A dozen or so cardboard boxes, many without lids, sit on shelves at Dorset History Centre waiting to surrender their secrets. They contain some 7000 packets of negatives that effectively constitute the last 30 years of photographer Graham Herbert’s working career in and around Weymouth – an important visual record of everyday life from a time that will soon begin to disappear over the horizon of living memory.
In 1953 Graham took on the running of the Herbert family photography business his father had started in the 1920s at 9 Coburg Place on St Thomas Street. He soon became a regular fixture of Weymouth social life, capturing high days and holidays for generations of local families through his lens, as well as a wide range of portrait, commercial and civic photography. He was a past president of the Wessex Centre of the Institute of British Photographers, and when he died in 1983, his widow Molly donated a vast library of 15,000 negatives to Weymouth Museum. Some of what has since become known as the Herbert Collection has been featured in author Maureen Attwooll’s invaluable local history books.
But lacking the protective storage facilities necessary to preserve the negatives properly, in 2006 the museum handed on the collection to Dorset History Centre, where archivists now face a race against time to digitise the images before the delicate slivers of cellulose acetate film succumb to ‘vinegar syndrome’, the unavoidable and irreparable decay of negatives which bubble as they deteriorate, giving off acetic acid with its distinctive smell of vinegar. The negatives have been carefully stored so as to slow the deterioration but even now, when working with them for any length of time, History Centre staff and volunteers have to wear protective equipment and use the ‘fume cupboard’ to reduce the risk of headaches brought on by the smell.
An in-house project to digitise the images was started in 2010 and revived in 2017, when the history centre won a £5000 grant from digitisation company TownsWeb Archiving for its services and was able to match-fund the award from a legacy donation. Now, in order to complete the digitisation process, Dorset History Centre has successfully raised £8000 through a crowd-funding project to save the rest of images from being lost forever.
‘It will be really special to be able to complete this project and know that the images contained in the negatives have been saved for the future,’ says archivist Cassandra Pickavance. ‘Once that’s done, we can begin to make the collection more accessible to the public. That will be an even more exciting part of the project as there’s a very good chance that people will recognise themselves or their friends and family in these photos. When the images can be easily seen, we’ll be able to ask the public for feedback and anecdotes about the locations and events as well as the people in the pictures.’
The photos capture Weymouth as it emerged from the shadow of World War 2 and chronicle an era of rapid modernisation and great change. Once war damage in the town centre had been repaired, the outskirts expanded with thousands of new suburban homes being built as Weymouth benefitted first from the post-war boom in domestic tourism and then, though its ferries, from the dawn of the age of mass travel to continental Europe. While the harbour bustled with fishing vessels, a variety of pleasure boats and the now disused tramway and Weymouth Quay railway station, the town’s hotels and retail businesses reflected the optimistic mood of the times with trendy new names and modish makeovers –many of which were photographed by ‘Herberts’ for posterity.
Graham also caught the last knockings of the golden age of stone quarrying on Portland as men went about their work much as they had done for hundreds of years – not an ear defender, eye protector, hi-vis jacket or hard hat in sight.
Images already digitised have been used with great success in reminiscence sessions with older people and with groups of adults with learning disabilities. Very positive feedback from these sessions demonstrates the ability of images to evoke memory and emotional responses. ‘One participant said: “Some of those photos – I was still alive, I can see my friends. I think about things I can’t do now.” It’s very touching and we will seek to continue this work, encouraging more people to connect with the history of their locality,’ says Cassandra.
She continues: ‘It’s a fascinating archive on all sorts of levels because some things look so unusual compared to what we’re used to seeing today and yet others have hardly changed at all. For instance, when Herbert gets out of the town and into the rural areas around Weymouth, there are images on farms that could have been taken yesterday. I was gripped by a shot of Bridport Road in Dorchester that shows the Keep and a petrol station where the entrance to the Top o’ Town car park is now. These are the things which fire the imaginations of people like me who have moved to the area to work, and which remind those who have lived here all their lives of what was there before.’
The collection also boasts a liberal sprinkling of stardust – when Dick Emery was in town filming or variety stars like Benny Hill and Eric Sykes appeared at the Pavilion, Herbert was on hand to record the moment, usually complete with a line-up of anonymous showgirls. He was there for the 1965 visit of the Weymouth-born former Bond girl and reigning Miss World, Lesley Langley, that included a visit to the local branch of Marks & Spencer, and was embedded in the press pack for the Royal visit on 4 April 1959, photographing The Queen and ten-year-old Prince Charles aboard a launch en route to visit the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle – one of the few episodes Herbert shot in colour.
Before the Daily Echo set up its own photographic department, it used photos from local ‘smudgers’ including Graham Herbert and the archive includes headline-making local stories such as the fire that consumed the Ritz theatre on the seafront on 13 April 1954, or the Sea Scouts who collected reels of film of the Queen’s coronation from the train at Weymouth station and took them to the Odeon cinema for screening.
Elsewhere, Weymouth at leisure is well represented in subjects ranging from the ubiquitous Punch and Judy shows and donkeys on the beach, to the (mercifully) short-lived craze for ‘animal olympics’ that saw pet-owners put their charges through all manner of indignity for the amusement of each other and the general public.
The more overtly commercial aspects of the Herbert Collection are covered firstly by what appears to be a series of studies of screws and a second series of interior shots of shops and hotels in the town, including the Grand, Sunningdale and Victoria Hotels, the Panorama Restaurant (which survived well into the second decade of the 21st century), Maypole coffee bar, TwinFlair boutique and Regency hair salon.
Now that the fragile negatives are being digitised off-site by TownsWeb Archiving, whose hardware and systems are more efficient than the History Centre’s own under-pressure resources, the business of indexing the collection – started by its previous keepers at Weymouth Library – can also be completed. It is no small undertaking as most of the large-format negatives are stored in glassine bags annotated with very basic caption information: little more than a date, location and sometimes a name.
Once they are digitised and saved as TIFF files, information about the images will be searchable online in the Dorset History Centre catalogue. As each image is saved into the centre’s digital preservation system, multiple copies are created and constantly monitored for changes or corruption.
The system also allows the images to be migrated to different formats should the need arise in years to come. This built-in future-proofing is an essential part of the project to ensure the collection remains discoverable far into the future.
In December, archivists should find out if they have been successful in their bid for a Heritage Lottery Fund award to extend the repositories at Dorset History Centre. If so, the scheme will also involve the Herbert Collection by joining the Know Your Place website that has been such a success in Bristol, Somerset and Gloucestershire. ‘Basically, it’s a map of a local area that allows you to pin historic information to specific locations,’ explains Cassandra. ‘In terms of the Herbert Collection, that would mean we could attach images and information to a map of the area that will make it even easier for people to interact with.’
So, finally, Graham Herbert’s images of the past that are threatened with destruction in the present will be saved for the future and can tell their stories once again.
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine