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National Maritime Museum, Historic Photographs Section

Contact Details

SE10 9NF

Fax: +44 (0)20 8317 0263

Telephone: +44 (0)20 8312 8600

Primary Email:

Primary Website: Click here

Secondary Website: Click here

Conditions of Access

A visit may not always be required, so it is advised that you contact the Historic Photographs Section by email or letter detailing the ships, places, themes or topics of research that you are interested in. A visit can be made by appointment after the initial contact.

Finding Aids
To search for photographs in the collection click here.

For information on the photographs collection see Research Guide J1: Historic photographs at the National Maritime Museum.

Photographs as well as other images from the collection can be searched on the National Maritime Museum Picture Library website.

A number of images from the historic photographs collection can be viewed on PORTCITIES UK.

There is a selection of photographs on The Commons on flickr.

Also of value in looking for photographs are publications based either in part or wholly on the collection:

A Victorian Maritime album: 100 Photographs from the Francis Frith Collection at the National Maritime Museum, by Basil Greenhill. 1974.

Sails & Steam: a century of seafaring enterprise 1840-1935 photographs from The NMM, Greenwich,
by John Falconer. 1993.

Historic Photographs at the National Maritime Museum An Illustrated Guide
. 1995.

The Last of the Windships, by Alan Villiers. 2000.

Waterline: Images from the Golden Age of Cruising, by John Graves. 2004.

Sons of Sindbad The Photographs, by Alan Villiers. 2006.
Summary of Holdings
General overview:
The historic photographic collection comprises of approximately 280,000 negatives and transparencies, about 1 million photographic prints, and some 1,500 albums. A large portion of the photographic prints are reference material that due to copyright restrictions cannot be copied. The negative collection covers most of the photographic process from the calotype to glass, nitrate and acetate film, and polyester. The albums are an eclectic mix recording merchant and Royal navy careers from the late 19th century, to company albums recording shipbuilding, as well as private maritime holidays. 

The following sections represent the strongest areas of the collections.

Warship portraits and naval life
The majority of the warship portraits are from Admiralty sources, although they concentrate on peacetime building and refitting activities. The breadth of this section comes from private collections compiled by collectors and photographers, such as Richard Perkins. The collection also holds a small number of negatives of foreign warships.

While the majority of official wartime photographs are held by the Imperial War Museum, the NMM has collections from some officers and ratings. These include Commander J. E. Manners, Earl Howe, and Dr. P. Ransome-Wallis. The albums also supplement the warship portraits, as well as provide a greater depth to the activities and events of life in the Royal Navy from the late 1800s.

Merchant ship portraits and naval life
This area of the collection encompasses a wide variety of vessel types from the mid/late nineteenth century to the 1980s. Most sailing ship rigs are depicted, from the cutter, brig and schooner to the deep-sea square-riggers and the various rigged barques (including one of seven masts). Many types of steam and motor powered ships are represented in the collection, from trawlers, tugs, and small coasters to container ships, and passenger liners. The most significant collection that covers this area is the Nautical Photo Agency, which is enhanced by the Airfoto collection.

The collection also holds material on yachts, lifeboats, and a variety of fishing and beach boats – the latter from H. O. Hill and Tarry Adams. Coupled with this are images of life at sea or on the coastal waters, recording the work of the merchant seaman and fisherman, especially for the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Again the albums serve to supplement this aspect of the collection.

The collections of P & O, Union Castle (Bricom), and Waterline all record the life and times of cruise and passenger ships from the 1920s to the 1960s. These collections illustrate life onboard for passengers and crew, the ships, and the ports visited.

Shipbuilding photographs
The shipbuilding record for the collection comes from a number of sources. Bedford Lemere & Co was commissioned to take images of the building of Aquitania (1914), as well as other ships and the yard of John Brown. A small amount of Admiralty material records the construction of warships at Portsmouth in the early 20th century, while the bulk is post WWII, such as the 1,500 for the construction of Hampshire, 1959-63. Collections from building firms like J. I. Thornycroft and William Denny & Bros. Ltd expand the theme into merchant vessels. The latter collection includes large (but fragile) albums as well as negatives.

The collection contains two main commercial topographical collections.  The first is the maritime aspects of the Francis Frith & Co, which covers mainly England and Wales up to about 1940. The Byles Collection extends the topographical period by covering the 1950s and 1960s. These two are supported by private collections by photographers such as Katherine MacFee, and S. C. Fox. There are some topographical gaps within the collection, but most areas are represented. While the majority of the collection is catalogued by vessel name, the location (if known) is also recorded as a secondary theme.

Overseas locations are not an extensive feature of the collection, although some private collections contain them. For example, Alan Villiers’ expedition along the Persian Gulf in the late 1930s records the towns and coasts along the way. The Colbeck collection records the efforts to free Captain Scott in 1903/4 from the Antarctic. The Waterline collection also records a wide geographical spread of foreign locations for the 1920s and 1930s, when ships were on cruises. These photographs are of exceptional quality, taken by professional photographers from the Marine Photo Service.

Portraits and Individuals
This is the main weak area of the collection, as the original remit was preserving a visual record of all ship types. However, what exists has a heavy Royal Navy bias, and usually people who are well known or reached high rank.  That is not to say that the collection does not record the work and activities of seafarers and those who in maritime-related jobs.  They will be found all through the photographic collection, although if they are unidentified they are not indexed.  The albums collection also supplements this portion of the collection.

Historic Events
This sub-section of the photographic collection is to make accessible events that would not otherwise be filed in any other category, although there is some cross-referencing. Events can include awards, fleet reviews, wartime activities, polar expeditions, disasters, and peacetime events.