talk on the 22 July will include examples from the major elements of the collections and provide detailed explanations of the techniques involved in capturing the images.

Medwyn Parry, Archive and Library Officer

Click here to register for Medwyn’s free online talk: https://ti.to/digital-past/the-view-from-above-one-hundred-years-of-aerial-photographs-of-wales

Top image: General view of Cardiff Docks in 1924, from the Aerofilms Collection


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