The Francis Frith Collection – bringing bygone Britain to life

Home Blog Maps The Francis Frith Collection – bringing bygone Britain to life

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that’s certainly the case with The Francis Frith Collection. This “photographic time machine” includes hundreds of thousands of pictures of Britain from the 1860s until 1970, providing unique snapshots of our islands’ history. In addition to photos, The Collection features a vast range of products, including historical maps, history books, and even custom-printed wallpaper from old photos and maps. We catch up with John Buck, Managing Director of The Francis Frith Collection, to find out more about the unique enterprise.

Firstly, tell us more about Francis Frith…

John Buck
John Buck

Francis Frith was a well-known photographer and publisher of photos. His business, F Frith & Co, was the first specialist publisher of photographs in the world. He founded his company in the 1860s, at a time when British seaside resorts were being developed for greater numbers of tourists, as people travelled more due to the expansion of railways. Holidaymakers would want photo souvenirs of their trips, but most didn’t have their own cameras, so that was his market. After 1900, his business started to produce postcards as well as photos, and became renowned as a postcard publisher. Over the years, Francis and his team created a nationally important record of Britain, which documents a period of enormous physical and social change.

What makes the Francis Frith photo archive so unique?

It’s the only record of its kind. Francis Frith photographed around 9,000 cities, towns and villages during the period, taking over 300,000 photos. He visited places multiple times, so you can see the development of those areas. His photos provide a record of the locations that are important to the people of Britain. They’re the areas they grew up in or know, whether they still live there or are nostalgic about the places they left behind.

Looe-Mending-Nets-1906
Looe, Mending Nets, 1906

Can you tell us more about the history of The Francis Frith Collection?

The Frith family owned the company until the 1940s, then it was taken over as another family business until 1970, when the company closed. The business traded from a property that was due to be bulldozed and redeveloped. Rothmans, the cigarette company, were made aware of this and bought the photo archive to stop it being destroyed. Five years later I was working as a Rothmans Executive and came across the photos by chance, in a Manchester warehouse where they were being stored. I had a look around and pulled out some of the pictures. It dawned on me that if you knew the places in the pictures, they’d be utterly fascinating. I put a proposal to the Managing Director at Rothmans to allow me to set up a new company for the archive. To my amazement they accepted, and I ran the company for 18 months before buying the business and archive. By then I was looking to start my own company, so that desire and the Frith opportunity happily collided.

Do you have any favourite photos from the archive?

The pictures of where I grew up in Wokingham, Berkshire. There’s one photo of schoolboys resting against their bikes in the middle of town, having a chat. It brings back memories. I also like photos of a steam ferry on Windermere and images of trawlers and fishing in Cornish ports. I have one of Nottingham at home that’s a fascinating scene with a tram, horses and carts and boys wheeling trolleys with luggage. It’s just a great glimpse into life at the time. There are lots of lovely photos. I’d have a few extra Frith photos on the wall at home, but I’m not allowed to have any more!

Wokingham-Town-Hall-c1955
Wokingham, Town Hall, c1955

Has preserving the archive thrown up any challenges?

Yes – it’s been an interesting ride! The photos must be kept in the right conditions – dry, with no or low humidity and protected from the sun. Light makes old photos deteriorate and fade. They take up a fair amount of space too. Scanning didn’t exist when I bought the photographs. We started digitising the archive in 1999 and now it’s all digitised. People can go on our website and see all 300,000 photos. Technology has improved so much that we’re now going back to rescanning early pictures to a much higher resolution.

Can you tell us more about the other products you offer as part of The Francis Frith Collection?

Every photo is available in a variety of framed sizes and formats. As part of The Collection, we also sell maps, which are licensed to us. We print and frame flat maps ourselves, but our folded maps are printed by Dennis Maps. The maps more or less have national coverage. Then there are jigsaws, wallpapers, calendars, mugs, tableware, tea towels and cushion covers, all of which can have historical photos or maps printed on them. We’ve published over 1,000 books too, commissioning local authors and local history experts to write them.

What’s your experience been like with Dennis Maps?

We’ve worked with them for decades. They’re a great organisation and very reliable.

Who are your customers and why do you think they’re drawn to your products?

Large numbers of photos are bought by customers because they have an association with the place depicted or they stimulate personal memories. Our photos are also popular with interior designers for use in hotels, restaurants and care homes. They’re used as décor in care homes, as they help people with dementia and often prompt them to talk about their own memories, or the changes they see in the photos.

Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

We’re planning to colourise the whole Francis Frith archive and to publish a lot more books!

All images copyright The Francis Frith Collection.